Even after he burst onto the scene in the 2010 World Cup for Germany, Thomas Müller was a fragile caterpillar at Bayern München. He ate all the playing time he could get, his potential growing each with minute he got on the pitch.
With the world elites as his comrades, the surrounding players in the squad wrapped his role around him like a cocoon. Where he played depended on where his manager needed him, and what started as a nurturing womb of prospect turned into a prison cell as he developed his wings.
It is time for Müller to burst out of his cocoon, his bright colors projecting into the Allianz Arena crowd. At 24, he is a full-grown butterfly, and he needs the room to soar through his prime years.
On the surface, Müller is receiving the playing time that a specimen of his caliber dictates – he featured in 51 of Bayern's 56 matches, in which he started 40 of them. No attacker recorded more minutes than the 3576 he did. In a squad teeming with football's elite, that is an accomplishment unto itself.
"He has played in nearly every match," said German national team coach Joachim Löw in a press conference. "Even Philipp Lahm was benched for a few games. At Bayern, you can't always play."
The underlying reasons for his minute total on the pitch reveals what his role in the side is. Many of his shifts were ones he picked up from the unfit, acting more as a fill-in for Franck Ribéry or Arjen Robben. Three more came from the irrelevant matches at the end of the Bundesliga campaign.
Müller did not have an independent role in the side, the players around him determining his place in the side. Had players stayed healthy, he would have seen a fraction of the action he received. His fitness and form have remained constant throughout his rise in prowess, and yet he is still fighting for his spot in the side.
"It feels worse [than losing a big game] to receive word from the manager that you are not playing," Müller said in an interview with Stern. "The other is just a loss in sports."
Müller's versatility is perhaps his greatest attribute, one that both Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola exploited when scheming their tactical plans. Able to play in the heart and on either edge of attack, he can adequately perform the duties assigned to him. That skill may be a blessing for Bayern, but a curse in his quest to cement himself in the side.
Only when Löw calls him into the National Team is Müller's spot in the side secure. He has soared for die Adler on the right flank since his manager entrusted him with it in 2010. After five seasons at Bayern, in which he contributed to seven major trophies, he now needs a spot to himself, one that is unconditional on the others around him.
"I'm not the type anymore that says: 'Good, now I have a good role here and there. Therefore I will keep my mouth shut and people can do with me what they want,'" said Müller. "I know above all else what I did for Bayern in the last five years."
To ask for such a role is a sizable request with the stable of stallions antsy to run free as well. Guardiola is required to field Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben as well, and he cannot ignore the expensive additions of Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski. Remaining passive with Müller's place in the squad is irresponsible nonetheless, especially with his record in the biggest matches Bayern have been apart of – Müller has scored four goals in the eight European finals he has played in.
"I have reached the point where I want to know before the season whether I am a central component of the Bayern XI going forward and whether I am really in the club's plans the next few years," said Müller. "For that reason, I will seek out this conversation."
Bayern could have responded to his doubt with their actions, reportedly shooing away a transfer approach from Manchester United. Müller's contract runs until 2017, and the Rekordmeister rarely sell world-class forwards in their prime. Still, the club has reached the Wendepunkt, or turning point, in his career as their home-grown talent hits his prime.
Perhaps Müller's opportunity is nearing, with Ribéry and Robben progressing into the twilight of their careers. That scenario came about in Heynckes's final season, having to rely on Müller when Robben was struggling with his fitness at the beginning of the treble season. When Toni Kroos collected his season-ending injury against Juventus, it was Müller who then gave way to Robben, another case of Müller's role dependent on those around him. Müller's team selection needs to be independent from the inevitable decline of the Robbery era if he is indeed the "central component" of Bayern's future.
Müller is no longer the prospect that requires a cocoon of protection; he is ready to take his first full flight into Fußball history, but he needs the room to flutter his wings.