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Theory: Did Thomas Muller burn himself out in 2016?

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Thomas Muller’s career has been extraordinary, but recent struggles make it tough to see how much the Bavarian has left in the tank.

Korea Republic v Germany: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images,

The enigmatic Thomas Muller has always been a difficult man to pin down. Possessing perhaps the most unique skillset of a modern footballer, the self-declared Raumdeueter has been a vital cog in Bayern Munich and Germany’s offense over the years — delivering the likes of a treble and a world cup to his team. However, in more recent years, his form has become somewhat erratic as he has struggled to reproduce the incredible goal scoring exploits of his younger days.

At the age of 28, Muller is still well within his prime, but his decline on the biggest stage has been noticeable. Most Bayern Munich fans will be able to point to the exact moment that it started — the crucial penalty miss against Atletico Madrid in the 2016 semi finals of the UEFA Champions League. Most will say that it blew a hole in his confidence and he has struggled to get it back, which is quite likely to be true ... but, there may be more to it than that.

It is my opinion that Muller burned himself out in the 2015-16 season, and here’s why:

The staggering workload of the Raumdeuter

Muller became a regular fixture of the Bayern Munich starting XI in the 2009-10 season, a staggering nine years ago. Since then, here are his minutes in each season (all comps) + the number of games he was rested for (i.e. on the bench but not injured):

  • 2009-10 — 4,039 minutes played, 1 game rested
  • 2010-11 — 3,942 minutes played, 0 games rested
  • 2011-12 — 3,913 minutes played, 2 games rested
  • 2012-13 — 3,571 minutes played, 7 games rested
  • 2013-14 — 3,574 minutes played, 4 games rested
  • 2014-15 — 3,579 minutes played, 4 games rested
  • 2015-16 — 3,819 minutes played, 4 games rested
  • 2016-17 — 3,004 minutes played, 5 games “rested”
  • 2017-18 — 3,125 minutes played, 1 game rested

Add to this two FIFA World Cups (in both of which he went to the finals) and two Euros. What you have here is a man who has played an incredible amount of football at the very highest level. When you factor in Muller’s taxing playing style, where he constantly makes run after run and covers a ton of ground in every match, and you get a player who has accumulated a lot of miles on his 28 year old body. Why does this matter?

There have been documented cases of athletes burning out before their time because of the physical and mental workload of being a pro.

Athlete burnout is a cognitive-affective syndrome characterized by perceptions of emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced accomplishment, and devaluation of sport.

Symptoms of burnout include a loss of “performance or conditioning, including strength and stamina losses, chronic fatigue” and “low self-esteem, increased anxiety and depression as a result of falling short of sport demands.” I’m no psychologist, but doesn’t that sound like post 2015-16 Thomas Muller to you?

If you’re skeptical about 2015-16 being the season where Muller burnt out, then allow me to explain my reasoning:

2015-16, the Raumdeuter’s best season ever

The 2015-16 season, which turned out to be Pep Guardiola’s last at Bayern, was also Thomas Muller’s most prolific season ever. He scored 32 goals and registered an additional 12 assists in all competitions, at a staggering rate of 1.04 goals+assists/90 minutes. However, did that incredible production come at a cost? Muller’s star shone, but did it shine too brightly?

Let’s look at the evidence. What causes a burnout? Excessive physical and mental pressure to perform. Well, in a squad managed by Pep Guardiola, you can be assured of both. Add to that the intense pressure from fans and the media to win a Champions League, and you have a very stressful situation. Pep himself said this about his time in Munich:

My time in Munich will not be judged by the fact that I did not win the Champions League. It’s a brutal club, with players who are all my friends. We all wanted the title, but there were so many factors that influenced that.

You had a Bayern Munich squad that was expected to win it all, and Muller was a major part of it. He was no longer the young 20-year-old making waves in the footballing universe, he was a World Cup and treble-winning veteran. Along with Robert Lewandowski, Muller had to bear the brunt of responsibility for Bayern Munich’s offense. Game after game playing under that kind of pressure, with a demanding coach and minimal rest, would push anyone’s psyche to the limit.

Then, when Muller stepped up to take that fateful penalty against Atletico Madrid, it all came to a head, and he missed. To have it all come crashing down at that moment — anyone could see that it hit him hard. For a regular player, missing a penalty is devastating. For Muller, in the circumstances he found himself in that day, it was the final straw. After that moment, he could no long be the man he used to be.

The man who departed for the Euros was physically the same, but mentally a shadow of his former self.

Conclusion

The arguments I’ve laid out here are just my opinion. There is no definitive evidence to state that Muller has burnt out; we can only make guesses based on information available to us. However, it is a fact that Thomas Muller has played an incredible number of minutes in his career. It is a fact that he hasn’t been the same since he missed that penalty.

We know Thomas Muller, and we know what he can do. It doesn’t make sense that a world-class player could lose his mojo so abruptly — unless he burnt out. He shows the signs of being a man reduced to husk of his former self. Of course, Muller hasn’t always been able to play in his preferred position, and Carlo Ancelotti’s ineptitude didn’t help matters, but it still doesn’t mean that everything is fine.

The good thing is that Thomas Muller is still only 28 and has plenty of time left to get back on his feet. A mental burnout is tough to recover from, but not impossible. As fans of Bayern Munich, we can keep faith that our Raumdeuter will reignite his lost spark under Niko Kovac, and that will catalyze a new period of success in this club’s history.

However, to achieve this, I request that we remain patient and supportive of Muller, instead of being vitriolic and critical as football fans are wont to do. We are fans of Bayern Munich, and we should abide by Mia San Mia. Muller should have all our support, as he has earned it.