Interpreting the interpreter: Thomas Müller and Raumdeuters

The date is the 6th of July 2010, and the occasion is the third-place play-off match at that year’s FIFA World Cup between Germany and Uruguay in Cape Town. In a polarising round of the World Cup that no one really appreciates, both teams were out to seek pride by going home with a bronze medal. Uruguay weren’t expected to get this far having struggled to make an impact on the international scene for several years, while Germany were disappointed to not be playing in the final, but knew their time was near.

Thomas Müller, Germany’s revelation at the World Cup with four goals to his name up until that point would strike again in this match against the Uruguayans with a goal that would showcase his prowess: Bastian Schweinsteiger would take a shot from well outside the box, Fernando Muslera in the Uruguayan goal would save it and Thomas Müller was on hand to tap it in. A simple goal with no fancy footwork or flashy skills before it, a goal that was as easy to explain as it was to partake in.

What made this special was that Germany and Bayern Munich had realised they had a special player on their hands, a player that was able to read the game in a way that few other players could. It’s a term that Müller gave to himself in an interview soon after his heroics in South Africa, a term coined as a raumdeuter, which roughly translates to “interpreter of space” and that is what he is, a player that finds space and with the most common motor skills available to all abled human-beings, he is able to torment opposition defences.

The term still isn’t prominent in the footballing stratosphere because it is such a unique role in football and only a few footballers can possess the same aptitude as a typical raumdeuter. Thomas Müller is football’s first example of it and there’s only a few that can follow suit. Perhaps Tottenham’s Dele Alli comes close and that is what allows him, similar to Müller, to end campaigns with such high goals and assists records. The role combines intense pressing and reducing or entirely cutting off passing angles, finding space in between lines and as a result benefitting the player and his teammates. It’s a unique role and only one man in football has mastered it.

Raumdeuters can’t essentially be classified as central forwards, strikers, wingers or attacking midfielders, it’s a role on its own and not a position on the pitch. They aren’t the most technically gifted footballers or the best players on the ball, but the skills they do possess, they are as good as it can get: heading, linking-up, aerial dominance and finding pockets of space in between tough defensive lines and rigid setups. Basic statistics can highlight the key qualities that support the characteristics of a raumdeuter and an example of that can be seen from Thomas Müller records in the Bundesliga this season (as of 9th March 2018).

Müller has the second-most assists in the Bundesliga this season (8) level with team-mate Joshua Kimmich (8) and just behind Augsburg’s Philipp Max (10). His partnership with Polish hitman Robert Lewandowski has been the league’s most successful pairing with Müller assisting his centre forward five times this season. The 28-year-old has also completed just 0.2 dribbles per game in the Bundesliga this season and to replicate his excellent movement, he has been caught offside just 0.3 times per game, which is incredible for a player who has returned six goals and eight assists in 21 appearances in the league. Raumdeuters lack in defensive aspects, but that doesn’t include their movement and willingness to contribute to the defensive side of things in their own half.

A player that possesses unorthodox technique and has an unfamiliar approach to the game yet is so efficient and so effective are few of the idiosyncrasies associated with a player like this. Thomas Müller is a keen example of a player that perfects the raumdeuter role and some of the characteristics that make it so popular are highlighted.

HEADING

Perhaps the attribute that sets apart raumdeuters from the other roles is their fantastic heading ability. With the help of their incredibly instinctive movement combined with their brilliant work with the head, players that perfect this role must perfect this aspect of the game. The most common example of this can be from Dele Alli and his virtuoso display against Chelsea last season as Tottenham ended the Blues’ fine 13-match winning run with a 2-0 win at home with Alli scoring both.

 

For the first goal, he positioned himself between Cesar Azpilicueta and Victor Moses and made a run just as Christian Eriksen delivered a sumptuous cross into the box. He found himself unmarked and his leap was unmatched as his thumping header was well out of the reach of Thibaut Courtois in the Chelsea goal. The second goal was almost similar to the first, except that Eriksen delivered a cross more deeply and Alli met it at the far post. Notice the run he makes forward to drag Azpilicueta towards him, and then back to get in space to head the ball. The timing of both jumps was perfect and that was matched by the power and accuracy of the headers to give Tottenham a 2-0 lead and subsequent win at White Hart Lane.

