Germany midfielder has invented his own role with a supernatural power to find space that is invisible to mere mortals
Football has produced some brilliant books in the past 20 years, but it seems safe to say the acme of them all is still the Breedon Book of Football Managers. Not so much a book as an elegiac domesday compendium, the Breedon is an alphabetical biography of every football manager at every club from the dawn of recorded football time.
Attentive and meticulous, above all the Breedon conveys a sense of the loneliness of the early managers, those downtrodden semi-clerical figures, often no more than a moustache, a watch chain, a straw hat, many of whom came to a terrible premature end – run over by a milk truck … died of flu … collapsed on a train – and who, in their basic class-bound captivity, often carried with them a great sense of schemes and plans, of doomed invention, an air of carpetbagging conjury.
One manager invented something called "funnel football". Another devised a tactical plan known as The Whirl. Another set out to build a team containing only players with extreme qualities: the extremely tall, the extremely short, the extremely fast, concocting his own travelling X-men academy.
This early quest for some unquantifiable, even invisible edge has been a recurrent theme throughout the sport's history, and it came to mind again on Tuesday night as Thomas Müller put in the performance of the Champions League quarter-finals, drifting and lurking and generally sidling about with horribly malevolent intent during Bayern Munich's 2-0 defeat of Juventus at the Allianz Arena.
What a player Müller is, albeit one with a distinctly slow-burn appeal, the kind of love-at-fourth-sight merchant it is necessary to watch a few times just to get some sense of, well … exactly what he's doing out there. It is useful to remember that Bayern's inside-outside forward is now credited with having a specific personal superpower. Not quite a playmaker, some way short of a striker, and blessed with no extreme qualities of power or technique, Müller is instead the world's first Raumdeuter, which is German for "space investigator".
His special power is to find space, space invisible to the non-Raumdeuter, and spread into it like a plume of smoke, or a form of insidious footballing dry rot. This is what he produced against Juventus, a frictionless occupation by stealth, always moving – if not moving that much – in search of the single most vital commodity in elite modern football: space, the final and, in fact, pretty much only, frontier. The fact that Müller coined this term himself in a newspaper interview makes it even better. He's sidled in there, that sneaky Raumdeuter. He's found a niche and filled it with himself, no mean feat for a man who doesn't really look like a footballer at all but instead has an endearingly amateurish air, tousle‑haired and skinny-legged, like a junior doctor on a fun run.
True to his supernatural billing, the tactical printout of Müller's contribution against Juventus revealed almost nothing. He attempted a risibly small number of passes. Over 90 minutes he was the only outfield player not to commit a foul or be fouled. He wasn't offside once. In fact, the only occasion he actually needed a referee out there was to blow the whistle after his goal. And yet he was still somehow the central player on the pitch, passive-aggressively dominant, suffocatingly ever‑present.
It is naturally tempting to digress at some self‑loathing length about how wonderful it is that Germany's footballing terminology can include such a concept while in England the announcement that, actually lads, from now on I'm going to play mainly the Raumdeuter role would most likely end in headlocks, dead legs, Chinese burns, uncomprehending rage. The real difference, though, is simply in the nature of Müller's self‑coined superpower.
English players also have extreme qualities but these are generally athletic in nature, reflecting the basic notion of a football match as 10 separate arm wrestles taking place all at once. The very fast and very strong player is commonplace, as is the player who can "hang in the air", conjured once again by Andy Carroll's brilliant headed goal against West Brom last week, Carroll seeming to arrive in the penalty area from some improbably thrilling height, mane flowing, nostrils flared, like a horse hurled from a speeding helicopter.
English football also has its own concept of second sight, the "picture" that the best players are said to carry around inside their head, a future flash of angles, movements, dangling possibilities. This is perhaps best expressed – and here the layman can only guess – as the footballing equivalent of that motorway-driving moment where you're totally in the zone, hypnotised by the road ahead and behind, and suddenly you can literally "see" the four, five, six nearest cars clustered around in formation as you glide between lanes, suede-trim driving gloves magisterially guiding the wheel, aviator react-a-lites glinting, Wild Bean Cafe macchiato holstered snugly in the ergonomic dashboard cup-slot.
It is not a gift open to all. There are players who apparently can't see the picture, or who only see it in flickers: Jermain Defoe gets by perfectly well simply ferreting and sniffing and twirling instinctively, zigzagging about like a man continually on the verge of losing a game of Frogger. Whereas Michael Carrick now seems almost the exact opposite, a player who drifts through matches entirely inside the picture, conscious only of the departing momentum of those around him, like a tanker captain languidly guiding his hull through a matrix of shifting icebergs.
The real difference is that Müller's special, self-coined quality relates not to the concussive, oppositional aspects of football, but to a third-party element: air, space, the absence of people. And perhaps, as the football pitch shrinks and its mysteries are stretched thin by a shared athleticism, space really is all that is left: the Raumdeuter's sniffing out of wormholes and shortcuts, those tiny pockets of unspent possibility. Of course, some will see nothing exceptional in what Müller does, or at least nothing that can't be explained by conventional means. He is a wonderful close-range finisher. He moves intelligently and passes with his head up. Perhaps there is no need to attribute any qualities beyond those that are visible, no need to buy into the fable of the player who sees not just the planets but the dark matter in between. Perhaps the space investigator really is nothing more than another conjurer's trick, a dream of something more. Perhaps the truth is simply somewhere in between. But I, for one, definitely want to believe.