The evolution of Thomas Müller embodies Bayern's journey to becoming Europe's best team

Laurence Griffiths

He doesn't look like he should be on the pitch, but Müller is a remarkably versatile, all-round attacker

Thomas Müller's rise to prominence has been beyond absurd. A little less than four years ago, he was a reserve player in Germany's third division - now, he's a dual Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal winner, a Champions League winner, and, most memorably, the 2010 World Cup Golden Boot, the tournament that properly announced his ascension into the game's outstanding players.

Still, Müller feels underappreciated. Bayern's ludicrous collection of talent is one reason, the likes of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben overshadowing the German's contribution. Yet, before Toni Kroos's long-term injury, Müller started ahead of Robben, illustrating his importance to the side, before shifting into the centre. Beside, Muller frequently scores and assists goals - 13 and 11 respectively last season, including a downright ridiculous goal from the by-line against Hamburg, widely agreed as one of the goals of the season.

It's classic Müller. The darting, untracked run inside, the awkward, gangling strides, and the bizarre, yet brilliant finish. Perhaps the most telling factor behind his under-appreciation is the fact he just doesn't look like a footballer - his lanky build and chicken legs betray the physique traditionally demanded of professional footballers, and he celebrates every goal like a park footballer taking the piss out of his fellow players. Müller doesn't even fit into traditional footballing stereotypes. He's not a driving wide forward, or an incisive playmaker, or a defensive winger - instead, he's a strange combination of all three.

Originally, Jurgen Klinsmann, Bayern coach in 2008, handed him a few sporadic debuts, before Louis Van Gaal took over. "With me, Müller will always play," declared the Dutchman, using him either upfront, off another striker or on the right - which is the position Joachim Low promptly started the youngster in the 2010 World Cup.

It was a calculated gamble: Müller was already clearly a fine attacker, but it was his defensive discipline and intelligent bursts of acceleration that was important. Low asked him to work up and down the line, tracking back diligently to form a second bank of four, before springing forward on the break with a directness that complemented Mesut Özil's subtle playmaking. Müller became Germany's most reliable source of goals, frequently converting counter-attacking opportunities, and finished the tournament as its official Best Young Player, as well as the Golden Boot.

Unsurprisingly, then, Jupp Hencykes used him on the right throughout the following season, where with some sporadic spells of unconvincing performance, he finally found some consistency, immediately becoming one of the key players in Hencykes's system. Having received an education in fluent attacking play under Van Gaal, the discipline and structure that Low and Hencykes demanded provided a neat balance - Müller evolved his attacking talent into a more complete, all-round game, his ferocious work ethic ideal for instituting the high pressing game that both his coaches demanded.

It's still difficult, however, to pinpoint exactly what Müller does. In many ways, that's his greatest strength - unpredictability. What would you tell a left-back about to face him in an upcoming fixture? You'd point out that he likes to drift inside, to become an extra playmaker between the lines, but you'd also have to pay attention to his ability to dart off the shoulder and make clever runs in behind. Müller's always moving.

With good work ethic, discipline and excellent technical ability, Müller was clearly an ideal Guardiola player - but it wasn't entirely clear what role he was going to play under the new coach. The right-wing seemed natural, but that would neglect a place for Robben, a player in outstanding form, so Guardiola gave Müller an odd roaming role. Nominally one of the more advanced central midfielders in the 4-3-3 midfield triangle, he popped up all over the pitch, revelling in the positional freedom of his role. However, it didn't quite work - perhaps because he was starting from a naturally deeper position, it was easier for opponents to track his movement, and the by-product of starting deeper was that his ability to make runs off the shoulder was diminished, again making him easier to mark.

If there have been two stages to Müller's development - the Van Gaal honing of his attack, and the steel and consistency Low/Hencykes instilled - then Wednesday night was perhaps the third. Guardiola deployed Müller upfront, as the axis of his 4-3-3 formation - but where it might be expected that he might become a false nine, Müller was a more typical striker, darting in and out between the centre-backs as well as working the channels manfully. His all-round performance was superb: he linked up play intelligently, dropped deep to allow the wide players forward (crucial in the build-up to the opening goal, as he drew Clichy inside and opened up room for Rafinha to find Ribery in space), but also provided the key striking threat, most notably for the second goal - again, classic Müller.

Granted, Gael Clichy's defending is horrid but the timing and sudden burst of Müller's run is delightful. Dante knows exactly where he's going to be, the touch to bring the chipped pass down is brilliant, and the finish is stupidly awkward. To cap it off, Müller celebrates with that odd, almost robot-like fist-pumping gesture. He might not look like a footballer, but he is one of Germany's best and most important players, an unorthodox mix of winger, playmaker and forward, and a thrilling embodiment of the evolution of Bayern Munich from the raw, naïve Van Gaal team to the refined, ruthless machine that is Europe's finest side.

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