 

Several other players have shown characteristics that match the one of a typical raumdeuter, but lack in certain areas to be considered as a pure one. Examples of those include Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s evolution into a forward has improved several aspects of his game. Lingard’s movement and goal against Chelsea at the end of February to win the match displayed several of those characteristics, and maybe if he had great aerial prowess, he would be in the raumdeuter category.

STYLE ON THE PITCH

In Martí Perarnau’s 2016 book, Pep Guardiola: The Evolution, he described Thomas Müller and highlighted characterises that would typically be associated with a raumdeuter: “Müller has lost more balls than any other Bayern player over the past two and a half years. He doesn’t dribble particularly well, and he’s never been the fastest guy. His headers are unexceptional, and he could use some work on his shooting. He loves to press but often does so with his head turned towards his own team-mates. And yet this is a prodigiously talented footballer.”

Pep Guardiola is a master of positional play and having an asset like Thomas Müller was of a huge advantage to him. Together, they benefited each other with the player becoming better at what he’s already good at and the manager reaping the rewards of his talisman’s improved performances. Thomas Müller was given the freedom to operate in the middle of the pitch while on paper, he was deployed as a right midfielder. His role allowed him more liberty to express himself and that was important to Bayern.

Check out his heatmap in one of Guardiola’s last matches in the Bundesliga against Freiburg. Notice how there are darker shades on the right wing and the central areas and that is where Müller mostly operates. There was a reason Müller had such a high goals and assists output under Guardiola and a reason why that significantly decreased under Carlo Ancelotti was because the Italian manager failed to appropriately accommodate him in his Bayern team.

Guardiola’s last season, in particular, was where Müller’s traits suited one of a typical raumdeuter. The Catalan manager’s tweaked philosophy involved Müller having as little as possible to do in terms of build-up of play and do what he was best at: find space, interpret play and be two steps ahead of the opposition by using his finest tool, anticipation. ­­­­­The heatmap above is consistent throughout the season, showing effective utilisation of Müller’s capabilities.

Muller | 1
Muller v Freiburg 15-16

Compare the heatmap above to the one below in one of the earliest games of this Bundesliga season, coincidentally also against Freiburg. Notice the key differences here as Müller is restricted solely to operating on the right side with little freedom to play centrally and notice the darker patches on the top-right of the graphic, showing his lack of movement to the central spaces, where he was most effective under Guardiola. Raumdeuters generally operate wing inwards and the contrast between the two heatmaps is widely evident.

Muller | 2
Muller v Freiburg 17-18

Ancelotti’s failure to accommodate and use Müller effectively was one of his grave failures at the club. A player that could have been so useful was so haplessly wasted restricted the manager and the player. Müller’s goals output went from 21 in 48 appearances in 2014-15 to 32 in 49 appearances in 2015-16 – Guardiola’s final two years – down to nine in 42 appearances in Ancelotti’s sole full season in charge. His return has improved under Jupp Heynckes and is finally back as one of the Bundesliga’s finest footballers.

Muller | 3
Dele Alli v Real Madrid

Even Dele Alli, Müller’s skill-wise English twin put on a solid display earlier this season against Real Madrid displaying his smart, instinctive movement and playing mostly in the wide as well as central areas as he scored twice to help Spurs beat the defending European champions by three goals to one at home.

ANTICIPATION, MOVEMENTS AND POSITIONING

Perhaps the deadliest asset raumdeuters possess is their work without the ball, and for years, Thomas Müller has proven how good he is without it to get into good scoring positions or to put his teammates in good scoring positions. Some of the best examples for this case can be put from his work for Germany, with the highlight being in the game against Brazil who they smashed 7-1 on their home soil. Thomas Müller opened the scoring on that humiliating night and his goal was a result of instinctive movement.

 

Notice how Müller starts on the near post as he awaits Toni Kroos’ corner with David Luiz marking him, but just as Kroos steps up to strike the ball with an in-swinger, he drifts away to his left and with some assistance from Miroslav Klose’s duping run, he is able to find himself in an open space for a tap-in past Julio Cesar for a record-equalling tenth World Cup goal. It’s goals like these that highlight a raumdeuter’s best abilities. Marked heavily, he moved with smartness to find himself in a position for a six-yard tap-in.

