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How Niko Kovac and Thomas Müller changed Bayern’s Olympiacos hunt

Niko Kovac at last gave Thomas Müller a start. He struggled on the wing but delivered from the middle. A look at Müller’s performance in Piraeus.

Olympiacos FC v Bayern Muenchen: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Bayern’s hard fought win over Olympiacos definitely left a lot to be desired. Shoddy defending, multiple injuries, and a very rowdy home crowd proved to be big obstacles for the men in dark blue. However, they managed to fly away from Athens with three points, not to mention their first win since the 7-2 massacre of Tottenham in London three weeks ago.

There was a crucial factor in said win, one that may not have been obvious at first, but changed the game drastically when it happened. Enter Thomas Muller.

Müller on the wing vs in the middle

Muller was starting his first game in October, having been benched for six successive games beforehand. However, even as he started, Niko Kovac did not put him in his preferred position at the 10, but rather on the right wing flanking Philippe Coutinho. The result was just as any Bayern fan would have expected: Muller was left stranded on the wing, neither getting nor giving any sort of good service from or to his teammates. His failed slide tackle in the build up to Olympiacos’ opening goal sums up his predicament in the first half hour of the game.

Müller is left in the dust by Olympiacos’ opener.

After going one down and realizing things were not working out, Kovac made a vital switch, freeing Müller from his shackles on the wing and moving him into a central position. Now shadowing Lewandowski while also moving deeper into the attack, Muller was able to pull apart the airtight Olympiacos defense, as can be seen in Lewandowski’s equalizer.

Müller, standing at the edge of the box by the penalty arc, darts into the space left by Lewandowski as the latter receives the ball.

As Lewandowski gets on the end of Javi Martinez’ cross, Müller is left in acres of space, with no defender marking him. He thus is able to receive the ball and shoot between two defenders.

Müller takes the shot that leads to Lewandowski’s equalizer.

Der Raumdeuter thus lived up to his name, getting into space and firing a shot, the rebound of which Lewandowski converted to level the score.

Muller stayed in the middle for the rest of the game, enjoying more success as Bayern’s attack built up around him. He assisted Lewandowski’s second goal, and although this goal came off a corner kick, it still shows how having Müller in the middle of the pitch can be a great advantage.

Lewandowski is left unmarked during the incoming corner due to Müller’s presence, who is jostling with a defender at his back.

This time, Müller is the one being marked, with all eyes on either him or the ball. Hence, Lewandowski is now left in space, and Müller is aware of it.

Muller heads the ball to Lewandowski, who puts it away.

Rather than going for the shot itself, Muller simply knocks the ball into the space that Lewandowski is occupying, and Lewandowski makes no mistake from point blank range. A goal that was the result of classic Müllendowski synergy coming to life.

The third goal had little to do with Muller directly, since it was primarily a product of individual brilliance on the part of Corentin Tolisso. That said, there was still a hint of Muller’s raumdeutering skills in the buildup to that goal as well.

Müller starts to drift inwards as Coutinho frees up space.

As Coutinho takes on the defense on his own, Müller can be seen drifting inside into the space left by the defenders, who are again solely focused on dispossessing Coutinho.

Müller loses his marker, ready for action should it be necessary.

The ball is loose and rolls into no-man’s land. Muller sees the opportunity and cruises into the wide open space, completely losing his marker in the process. Although this particular ball fell to Tolisso, Müller could easily have taken advantage of it had it rolled his way. The whole point of the scene is that Müller shakes off his man and is left with ample space to cross, shoot, or pass to a teammate. This was a common thread in most of Bayern’s effective attacks in this game.

Müller allowed to roam

Likewise, Müller’s shift to the middle was one of the most important factors of Bayern’s victory on Tuesday. He played a vital part in two out of the three goals that his team scored, and worked tirelessly all game. The decision to move Müller inside was effective not only in terms of goal-scoring, but also in game-running overall. Once Müller was granted a free role in the middle of the pitch, he was able to drift wherever he liked whenever he liked.

This is Muller’s heatmap from yesterday’s game:

Der Raumdeuter’s presence is shown in his heatmap.

As the map shows, Muller was omnipresent in defense, midfield, and attack. The fact that the map does not show any remotely red, yellow, or even green spots implies that Muller was never in one place for too long, instead choosing to travel all around the pitch and help out whenever necessary. Indeed, it is probably not surprising that Muller covered the third most distance of all Bayern players in the game (11.12 km), behind only Thiago and Joshua Kimmich.

Putting Muller on the wing limited his opportunities, as he was restricted to doing shuttle runs up and down his flank only, thereby also limiting his service to and from his teammates. However, once he became a more central presence, he could run around the pitch with ease, opening up space for Lewandowski, running into space himself, switching with Coutinho (as shown in Tolisso’s goal), and even helping out in midfield with Thiago and Martinez. He covered most of the opposition half, and was not afraid to venture back into his own. Put simply, playing in the middle brings out the best of Muller’s abillities and allows him to play to his strengths. The result? A valuable win at a very difficult place to play.

Coutinho and the question of starters

The one downside of Müller’s central shift is that it pushed Coutinho out to the left flank, a position that caused many Barcelona fans to clamor for his exit last season. Coutinho was largely ineffective throughout the game and wasteful with the few opportunities that he got. Then again, it was a sacrifice that had to be made. The tactical shift Kovac made ultimately won Bayern the game, and Coutinho might have been subbed off earlier for a true winger (e.g. Ivan Perisic, who came on in the last five minutes of the game) had it not been for the two earlier substitutions of injured players.

In short, this particular change in strategy was probably Niko Kovac’s best brainwave all season. It was also a great showing by Müller himself. Der Raumdeuter has been highly productive in the few minutes that he has played this season, a remarkable feat considering so many footballers depend on consistent playing time to keep their game up.

Knowing Kovac, despite Müller’s performance, it is not a stretch of the imagination that he will go back to the bench against Union Berlin come Saturday. No one can force Kovac to play Müller game after game. That said, if there was ever a time Müller had to prove himself, it was last night, and he did.

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