In 2010, Thomas Muller won the Golden Boot in South Africa. He scored five goals in six games at his first World Cup, having won only two caps before the tournament. He was 20 years old. In the four years that followed, he scored 12 more goals for Germany in the next 41 games.
This summer, it all started to happen for Thomas Muller in early June. The previous week, Joachim Low tested the usual 4-2-3-1 formation, toying with the idea of answering the much discussed false nine versus real nine question with Mario Gotze.
But against Armenia, in that final test before the World Cup, Low started Muller up front, placing Andre Schurrle and Marco Reus at either side of him. The Germany head coach had never understood the discussion in the first place. So many dangerous players up front. All knowing how to find the back of the net.
Die Nationalmannschaft began in a 4-3-3 formation, and the partnership between Reus and Muller especially hinted at greater things to come. While they managed to find those little boxes of space, and play those dangerous vertical passes behind the lines only a handful of times, only moments before half-time, Reus limped off injured and eventually missed the World Cup. Germany did not score against Armenia in the first half. Low returned to a 4-2-3-1 in the second half. They scored six against an increasingly tired and weak opponent.
Yet, the depth of Germany's attack or attacking midfield, whichever suits best, meant that against Portugal Low stuck to this much more Bayern-like possession-based style. Mario Gotze replaced Marco Reus, and Mesut Ozil was handed another chance, in place of Schurrle. That basically says it all.
Philipp Lahm, Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira played behind the front three and Low's famous full back four -- a quartet of centre-backs -- made Portugal's life difficult. They attacked and got a penalty early on, which Muller stepped up and converted. Mats Hummel scored, then he drew a red card-worthy reaction from Pepe; after that, Muller's trademark goal of this tournament.
Kroos crossed the ball into the box, and Bruno Alves was just about to clear, when out of nowhere, the Germany forward appeared on the scene, pinched the ball from the Portugal full-back, moved his muscle-free legs into position and killed the match. Germany 3-0 up, and seven goals in seven World Cup games for Muller. He added a third that day, too.
Muller rarely scores screamers like James Rodriguez, and his runs will never come close to Arjen Robben's walks through defences, and maybe, if you'd pause the game before Muller moves, he does not know what will happen next. He is all about instincts, he goes places nobody else would go, and his vertical runs into the box from out of nowhere come as a surprise probably even to him. It's unorthodox. It's unpredictable. It results in him finding free space in front of the goal. He is a midfielder and he is a poacher, one who does not sit in the box and wait for the ball.
He is the free radical in Germany's new system. A straying nine.
By fielding a 4-3-3 with players like Ozil, Gotze and Muller, who can all play at least two of the three positions up front, Low has found a way of making Die Nationalmannschaft less predictable up front, but also less exciting. Which has nothing to do with the individual players; it's the idea that a hard-running counterattack style like in 2010 is not feasible in Brazil, and, by and large, no longer realistic for a tournament favourite like Germany.
Germany's new style is more mature, and clinical, as demonstrated in the 1-0 win against the United States, with a rare Muller goal from outside the box. Die Nationalmannschaft controlled the match, and rarely used the full-backs, who retreated to their positions.
Defence first, and don't attack if you don't need to attack. Keep the ball, follow Pep Guardiola's mantra that possession is the key. Avoid all excitement, don't let them get to you -- don't ever allow the opponent to put up a fight. They did so in the second group game against Ghana. They no longer controlled the match, they played bad passes and were caught out of position far too often. In that match, Muller -- playing on the right for the second half -- did not score.
Unlike other European teams like Netherlands or Italy, Germany does not believe that possession-based football is dead. Not even given the temperatures, and most of all the humidity, in Brazil.
“It's unorthodox. It's unpredictable. Midfielder and poacher, Muller is the free radical in Germany's new system. A straying nine.”
If you keep the ball, and pass it around, if you have players like Kroos and Lahm, who will improve as the tournament continues, you can control a match. With the straying nine Muller, you can win games. Yet, you will only win a World Cup title when all falls into place and the full back four develops from experiment into success. They have yet to be tested against a world-class attack, given that Cristiano Ronaldo was not fully fit and Portugal had all manner of bad luck heaped onto them that day during the opening match of Group G.
While Lukas Podolski, Per Mertesacker, Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose -- the so-called Class of 2006 -- might all play their last World Cup, 24-year-old Muller could have two, maybe even three, more tournaments left in him. He has scored nine goals in as many World Cup appearances. If he keeps scoring at this rate, he could pull level with Ronaldo and Klose in the group stage of the next World Cup.
The game will move on, tactics will change, maybe possession-based football will die. But Thomas Muller will be around for a few more years, and it would come as no surprise if he continues to look for space where there is no space, and end up in front of the goal, somehow getting the ball over that line.
"I am convinced that Thomas Muller will nab the World Cup goal record, because he still has two or three more World Cups in him," his namesake, the legendary German striker Gerd Muller, recently said. He might be right.