Nicolai Muller made a switch from the Bundesliga team, Eintracht Frankfurt, to the A-league team, Western Sydney Wanderers in October 2019 as an injury replacement for Radoslaw Majewski, the former Nottingham Forest player in the EFL. Since his switch, he has appeared in 17 matches and scored five goals with two assists. The numbers might not seem exciting, but his impact in the creative area of the field is interesting.
Markus Babbel, former coach of WSW, was sacked in January, and Jean-de-Paul Marigny was declared as the caretaker. Under both the coaches, Muller played as a creative midfielder and a forward. His positioning is evident from the heat map.
Most of his action is in the creative region of the pitch. Babbel mostly used 4-2-3-1 formation, with Muller playing in the creative role just behind the striker. Marigny mostly uses 3-4-3 formation, similar to Dortmund, with Muller as the centre-forward in the front-three line but is often seen playing in the midfield region.
Supporting the attack from midfield
Muller’s role was the same under both coaches, drift into the midfield, find space to receive the ball, and make passes into the final third or dribble his way through, as seen in the following instance below. Muller surpasses two Wellington Phoenix players, marked in yellow.
Below we can see he is being pressured by a defender who has stepped out of the backline but makes a pass into the final third through the gap created by the displaced defender and the forward, Yeboah, collects it and continues the attack.
Muller sustains the pressure in the midfield and passes the ball to forwards or wingers to continue the attack. As in the image below, he dribbles through the midfield line of the opposition passes the ball to the striker, Yeboah, and runs towards the defensive line of opposition.
Muller positions himself in short pockets of space from where he can contribute most in the case of counter-attack. As shown in the image below, he is positioned between the midfielders in a pocket so that he can receive the pass and start a counter-attack. This positioning helps in the quick transition from defence to attack. But, this also results in Muller not being involved in the defensive setup of the team, which creates problems while defending.
Here, Wellington’s attack was defended and a quick transition from defence to attack was needed for a counter-attack to take place. Muller is providing a passing option and also is in enough space to turn and dribble through or pass to forward players. He was fouled in this attack.
However, here is another instance of Muller in these pockets of space. In the image below, he looks around to assess his situation and scanning the field for his next passing option. Muller, marked in red, in the space between three Adelaide United players, marked in yellow, is scanning the area in front of him to decide the next passing option. Though this passing option was not used here, it shows the positional awareness of Muller.
His awareness and tactical skills help in the attacking phase of the team.
Creativity in counter-attack and goal scoring ability
While in the counter-attacking phase, Muller makes crossing runs, noticing the movement of the player who has the ball. An example is an image given below, a forward striker, Yeboah, is on the ball and is running in one direction while Muller makes a crossing run to put the defenders in the backline in a dilemma. He is also attacking the half-space here. Given the displaced position of the full-back, Muller made a run that would overload the left flank.
Another instance is given below where Mitchell Duke, marked by the yellow circle, is on the ball and moves towards the right flank, so Muller, marked by the red circle, makes a run towards the centre. The defender is in a dilemma of whether to defend Duke that would open up space in the defensive line for Muller to occupy or defend Muller, giving space and time to Duke for the attack.
Muller has scored five goals at this stage in this season. Most of these goals were scored in counter-attacks. Muller’s tactical intelligence in positioning himself in the right place and at the right time to score the goal is interesting to observe. As in the image below, the counter-attack started at the midfield region with Adam, marked in red, winning the ball and running on the right flank. Here, Adelaide United played with three centre-backs.
The below image shows the continuation of the attack of the above image. The left centre-back went to defend Adam. This opened up space between the middle and right centre-back which was exploited by Muller, marked in red, and he scored the goal. Observe the space Muller gets in between the defenders. Adam produced the cross which ricocheted off the defender’s feet and Muller headed it home.
The same kind of positional awareness is observed in the image below. This goal came from an open play. A quick switch from one flank to another and Muller’s excellent position again helped him find the back of the net. Look at the position of Muller, marked in red. Occupying the flank and stretching the defensive line. An excellent finish also to find the back of the net.
Muller occupies the role of a striker when any one of the forward players comes down the pitch to receive the ball. This keeps the pressure on the defensive line of the opposition. As seen in the image below. Muller, in red, stretching the backline and exploiting the half-space region in the counter-attack scenario.
While defending, Muller is usually given the job of marking the pivot midfielder. In such cases, it is necessary to press the midfielder as soon as he gets the ball and not allowing him time on the ball. Applying pressure on the pivot midfielder can affect the build-up process of the opponent team. But Muller lacks in the pressing section. He gives the player a lot of time on the ball to pick out the pass and does not apply pressure intensely. An example is shown in the image below.
A Wellington player, marked in yellow, gets a lot of time on the ball and hence passes easily to his team-mate. If Muller had pressed intensely, then he could have blocked the passing option and the Wellington player would have to play a back-pass.
Another instance is shown below. The Adelaide United player, marked in yellow, has got time and space on the ball to pick out the passing options. If Muller had been in an advanced position, he could have pressured the player on the ball to play quickly and they would have not got much time to decide their next pass.
The effect of lax pressing is observed in the recoveries in the final third stat. Nicolai Muller is on the 33rd position with 1.15 recoveries per 90. The way to improve recoveries is to block these passing options as mentioned above and apply pressure on the opponent player on the ball so that he doesn’t get much time and space to pick out the passing option and maybe this might increase the assist or goal scored numbers.
Nicolai Muller is a very creative player when it comes to attacking phases. Finding little pockets of space and using his pace to dribble through and pass to the forward players are some of his best attributes on the pitch. His positional awareness was key in the goals scored. However, if he presses better in the defensive phase then his overall game might improve and he may be able to create more attacking opportunities.