Thomas Müller put his hands on his head in exasperation. As the round of sixteen game against Algeria drew inexorably towards extra-time, the Bayern man had his chance to end the North African challenge there and then.
In space, he rose to meet a perfect cross but nodded it straight at the keeper, when barely half a yard either side of him would have sufficed. It was a gilt-edged opportunity, one that Müller and the rest of us watching expected him to tuck away with ease.
Players, even great ones, can react poorly to missing chances. Some wallow in their misfortune and sulk, others simply hide, not wanting to be the fall guy once again. A rare few completely self destruct.
Zinedine Zidane had a headed chance to win a tense World Cup match, eight years ago; his came in a final during extra-time. Zidane guided it skillfully just as he had done with his two headers at home in the final in 1998, the ball rose and was directed towards the goal but not unlike Müller’s it was too close to the man guarding the net. While the context made it a wonderful Buffon save, he barely had to move his feet and claw it away.
If that header has nestled in the corner, Zidane would not just have scored a brace in a World Cup Final to give his side the trophy, he’d have done it twice. It seemed as if he knew the destiny Italy’s keeper had wrestled from him. Minutes later, still reeling, instead of a ball he headed Marco Materazzi’s chest.
Müller, after missing his sitter against Algeria didn’t sulk, he didn’t hide and he didn’t get himself sent-off. At the beginning of the first period of extra-time he ran with the ball, held off a defender’s challenge and found the telling cross which André Schürrle flicked home. It was an assist brought about by a significant amount of skill but also by an enormous amount of courage.
This is not to say that this somehow makes Müller a better player than Zidane but the Frenchman had moments throughout his career where his frustration with what was happening on the field would result in his being sent from it. A Gallic temper not unfamiliar to many players who have worn their blue jersey through the decades. Müller though is more typically German, more cool, more calculating and he waited for his next chance to make amends.
In many ways the number thirteen is the traditional German international footballer. A strong and determined character, when people accuse this German side of being brittle mentally, Müller’s name does not come up. He is an excellent decision maker and has an innate ability to always be in the right place at the right time.
His athleticism shouldn’t be overlooked either. He was still pressing the Algerian defence with vigour as the game entered the 120th minute. One wondered what planet he came from as he still looked fresh. His socks hanging carelessly around his ankles was the only clue that he had been playing a football match for two hours.
Like the other German greats he is also cunning and willing to indulge in the darker arts of the game to succeed. Win at all costs.
This was illustrated by his successful winding up of Pepe during the group stage in which he drew a headbutt from the defender and then made the most of the situation to ensure the Real Madrid player saw red.
But Müller is more than just the above. He has allied to these traditional German traits everything this new generation has as well, amazing technical abilities and an almost telepathic relationship with his teammates. He is also incredibly versatile, it’s hard to know which of the frontline positions he is best at. As the false nine/striker, he is deadly, a ball and chance magnet in the box. But as a no.10 or out wide he lays on the chances for others.
He had two more assists in the demolition on Tuesday night, the second of which an extraordinary pass for the seventh and final goal. The ball was racing towards the corner, but it didn’t beat Müller. With Marcelo close enough to touch him, he managed, while his back was turning, to hook his foot round and deliver the cross into the path of the onrushing Schürrle whose finish was just as good as the pass that preceded it.
It is an absolute tragedy that this goal came long after we encountered the true meaning of the word surreal. No one will remember the seventh strike of a rout, not even one as special as this. Given the attitude of this German team one doubts Müller will care, but he should. The first of the massacre showed the forward’s ruthlessness, sneaking away in the six yard box and firing home and the last one showed his amazing awareness on the field. He, like all the great players, can see without seeing.
When the DFB drew up their masterplan around the turn of the millennium this is the player they had in mind. Imagine, they must have thought, if we could combine the athleticism and sharp mind of the German footballer with a technique and skill that could match any of his rivals around the world.
One wonders in their wildest dreams if they could have come up with Müller; a perfect combination of the old and new. In earlier days perhaps he might have ended up through the system as a slightly inferior version of his namesake Gerd, a wondrous player in the box but offering little outside of it. Instead, through the merits of their coaching revolution they have manufactured the complete forward player.
Thomas Müller could add the World Cup to his burgeoning list of honours on Sunday evening. The Bavarian has won the league and cup domestically three times and has a European Cup and World Club Cup winners’ medal. He has already won the Golden Boot and could yet retain it. In twelve finals matches he already has ten goals, while topping the assist charts.
Thomas Müller is still only twenty-four.
That, is the best stat of the lot.
Conor Hayes, Pundit Arena.