Tuesday 21 October 2014

Shining light Mueller's got four stars in his eyes

Mueller desperate to drive his country to top of world again

Henry Winter

Published 08/07/2014 | 02:30

Germany's Thomas Mueller drinks water during the team's 2014 World Cup quarter-finals against France at the Maracana stadium
Germany's Thomas Mueller drinks water during the team's 2014 World Cup quarter-finals against France at the Maracana stadium

When Thomas Mueller was invited by Germany's kit designers to help create a new shirt, he picked up a felt-tip pen and approached the mannequin draped with the classic white top clean of all usual markings.

Mueller first drew in the three stars that signalled the number of World Cups won by Germany.

Mueller also inked a '?' in the place where the fourth would go.

Will go, in Mueller's mind. He is convinced Germany will win a fourth World Cup to go with their collections from 1954, 1974 and 1990. Mueller is the man to address the question-mark for so many reasons.

Joachim Loew can field many stars, from the rejuvenated Bastian Schweinsteiger, the decisive Philipp Lahm, the classy Toni Kroos, the influential Mats Hummels and arguably the world's best keeper, Manuel Neuer. But it is Mueller who helps Germany tick, who creates the space for others, who scores goals (four so far in this tournament) and who never stops running or believing.

OCCASIONS

Described as "impervious to pressure" by Loew, Mueller relishes the big occasions, scoring in Champions League finals and World Cup games, nine in 11. He won the Golden Boot in South Africa with five goals and three assists, another reminder of his myriad qualities.

Of his 21 goals in 54 internationals, only four have been in friendlies. Mueller's a competitive beast.

So far this tournament, he's been man of the match against Portugal and the US. Brazil are so aware of his threat that a witch-doctor is reported to have put a spell on him. Good luck. That's not going to worry a player delighted to wear No 13, a number that has proved anything but unlucky.

It's the old shirt of Michael Ballack and Gerd Mueller. Thomas Mueller shares their love of the grand stage.

Mueller has many strengths. He can play four or five positions, on either wing, as a centre-forward, second striker, even deeper if required. Few can rival his work ethic, his desire to close down opponents or just keep on running for die Mannschaft. The 24-year-old possesses phenomenal stamina; in his 472 minutes' playing time here he has covered 57.4km.

When running, he resembles middle-distance athlete Peter Elliott, covering the ground effectively if hardly elegantly. But it's a myth Mueller is not fast; he just does not look to have the muscular frame that lends itself to sprinting.

Mueller reads the game incredibly well, particularly where to time and angle his runs, giving himself the nickname "Raumdeuter", a reader of space.

He ghosts into good positions and it is an occasional comment on German television to hear the commentator pointing out that his team-mates did not spot his clever run.

It could be instinct. It could also be Mueller is one of the most academically intelligent footballers at the World Cup, having completed his Abitur and considered attending university. He analyses the game. Shrewdly, he creates space for others, and that is part of his strength, his team-mindedness.

What adds to Mueller's rich repertoire is that nothing seems to faze him; he has a zest for life just as he has a passion for the game and for winning.

Off the field, there always seems to be a twinkle in his eyes, a love of banter that makes him hugely popular with his team-mates. At one Bayern Munich photo-shoot, he got Javi Martinez to stand still as a mannequin as Mueller talked the interviewer through the shirt's design details – a lot of red basically and some stripes – with all the seriousness of a seasoned fashion critic. Martinez struggled to keep a straight face as Mueller intoned about "classic, light, modern stuff".

Asked what he thought of the conditions at the Maracana for the quarter-final with France in Rio where it was 26C with 88pc humidity, Mueller remarked it was "like a barbecue shack". He didn't stop running though.

His father worked for BMW. With Mueller, there had to be a finely-tuned engine in the background. He seems a coach's dream, keeping himself incredibly fit, marrying young and spending his spare time helping his wife with her show-jumping.

If he were a cricketer, Mueller would be constantly appealing. He moans at the assistant referee. He responded excessively to Pepe pushing his head into him, leading to the Portuguese defender's expulsion. It was stupid by Pepe, but Mueller milked it.

If, as expected, he starts on the right against Brazil, Mueller will have another feisty Real Madrid defender to combat – Marcelo. The Brazilian left-back will have his attacking tendencies curtailed by needing to keep track of Mueller and Lahm.

It will not perturb Mueller that Germany are not just playing 11 opponents; they are playing against 200m. In the 2010 World Cup, Diego Maradona refused to share a rostrum with the 20-year-old, believing he was a ball-boy. Mueller shrugged and then tore Maradona's Argentina team apart.

He's a fighter, a winner. He's not a greatly aesthetical footballer but there has been a different streak in Germany, relying on Hummels and Neuer against France. Mueller embodies the Germany that could one day win the World Cup.

"If you want to become world champions, you have to win matches and dirty victories belong to that,'' said Lothar Mathaus. "Germany showed that in 1990. We have been spoiled over the last eight years with more clear technical football.

"Now, it is no longer as attractive and beautiful as it was in 2010, but it is more oriented towards having a stronger defence – there is a saying in Germany that the defence wins titles and the attackers get all the glory.''

Mueller does both, helping out at the back and storming forward. Brazil will be a tough physical challenge.

In Mueller, Germany have the gangly gladiator who will face up to Marcelo, run at Dante and David Luiz, and make Germany believe that the figurative question-mark on the shirt can be exchanged for a fourth star. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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