If you want to outrun the sunset, head to Bayern Munich. With eight straight Bundesliga titles, the club’s thirst for success is undeniable and while recruitment has been astute over the years, they have also had to adapt, changing on-pitch tactics and transfer window styles to stay ahead of the chasing pack. They are still top of the Bundesliga and chasing a ninth-straight league title, doing it all while cycling through six different managers, ranging from the perfectionist Pep Guardiola to the possession-heavy Carlo Ancelotti and, in 2021, quiet revitalisation under Hansi Flick.
But there have been some constants and some continuity along the way. While some personnel come and go — like club legends Philip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, or superstar wingers like Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, all of whom contributed massively to Bayern’s domestic dominance — there is a small group of players who continue to drive and shape the club’s culture and expectations of its players.
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Thomas Muller is one of these time-defying players, with 571 appearances for the club he joined in 2000. (His 572nd, a must-win match with RB Leipzig, the latest pretenders to Bayern’s throne, is coming this Saturday) Despite having won nine Bundesliga titles, six DFB-Pokals, two Champions Leagues and a World Cup, Muller’s desire to win is still as strong as ever.
“I think when your body is healthy and you are strong and you have no problems with your health, then the motivation to win is every time the same,” Muller says, talking over Zoom from his home in Germany. “Because for me it is not important to win the title – of course I want to win the title. But I want to be the best. I want to be the best in my position in my team and I want to be the best in the German league with my team.
“To win is my goal. That is what gives you the feeling that you are searching for, and not the metal shield.”
Muller, 31, tells ESPN he only has fleeting thoughts of life after football — it usually happens when he’s relaxing in his garden — and feels he has about five years left at the top of the game. A one-club man all his career, he says it “would be no shame, and no problem at all” if one day Bayern decided to transfer him out, but for now, his form at Bayern is proof to himself he can “play at this high level the whole time.”
Last season, under then-manager Niko Kovac, it looked like Muller’s time was up. He was out of favour for both club and country, and with his contract set to expire at the end of the 2019-20 campaign, he was evaluating his options. The doubt around his future coincided with Bayern experiencing a poor season — two defeats in their first 10 league games is poor by Bavarian standards — but by Nov. 2 2019, Kovac was sacked after a 5-1 defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt.
In came Flick, with Bayern four points off the top, and back came Muller. From there, they went on an incredible 32-match unbeaten run and Muller contributed a record-breaking 21 assists in the Bundesliga (complete with eight goals) as the team won an incredible six trophies (Bundesliga, Champions League, DFB-Pokal, German Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup). They were just the second side to achieve this, emulating Guardiola’s 2008-09 Barcelona side.
This season has been more of the same. Bar a shock second-round defeat in the DFB-Pokal to Holstein Kiel, Bayern are favourites once more to win the Bundesliga and Champions League. The team is held in the same regard as Guardiola’s “Dream Team” and talking to Muller, one of the key components of their successful last decade is the ability to avoid complacency or falling into a state of blissful contentment.
“We had this problem [at times during our eight titles] that maybe Bayern was not super-strong, but other teams did not use their chance,” said Muller. “We had weak moments, or weak weeks but they didn’t use it. Maybe we were a little bit lucky… I don’t know how to explain… or maybe we were just better, I don’t know.”
Despite his jokes about “Lewangoalski,” in reference to Bayern’s (now-injured) striker Robert Lewandowski, or Alphonso Davies as the club’s version of Road Runner (complete with Muller’s “Meep! Meep!” impression), Muller takes his craft seriously. He says a year with them is akin to three years of stress at another Bundesliga club, but he wouldn’t change a thing.
He also laughs at the specially coined Raumdeuter — “interpreter of space” — term that was created to explain Muller’s unique, hard-to-define send of positioning around goal. At his heart, he alternates between a “false nine” in the middle, an attacking midfielder, or on the right of their attack. Any “mythos” over his ability or spatial awareness, he says, is overblown.
“I think people make a bigger thing about it to explain to themselves, or the rest of the football world, [how] a player maybe with not a special physicality, skill or dribbling skill, is so efficient…” Muller said. “They build up something that is normally logical as special; maybe it’s one of my strengths to do it again and again.”
