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Bayern Munich’s best: Why Thomas Muller has been far more influential than James Rodriguez this season

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Simply put, even though James’ individual numbers are better, the team plays better as a whole when Thomas Muller is on the pitch.

Photo by Alexandra Beier/Bongarts/Getty Images

When James Rodriguez first came to Bayern Munich, people wondered what would become of Thomas Muller. Here was a man with a special connection to the manager, coming in at a time when Bayern’s beloved Raumdeuter was in a bit of a slump. However, despite all the predictions of doom and gloom, nothing ever came to pass. Carlo Ancelotti got sacked, Jupp Henckes came in, and both Muller and James enjoyed a fruitful partnership under their new coach.

However, this season, things have changed. For whatever reason, Niko Kovac simply refuses to play both James and Muller on the pitch together. One starts when the other is on the bench, and the starter has usually been Muller. However, Bayern Munich have also been guilty of some very poor performances this season.

This has led to calls from a vocal section of the fanbase for James to start over Muller — the idea of both starting has somehow been drowned out in the narrative — and the disappointment when the Colombian doesn’t start can be felt across the internet.

However, is there a method to Kovac’s madness? Is he justified by choosing Muller over James? Well, here are some numbers, and the picture they paint might be surprising:

Observation #1: Bayern Munich score a lot more when Muller is on the pitch

Going back through every game in the Hinrunde, I calculated goals scored per 90 minutes by the team, with and without Muller on the pitch. Say Bayern scored two goals, one in each half, and Muller was subbed at half time. Then that means the team scored one with him on the pitch, and one without him.

Here’s what the numbers look like from the Hinrunde of 2018:

Bayern Munich with Thomas Muller on the pitch = 2.41 goals scored per 90
Bayern Munich without Thomas Muller on the pitch = 1.59 goals scored per 90
Bayern Munich overall = 2.27 goals per 90

It’s clear that with Muller on the pitch, the team experiences a clear upswing in performance. This is despite his direct contribution of just five goals and six assists this season. Muller’s direct contribution isn’t enough to explain the upswing — he’s clearly having an unseen effect on the offense.

Interestingly, this is somewhat similar to an article I did on Muller’s impact on Die Mannschaft. While that one used win-rate as the metric and not goals scored, it showed similar results. Germany won far more games when Muller was on the pitch than when he was not on it — in fact the difference was 37%. This is practically mirrored by his offensive impact on Bayern Munich this season — Bayern score 34% more goals per 90 when Muller is on the pitch than when he is off it.

What could explain this phenomenon? Well, Robert Lewandowski has us covered:

Lewandowski highlights the key aspects of Muller’s game that aren’t readily apparent to the casual viewer. Muller’s possesses positional and tactical intelligence way above that of the average footballer, which increases his impact on the pitch without the need for incredible dribbles or large numbers of goals and assists.

Observation #2: James Rodriguez has (much) better individual statistics than Thomas Muller

This is a strange thing to say, considering the title of this article, but individually James has been clearly better than Muller statistically this season. The Colombian, despite having spent a ton of time injured, managed three goals and two assists in just 639 minutes. His G+A per 90 stands at an impressive 0.70, compared to Muller’s 0.54.

Additionally, he is second on the team when it comes to expected goals, with 0.74 per 90, compared to Thomas Muller’s 0.33 per 90. Muller leads in expected assists, but the difference is slight — 0.22 per 90 for Muller, and 0.15 per 90 for James.

With these numbers, it might seem justified to say that Bayern Munich will be better if Muller is benched for James. However, not the key word here — “individually”. Football is a game of 11v11, so there’s more to the story than that.

Observation #3: Bayern Munich score less with James on the pitch

If you’re a big James fan, then look away now. I gave the Colombian a B- in my first half midfielder ratings, and some of these numbers make it obvious why. Here is Bayern’s performance with and without James, only counting games before his big knee injury.

The reason only those games were counted is because they predate Bayern’s late-Hinrunde resurgence, and it wouldn’t be fair to judge James by those standard because he never got to play with a resurgent Bayern.

Anyway, here are the numbers:

Bayern Munich with James on the pitch (before his knee injury) = 1.41 goals scored per 90
Bayern Munich without James on the pitch (before his knee injury) = 2.15 goals scored per 90 (!)
Bayern Munich overall (before James’ knee injury, i.e. before our resurgence) = 1.8 goals scored per 90

The difference in numbers is staggering, and completely at odds with James’ individual statistics. It does check out though, James missed a lot of high-scoring games in the first part of the season. Just for comparison, here are Muller’s numbers in the same time period: [Note: Pokal matches and the Supercup have been omitted from the calculations for the sake of fairness, as James did not play them.]

Bayern Munich with Thomas Muller on the pitch = 1.99 goals scored per 90
Bayern Munich without Thomas Muller on the pitch = 1.21 goals scored per 90

As you can see, even Thomas Muller’s numbers are dented when you take out the late-Hinrunde resurgence Bayern experienced, but the trend remains the same. Bayern Munich score far more goals overall when Muller is on the pitch than when he is not on it.


In defense of James

From what’s been shown above, it’s easy to conclude that James is bringing the team down, and Kovac is justified in benching him. However, that would be a premature conclusion to make, once we consider the circumstances:

  • James has been injured for large parts of this season, and has therefore been unable to build up any form or momentum.
  • James’ best performances last season came from playing WITH Thomas Muller on the pitch, something that he has been unable to do under Kovac.

With these issues taken into consideration, it’s clear why James hasn’t been able to perform up to his standard this season. This article isn’t about targeting James, because his performance under Heynckes clearly prove that he is capable of offering something to this team. This is about setting the record straight.

Thomas Muller is more important to this team than it first seems

Despite his apparent lack of goals and assists, Bayern Munich as a whole performs much better offensively when Muller is on the pitch. This has been reiterated multiple times by several sources, but many choose to simply ignore all arguments in favor of a surface-level analysis of Muller’s game.

Tifo Football, in their video on the Raumdeuter (seriously, go watch it, it’s brilliant), said it best:

Subtle opportunists who thrive in the gaps between defenders and go undetected for large periods, the Raumdeuter’s role in the creative process is ignored. For every decisive movement created by Thomas Muller, Dele Alli, or Jose Callejon, it is the passer or dribbler who set them up — be it Arjen Robben, Christian Eriksen, or Lorenzo Insigne — who receives most of the acclaim.

This is perhaps fitting. Raumdeuters are just as difficult for pundits to spot as they are for opposition defenses to pin down. The qualities that make them such efficient attackers, such as concentration, composure, and tactical sensitivity, are after all, invisible.

Some call it luck, Muller calls it the interpretation of space.

Perhaps the numbers highlighted in this article can back up that claim. By virtue of his role on the pitch, Thomas Muller is a misunderstood man. Hopefully, this article can help some of us fans appreciate him more. This is a man for whom team-play comes naturally. He is a person that makes the team more valuable than the sum of its parts.

When asked about Bayern Munich’s upswing this season, Lewandowski said this:

This [occupying the penalty area] is now implemented better — also thanks to Thomas. We’re now creating more chances than we did from the 5th to the 10th matchday. It’s better when I can play with someone else at center forward. It’s easier with Thomas next to me. He helps me out a lot; we complement each other very well.

While some fans and pundits refuse to see it, the simple fact that Muller has been trusted by world class coaches like Heynckes and Pep Guardiola speaks to his value on the pitch. Perhaps it’s time we began appreciating him a bit more, because the Raumdeuter is more important than we think.