s Serge Gnabry pulled off the back of Maxwel Cornet, Joshua Kimmich played a classic full-back’s ball down the channel. Marçal was forced across from the left of the three Lyon central defenders to cover as Gnabry, turning inside, took the ball down. Marçal checked back but found his way blocked by Thomas Müller, making a run from the centre out to the right. Marcelo had already been distracted by Müller’s move across him so his weight was going left as Gnabry flashed by to his right.
What followed from Gnabry was brilliant, but the avenue along which he charged before hammering a shot – with his weaker foot – into the top corner, was created by Müller’s movement from in to out.
It was a typical contribution from a player who has scored 199 goals for Bayern, but whose value to them is far greater than that. This season is becoming a personal vindication for him after he was one of three players culled by Jogi Löw as he prepared for the Euros. At 30, Müller is clearly not finished; in terms of his maturity and his understanding of the game, he may never have been better. And after four successive semi-final defeats, it will be a relief to have a third Champions League final to play in.
Müller had a key role in Pep Guardiola’s semi-final psychodramas, which make up the first three of those last-four exits. In 2014 Müller, having been left on the bench for the extremely unfortunate 1-0 away defeat to Real Madrid, played from the start in the second as Bayern were eviscerated 4-0 on the break. In 2015, he played in both legs as Bayern, having been hammered 3-0 away to Barcelona, lost 5-3 on aggregate. And then, most significantly, he was left out of the away leg in 2016 against Atlético as Guardiola preferred to use Arturo Vidal and Thiago Alcântara in front of Xabi Alonso.
Bayern lost 1-0 but the message was clear: in a game that demanded control, Guardiola didn’t trust Müller. When he came on with 20 minutes remaining, Bayern did become more susceptible to the counter. He started the second leg (and missed a penalty) and, while Bayern were again unlucky, it was hard to avoid the sense that by playing Müller ahead of Thiago, Guardiola had opened them up to just that sort of misfortune.
This is part of the enigma of Müller. He was brilliant for the national side at the 2010 World Cup when Löw played a counter-attacking game and very effective again in 2014 in Brazil. In 2018, he was a victim of Löw’s confused evolution towards something supposedly more expansive.
In that light, Müller’s form since Hansi Flick replaced Niko Kovac in November could be cast as a rebuke to his national manager, as though his mind has been refocused by the snub, by having a point to prove. And perhaps there is an element of that. But more significant is the fact that Bayern’s style of football has returned to Müller’s strengths. It’s not counterattacking as such, but Flick’s approach is very characteristic of the modern Bundesliga, a game based in transitions. It is certainly not based on control: just as Barcelona created chances by getting behind the defensive line on Friday, so too did Lyon.
And that suits Müller. He is not a player to play the safe pass and retain possession. “I consciously take risks in my game,” he said in an interview as long ago as 2011. “On the direct route towards the goal I often try to do things that may be great in terms of the idea, but difficult to do. Mistakes happen, but you have to say to yourself: it’s gone, I’ll try again next time. In reports it sometimes says: he tried a lot, but failed. Yes, then it just didn’t work out. I try a lot and there are a lot of failures.”
It was in that same interview that, asked to describe himself as a player, Müller coined the term “Raumdeuter”. A pun on “Traumdeuter” – an interpreter of dreams, like Sigmund Freud or Daniel – it means something like an interpreter of space, and it’s remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, as he showed in his awkward attempts to popularise “Lewangoalski” on Friday, word play seems not to come naturally to him.
But more, because it shows such acute self-awareness. Space is what he deals in; manipulating it is what is what he does. Müller is a little clumsy. His oddly long arms perhaps make him look a little gawkier than he actually is. He isn’t a great dribbler. He isn’t the cleanest striker of the ball. He isn’t unduly quick or strong. But his reading of the game, his instinct for where space and chances will appear and his work rate are remarkable.
Müller didn’t touch the ball in the immediate buildup to any of the three goals. Statistically his contribution didn’t register. And yet his movement was integral to each goal. It was his run to the near post that dragged Marçal away from Robert Lewandowski in the heart of the box in the build-up to the second. It was he who was fouled, having regained possession, late on high up the pitch, to win the free-kick for the third.
This was one of Müller’s quieter games and yet he was still instrumental in the win. In his idiosyncratic way, he is central to the Flick style.