Others may see his talent differently; Muller has been deemed surplus to requirements by the German national team manager, Joachim Low, but the Bayern star’s form has been so irresistible that he looks set for a recall. (Wednesday’s stunning defeat to North Macedonia suggests they could use his spark.)
His partnership with Lewandowski is incredibly lucrative for Bayern, too: the pair have managed 55 goals and 25 assists between them in all competitions this season.
“We know that when we play together we are stronger. He’s very good because I know what he wants to do, so I know to how set it up for him. He knows that when I look up, I try to find him. I always try to find the straightest way to the goal, and normally that’s [by looking for] the striker. He knows I don’t play for the circus shot, I play for scoring.”
All players can, on some level, “read the game” — processing and interpreting what’s happening around them in order to make the best decisions on or off the ball — but Muller’s a cut above. For the Bayern star, the game seems simple; in his mind, it’s all about space and, well, zombies.
This is what goes through Muller’s head in an attacking position. “In football, there are a lot of signal situations.” He talks through the options he’d see if on the left wing: either cross the ball, cut the ball back, send a diagonal pass to the defensive midfielder or to the left-back, or dribble in-field.
“Every opposing defender is looking to the ball like a zombie, “uughhhh…” (At this point, Muller does his own uncanny impression of a zombie.) “You have to figure out with your teammates that when this situation happens, they have to know [if] you do the run, and you have to know that they know [if a] pass is an option. Sometimes it’s easier than it looks, but of course you need the right timing, the technical timing for the cross.
“One of the most important things for a good cross is don’t try to put it on somebody’s head,” he continues. “Put it in the space, because the striker has sometimes more time than you think, but when you put it clear on the target, and not into the space, it’s easier for the defender, and there’s no chance to score.”
That’s the gospel of chance creation according to Muller. But he also chips in with his own fair share of goals with 10 in the Bundesliga this term.
Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig side are the closest of the chasing pack this term; last season it was Borussia Dortmund. But Bayern have, for the past nine seasons managed to stay ahead of them and everyone else.
Sometimes, Muller says, “the other teams did not use their chance” to topple Bayern, citing the 2015-16 campaign when Thomas Tuchel’s BVB pushed them close for much of the season, only to then fall off and finish 10 points behind.
On other occasions, the club has been reinvigorated by a change of manager. He remembers fondly the early stages of Pep Guardiola’s tenure in charge of Bayern. “Pep kicked our ass every training session,” he says. Guardiola arrived after their 2013 Champions League win, what felt at the time like the summit of Everest. But Guardiola’s introduction prevented any complacency.
“Jupp Heynckes retired and Pep tried everything to be successful… he wanted to show the whole world he could it again in a new league,” Muller says. “After Pep we had two or three seasons, and last season, where the other teams had a chance… maybe.”
These days, Muller is keenly aware of his mentorship role in the latest iteration of Bayern, and has particularly enjoyed taking 18-year-old Jamal Musiala under his wing. “Thomas helps me enormously. I’m very grateful that I get to learn from him in every training session and game, and that he always has an open ear for me,” Musiala said in March.
Bayern’s young players like Musiala and Davies are having a positive effect on Muller, too. “They keep me on my toes for sure, and they keep my body in shape,” Muller says. But then comes the qualification of expectations.
“But the other way round… I keep them on their toes, and they have to know that when they start playing for Bayern, it doesn’t matter what their age is: they have to win.”
And therein lies the crux of why this Bayern team have delivered eight straight Bundesliga titles, and are on the verge of another. It’s an infatuation with success and the embracing of pressure, regardless of whether it’s a title-decider, a Champions League final or a preseason friendly.
Take this weekend’s match against Leipzig. Bayern are four points clear of their rivals in second. A win and that lead extends to seven points; a defeat and that’s cut to one. But does failure ever cross Muller’s mind? Don’t be silly.
“In Bayern you cannot learn this [winning mindset], you have to build it up with experience and self-confidence,” Muller says. “We always had this feeling that we are the best team on the pitch before the game starts… after the game, it could be the other way around! But to feel like the underdog? I cannot remember.
“I always try to have this feeling that we and I can beat every team that we play against. Maybe sometimes that’s very subjective. And maybe it’s a trick, my trick to play that powerful. Because what is your advantage when you think about to lose? I don’t know.”