t had to be him, one way or another. Throughout this evenly matched Champions League final the knobbly-kneed figure in the deep forward position had roamed, disrupting the patterns of Paris Saint-Germain and teleporting himself into useful attacking spaces, a man playing football with his toes and thighs and elbows in the middle of all that high-speed grace.
Thomas Müller does, however, know how to win games; and specifically how to make Bayern Munich win. For 58 minutes in Lisbon PSG’s defence had been impressively tight, lines compressed to create a dark blue double bolt.
The red shirts had pressed, then fallen back to idling speed. The game’s only goal came from a sudden raising of the levels. The success of this Bayern team has lain in its ability to suck the air out of the game, to suffocate its opponents in every space in every part of the pitch, football as an act of intimidation.
It took a while, but they got there in Lisbon – or got there for just long enough. Half-time had come and gone, followed by a lull. Suddenly the red machine began to move up through the gears, whirling the PSG defence from left to right like a tennis crowd grown dizzy trying to follow a lightning grass-court duel.
It took three smart exchanges to make the only goal of this 1-0 final victory. First Thiago Alcântara threaded a quick diagonal forward pass. Serge Gnabry’s flick found Muller, apparently in the process of falling over. Müller’s touch back to Josh Kimmich was a thing of unlikely beauty, the ball stunned first time with his toe to leave Kimmich time to look up, see the overload of bodies at the far post, pause, then float in a lovely, fading cross.
Kingsley Coman, who played with real thrust on the Bayern left, had time to watch the ball drop in a delicate arc over the final defender, before nodding it back past Keylor Navas and into the corner.
Müller didn’t make the goal, not really. He didn’t do much that registered on the nexus of approved statistical records. No shots, no assists, no dribbles. But he was still key, and fittingly so, to a sixth Champions League win for Bayern; a victory born out of that one decisive moment; and behind it a slick and effective defensive plan to thwart the creative presence of Neymar in deep positions.
The world’s most expensive player was occasionally sparky in Lisbon. Most of the time he was pressed and harried whenever he took possession as Hansi Flick devised a double-marking scheme. There was of course only one man for this job, an attacking-defensive presence who breathes, eats, and perspires Bayern, and who does so with such wild-eyed conviction you half expect to look down and notice he’s playing in lederhosen.
Here the Raumdeuter explored the space around PSG’s No 10, invading that tiny little pocket of grass he seems to carry around with him.
As ever it is tempting to look for an easy line. PSG may be the plaything of a cash-rich inherited monarchy. But it would also be facile to hold Bayern up as underdogs, or a model of fair play and level playing fields. This is a vastly wealthy club, a vampiric domestic giant in the largest economy in Europe.
Still, though, there was something striking in the spectacle of Müller, the junior doctor on a fun run, stealing the creative edge from a team with £400m of A-list attacking power up front. No doubt Neymar will see the face of Thomas Müller behind him when he goes to brush his teeth tonight, and hear the thundering hooves of Thomas Müller in his sleep through uneasy dreams.
In many ways Muller isn’t really supposed to be here at all. Successive Bayern managers have prevaricated, drawn to more obviously seductive versions of powerhouse attacking football. Still, though, he marches on, rebooted and regeared under Flick’s steady hand.
Müller has been at Bayern for 20 years now, an oddly timeless figure; less lithe and toned modern day super-athlete, more eager young chemistry teacher taking the fourth form games session. He is, though, a footballer who knows how to win, who understands the movements around him, the way the space opens and closes.
Bayern needed him too, as three months late, and entombed within a biosecure bubble, the season reached its end point. Flick’s team began where they left off, surging forward in concert, more a controlled physical chess than anything as gauche as pressing or chasing. As the first half wore on PSG pressed them back, those lightning breaks stinging like a champion’s jab, inducing some moments of doubt on the flanks.
PSG got close, the front three always searching for the right angle, the right finish. Killian Mbappé looked like what he is, a stellar talent still rusty after injury. Despite some clear chances, they never quite seemed like scoring.
And so Bayern completed their own treble and ended this distended season on a thrilling unbeaten run. Flick has a fair old start as Bayern manager. Months in charge: eight. Trophies: three. Played 36. Won 33.
By the end Bayern were deserved winners of a game decided by the stifling of Neymar, by some bluntness in front of goal, and by that one real moment of clarity. Müller had a hand in the first and the last of these: a home-grown survivor in a sport that is often hostage to star power; but a winner once again.