Joachim Löw, Müller’s manager at international level even highlighted his player’s fine ability to interpret space, speaking about it with astonishment, “Thomas is a very unorthodox player and you can’t really predict his lines of running, but he has one aim and that is ‘how can I score a goal?” The German manager himself highlights a very important aspect, Müller’s lines of running, and if you check highlights of some of Müller’s goals in recent years, you’ll find a very odd pattern, one that you wouldn’t normally expect.

Another example of Müller’s active movement, this time coming from a 2016 friendly between Germany and Italy which the reigning World Cup holders won 4-1. With Mesut Özil charging forward with the ball as Germany are on the counter-attack, Müller’s run forward keeps the two Italian defenders occupied with him. He maintains his position, but swiftly shifts towards the right to break the Italian back-line, attracting one defender towards him in the process.

He then shifts back to his initial running area to create more width, before the final and most crucial move where he drifts back to the right to allow the space for Mesut Özil as he is through on goal. Özil was stopped by Matteo Darmian eventually, but this zig-zag run is just one example of Müller’s exceptional ability to carve out a goal scoring chance without touching the ball.

A basic example of Müller’s anticipatory instinct was mentioned at the start with his goal against Uruguay in the third-place play-off: (skip to 1:20 for the goal)

 

First, Müller takes up a spot just outside the box just between the two Uruguayan defenders as Bastian Schweinsteiger lines up the shot.

Muller | 4

Next, as Schweinsteiger takes a ferocious swing at the ball, he makes a run in between the two Uruguayan defenders in anticipation of a rebound.

Muller | 2

Finally, Fernando Muslera does just exactly what Müller expected him to do, a save from the shot, and Müller was there to pounce on the rebound to give Germany the lead after a well-timed run, with the Uruguayans left claiming for offside.

Muller | 6

LINK-UP

Another highly noticeable attribute of a raumdeuter’s game is his link-up play. With raumdeuters mostly operating in the wing and central areas, their most frequent link-up play comes with their supporting forwards or full-backs. Raumdeuters make runs and movements to support their players with ease, mostly with one or two touch football and that adequately supports their teammates and vice versa.

Players like these are aware with their running and of the surroundings near them that help attacking moves. With full-backs, this sort of movement can influence their own overlapping runs, and as forwards, they can get into good goal scoring positions. A raumdeuter makes himself readily available to teammates and without the intention, provide much more help in the build-up of attacking play than they notice.

INTERPRETING THE INTERPRETER

Players like Dele Alli will come along, but Thomas Müller will always be recognised as the originator of the raumdeuter role. Inspired by Louis van Gaal and improved by the intuition of Pep Guardiola, it’s a role that he became famous for. Google raumdeuter and instead of the translation of the word, you would come across a biography of its master – such is the impact of his playing style and such is its uniqueness in the sport. It’s rare to find a player of such tactical awareness that he can affect games without even being close to the ball.

A raumdeuter’s movement is different from the others and for a player that looks so jazz on the outside, the football Müller brings is rock-hard heavy metal. He interprets space and forms a cohesion with his intelligent running and inhuman anticipatory skills and as a result, both club and country, managers and teammates have benefited. Müller isn’t the flashiest player or doesn’t seem the most dangerous but once a keen eye is kept on him, his true expertise can be known.

In his own words, he explains his true role: “I don’t enjoy being classed as a striker, I don’t see myself as one. I like to be active in space in behind the opposition’s midfield. That’s where I can hurt the opponent most of all. I’m a mix between a striker and a midfielder.” And he isn’t lying. A term devised out of spontaneity is now a term Thomas Müller will be known for even after his playing career is over. And the way football is going, there will only be a few pure raumdeuters; he may just be the last one.

Karan Tejwani

Football writer mainly covering the Premier League. Previously featured on the Guardian Sport, VICE Sports and The Football Pink. Senior writer at These Football Times.
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Karan Tejwani

Football writer mainly covering the Premier League. Previously featured on the Guardian Sport, VICE Sports and The Football Pink. Senior writer at These Football Times.