With the latest addition to his collection of unnecessary post-match eviscerations last week, it might be time to ask some questions of Thomas Müller.
In football, an invidious and tribal world, where the slightest remark can arouse a torrent of animosity from all angles, there really is a surprising degree of consensus. Some things are said, and said again, and then just accepted as un-interrogated truth.
It happened with N’Golo Kanté a few years ago, when the cognoscenti first began to say that he was really good at doing the things nobody saw, and then everyone else said that he did. And so many other times, before and since, where a view is shared, and before long becomes embedded in the collective consciousness. Marcelo Bielsa is a genius, for instance. A director of football is a prerequisite to success. Jürgen Klopp is a really great guy. And Thomas Müller is one of the game’s characters.
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Because everyone seems to think he is. And most people seem to love it. And really, what’s not to love? There are his hilarious pranks, like throwing beer on TV-presenters, or that time he deliberately fell over in a free-kick routine. There’s the way he’s always dressing up – in lederhosen, of all things, the nutter – and the fact that he has a horse named Dave. And of course, there are his fabled one-liners. Like when he called Robert Lewandowski, Robert Lewan-GOAL-ski. Or when he compared a hard-fought victory at Stuttgart to another of football’s sacrosanct truths: the difficulties posed by a windy night in Stoke.
Except – and this may be a controversial opinion – Thomas Müller isn’t just a character. Actually, as RB Salzburg may well discover next February, he can be a bit of a prat when his team has just beaten you.
The reason people like him is that he has a discernible personality. In this business of clichés and platitudes, where people media-trained to within an inch of their lives fill our screens 24-7 with anodyne remarks and party-line responses, someone like Müller stands out. He speaks his mind. He is not afraid to court controversy. And he is honest with reporters, whether pre- or post-match.
As he was last week, with his remarks on the state of Barcelona. Speaking after Bayern’s 3-0 Champions League victory, in which he netted his eighth in seven games against the Catalans and helped dump them out at the group stage for the first time since 2000/01, Müller was pretty scathing in his assessment. “They are great players tactically and technically,” he said, “but they can’t cope with the intensity in top football.” Oof.
Now, Barcelona are at a historically low ebb and devoid of direction, cutting-edge and quality – and yes, the lack of intensity to their play is a key driver of this. But there’s honesty, and there’s needlessly twisting the knife. As much as the party-liners can become tiresome, many party-lines – like not making sweeping generalisations about fellow professionals – are there for a reason. Grace, for instance. Humility and respect. Not being a dick, essentially.
This is not new behaviour, either; Müller has form here. If he has shown previously that he can be an ungracious loser – such as after a 1-0 defeat to Ireland, when he complained about long-ball tactics, weak refereeing, play-acting, and just about basically everything else – he is an even worse winner.
After a predictable demolition of San Marino in 2016, he dismissively referred to his opponents as “a team of amateurs” and said the game shouldn’t have been played. Regarding the infamous 7-1 World Cup win of 2014 – a national embarrassment for the hosts of cataclysmic proportions – his Brazilian club teammate Dante had to tell him to shut up about it in training, a full six months after the event.
“We can joke about anything, but not about this. Not all the Germans were like this but Thomas is the big joker. I said to him: ‘If you don’t stop, I’m going to hit you in every training session.’ This doesn’t make me laugh and when someone doesn’t laugh, it means they are annoyed.” – Dante, to Globoesporte in 2015
And while he may well have done for Dante, he didn’t for the rest of us, as shown in his post-match comments after last year’s 8-2 thumping of Barca. Yup, them again. “In 2014 against Brazil we never had the same control of the game,” he said, with no need or invitation to do so. Apparently, he simply couldn’t help himself.
Again, there is some truth to his claims. The question of pre-qualifying for the San Marinos of this world was at the top of most pundits’ agendas only last month, and the 8-2 was viewed from all corners of the commentariat as one of the great Champions League humiliations. There are plenty who have ventured beyond the parameters of propriety, too, and the game has been the better for it. You look back at the past couple of decades, and it is arguably the fractiousness and ferocity of rivalries like Wenger v Ferguson, Vieira v Keane, in the early 00s, or Mourinho and Guardiola and Pepe and the rest in those peak-Clasico years of the early 2010s, that really enrich the narrative, and really stick in the mind. Consensus is, after all, not what we are after.
However, that is not what this is. In those epic contests, there was parity, and the grudging respect of equals. This is just a man who has won everything – a World Cup, two Champions Leagues, approximately forty-three Bundesligas – taking the piss out of those below him. Or at least, kicking rivals when they’re down. Basking in a kind of smug superiority, and enjoying the struggles of others. And while in the case of Barca, there is a legitimacy to a certain schadenfreude, magnanimity would be far more befitting one such as him.
After Müller’s comments in 2016, the San Marino Olympic Committee spokesman Alan Gasperoni responded angrily, stating that he “does not own the game.” Five years on, it seems like the message has not quite got through, adding another possible psychological pitfall for RB Salzburg, who face Bayern in the Champions League last 16 early next year, hoping to avoid defeat and perhaps the post-match put-downs that seem to come with it.