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First James, now Coutinho: Is Bayern Munich preparing to move on from Thomas Müller?

Coutinho: another year, another challenger brought in to knock Thomas Müller out of Bayern Munich’s starting lineup. Is it time for the German star to take his talents elsewhere?

FC Bayern Muenchen v Hertha BSC - Bundesliga Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images

It is time for some real talk without being divisive or letting the discussion devolve into an us vs. them debate.

Can we handle that? Do you promise? Okay, then let’s proceed.

Bayern Munich’s recent move for Philippe Coutinho was both significant for the short-term and probably insignificant for the long-term. Certainly, having a player of Coutinho’s ability on the roster will come in handy as injuries mount up and the competition becomes more fierce in the Bundesliga and Champions League alike. However, the thought of Bayern paying €120 million for the 27-year-old after this season — no matter how much success he achieves — would seem far-fetched at best.

Still, Coutinho’s presence creates a logjam of sorts in the midfield — and who doesn’t love a good midfield logjam? With the ability to play centrally behind a striker or out wide on the wing, Coutinho offers Niko Kovac that positional flexibility he craves from every player.

While many pundits have talked over the many different ways that Kovac will deploy Coutinho, the consensus is that he will mostly be used as an attacking midfielder behind Robert Lewandowski, the role formerly known as Thomas Müller’s position.

Now listen, we’ve heard the criticism: “#MüllerMafia, Müller Fan Boys, etc.” We get it; this site might be a little more pro-Müller than some other outlets on the internet. But this question — like the one asked two years ago upon James Rodriguez’s arrival in Germany — is very pertinent: What is so bad about Thomas Müller?

For a homegrown player that has excelled on and off the pitch for Bayern Munich and Germany alike, Müller always seems to have a torch-and-pitchfork crowd chasing him out of town like Frankenstein’s monster.

I could sit here and throw stats and more stats around or maybe even talk about the intangibles that Müller brings to the squad, but the bottom line is — and always has been — the team is simply better when he is on the field.

So why does it seem that Bayern Munich is always so eager to find him a spot on the bench?

The question of depth vs. excess

This is the third consecutive year that Muller’s status as a starter on the squad has seemingly been handed over to another player in the eyes of the media. Heck, even before that, many thought Mario Gotze was on his way to unseating Müller from his place at the table. While no one would question the natural talent of James or Gotze, neither one evolved into a player who could usurp a starting role from Muller.

Countinho could be that player... or perhaps not. But if I could jump inside Müller’s brain, I’d guess he is constantly saying to himself, “Not this Scheiß again!”

Perhaps the issue is not Müller himself, but rather the absence of strategic squad planning. How else can one explain the dearth of wingers and superabundance of central midfielders on the roster? Whether Kovac rolls out a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3, or a 4-1-4-1, he can use only three central midfielders at a time.

Knowing that, it is hard to fathom why Bayern has all of these options for just three positions: Müller, Coutinho, Thiago Alcantara, Leon Goretzka, Javi Martinez, Corentin Tolisso, Renato Sanches, and Michaël Cuisance. The math — and reality — for keeping that many egos in check does not seem to compute. That does not even include Joshua Kimmich and Benjamin Pavard, who could easily slide into a defensive midfield role.

Heck, you could include all ten of those players into a single lineup and still probably find a way to compete (or did we already try that?). Maybe the plan is for Müller to bump permanently out to wing, where he has had his success? But that would required the bench of one of Bayern’s two young wingers in Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman, which also seems unlikely at this stage.

For many outlets, the overt talk of Müller being benched is great for driving traffic, but it is mostly speculative — as we covered in this piece. Simply put, it is great for business. At some time, though, even for the most confident professional athletes (who, in general, are some of most over-confident, yet insecure, people on Earth), the constant mental and physical battle between where you think you are, where the team thinks you are, and where the masses and media think you are, becomes a grind.

There are absolutely those with the opinion that a squad can never be deep enough, and then there are people like me, who see too much redundancy on a roster as a volatile situation.

Maybe I shouldn’t worry about it. Maybe outbursts like the one Renato Sanches had after the Hertha Berlin game or James spending a season pouting and complaining should not be my concern. Sure, inherently, every team will have conflict. This Bayern Munich situation, however, is different. While Kovac might be the squad’s leader in title, he has not asserted control to the point where the players believe in him; that much is certain.

Maybe injuries will mount and all the depth will be needed, or maybe Müller finds himself mired on the bench as the team moves on without him, or maybe even Müller’s status does not change at all. We can only sit by and wait to see how things play out.

Does Bayern want to move on from Müller?

At some point, the situation has to wear on a player like Müller. At some point, he has to ask himself whether the privilege of suiting up for Bayern Munich is worth putting the final years of his prime at risk.

I don’t know whether Niko Kovac likes Müller, but Kovac seems to be on a constant quest to find Müller’s replacement — even if the path always ultimately leads the club back to using Müller for when the team needs a win most.

The organizational indifference toward Müller of late also does not stem only from the coach. The Bayern front office itself has not been overly supportive of Müller. Even today, Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge issued this cryptic statement, which seems to leave little doubt about how the club see Müller’s role:

Read into that what you will, but publicly pushing another player into a position that is currently occupied by a club legend typically does not bode well for said club legend. There seems to be more than meets the eye with Bayern Munich’s philosophy toward Müller.

Time to move on?

If Müller finds himself relegated to the bench, his demeanor likely won’t change — he’s too much of a professional for that — but his mindset on his future likely will. Müller has already dropped a few hints that he is open-minded about a potential move, and it would appear that a long stint on the bench here could have him echoing the poignant words of Tom Petty: “It’s time to move on, it’s time to get goin’, what lies ahead I have no way of knowin’.”

It’s nice to use bravado and say he should stick around and fight for a spot, but it feels — and looks — like the team has been actively trying to replace him for years now. Would you want to stick around a place — in your prime — that does not seem to want you in the lineup? I don’t think most people would.

I think now Müller is finally going to feel that sting of rejection and with it, he will start to examine what is best for him instead of what is best for the club. And you know what, that’s fair.

So, whatever happens with Müller — whether he plays or he sits and whether he stays or he goes — the 29-year-old star will have to start considering more about what is best for him and less about the state of Bayern Munich.

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