Arjen Robben is working on his comeback. Great news? Not for everyone. What, not so long ago, seemed impossible might happen very soon: Thomas Müller could be about to lose his regular birth. The 21-year-old is losing a war without getting the chance to fight a battle.
It happened in the third or fourth week of August: Arjen Robben was sidelined for almost a month due to back problems. It happened again in early October: Arjen Robben sustained an injury that’s still bugging him.
What back then sounded like horrible news turned out to be not that much of a problem (although, before anyone complains, I’m still aware of Robben’s importance and think that many results could’ve been even better with him on the pitch) because of a simple solution: Thomas Müller moves to the right flank, Toni Kroos takes care of the central position.
This made it possible for Kroos to finally prove his worth. To get rid of the pressure of becoming Bayern’s next big playmaker, the next ‘number ten’, he actually had to be exactly that. The native of Greifswald now truly arrived in Munich. After years of being just a very talented guy, he’s now regarded as one of the team’s great offensive players.
Thomas Müller on the other hand, without really disappointing as a right midfielder, often looks to be wasted on that position. While his stats this season are actually better than Kroos’, the scorer points were all collected during Bayern’s brilliant run between late August and late September (and Kroos’ stats would probably look a lot better if there were second assists in football).
If this is the moment when you expect statistical evidence, I have to disappoint you. Numbers lie, last season’s Müller can’t be compared with this season’s Kroos, the seasons started way too differently. If you insist, the rather useless numbers after 12 weeks:
Thomas Müller played 11 of the first 12 BL matches last year. He scored 2 goals, assisted one goal and had an average kicker rating of 3,81.
Toni Kroos, so far, played 10 times (excluding one 2-minute appearance) and assisted two goals while scoring none. His average kicker rating is the better one, with 2,95.
But, many will argue, Müller is a great right midfielder for Germany, isn’t he? The simple answer: sometimes.
The more detailed one is that Müller plays better when he can counter-attack. Example: the World Cup in South Africa.
Ignoring the wild match against Uruguay, it should be fair to say that Müller played three brilliant matches and two subpar ones. The three great performances were against Australia, England and Argentina.
Each time, Germany scored an early goal (it took them a bit longer, 20 minutes, against England), against Argentina it was Müller himself who opened the gates early with a header, resulting in the opponent being forced to attack. England didn’t want to be eliminated, Argentina didn’t want to be eliminated and Australia, well, they tried to attack until Tim Cahill’s red card made them collapse. Give Müller some space to run and you’re doomed, that’s exactly what these opponents had to do (they probably didn’t know any better, anyway).
Against Ghana and Serbia, on the other hand, he disappointed (as did almost the entire team). Because they didn’t concede an early goal, because they were allowed to defend. Now don’t get me wrong, Müller still can make things happen even if the defense is positioned near if not inside the own box, otherwise he wouldn’t be the world-class player he is. But, if his team has to create, has to act without much vertical movement, then he can look a bit lost. That happened with Bayern, that happened with Germany.
The difference: Joachim Löw will (to be honest, understandably) always prefer Mesut Özil over Müller as central force behind the lone striker, he has to be a right midfielder to have any chance to play regularly, while Jupp Heynckes…who knows, that’s why I’m writing this article. He still should be seen as a central offensive midfielder, that’s what suits him best. From the center of the pitch, Müller can roam. He can move to the left wing, he can move to the right wing, he can act as second striker, all that without a direct opponent. That’s not the case as right midfielder. The opposing left-back will always watch him, he can only leave the position if someone else (a central midfielder or the right-back) replaces him, otherwise there’s a gaping hole we’ve seen quite a few times already this season, something you can’t afford against quality opponents that can’t be beaten without any balance and width.
Toni Kroos isn’t that. Kroos is a pure central figure, a man who avoids the flanks apart from the occasional in-game rotation that almost forces him to act as a left midfielder. Again, people will complain, he already played that position for Leverkusen. That wasn’t in a 4-2-3-1 system, though, so he wasn’t positioned as much up front as he would be in said system. If Toni Kroos is not a central offensive midfielder, he’s a central midfielder. While Bastian Schweinsteiger pulls the strings, Kroos is the man to utilize, playing accurate through passes to a winger or Mario Gomez. Less variability and unpredictability, more control and accuracy.
Since Thomas Müller still hasn’t received a chance to prove that he’s better central offensive midfielder than Kroos (with this very team that’s working rather well, that wasn’t the case at the beginning of the season), there might be only one glimmer of hope for him once Robben returns: that Jupp Heynckes decides to make the valuable, seemingly unbenchable Toni Kroos the Schweinsteiger replacement. A temporary solution until said player returns, then it might be Kroos who loses the next war without even getting the chance to fight.