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Ghost player for the ghost game: Thomas Müller is perfect for the pandemic | Jonathan Liew

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The silence, really, is only a problem if you want it to be a problem. We football fans are an adaptable bunch. What at first feels disconcertingly novel soon becomes part of the furniture. We survived animated advertising hoardings. We survived Saturday 12.30pm kick-offs. We survived club mascots taking part in the minute’s silence. We’ll get through this too.

Perhaps, conversely, it helps to see the silence as an opportunity. As live Bundesliga football returned to our screens over the weekend amid empty stadiums and eerie hush, it was only natural to wonder how the aural void could be filled. Canned crowd noise feels a bit North Korea: Behold, Our Glorious Footballers Undertaking Athletic Endeavours For The Edification Of A Grateful Nation! If it has to be a crowd, might as well make it a real one: simply assemble the home club’s millions of fans on one giant Zoom call, and pipe in the real-time mayhem.

My friend Lizzie had an even more ambitious suggestion: instead of crowd noise, you could have an organist at the side of the pitch to provide a bespoke soundtrack, like in a silent movie. Perhaps even an entire orchestra. Individual players could have their own signature music whenever they got the ball. Celestial arpeggios for Alphonso Davies. Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King for Erling Braut Haaland. A comedy bassoon for Mario Götze.

Scoring Thomas Müller, on the other hand, would present the in-house composer with something of a problem. Müller isn’t the sort of footballer you can easily set to music. Neither protagonist nor antagonist, neither presence nor absence, Müller is the character implied but never actually shown on screen, the line not said, the look not given. Like a blur in your peripheral vision, the moment you try and evoke him, he evaporates.

Watching Müller during Bayern Munich’s 2-0 win over Union Berlin on Sunday evening was to be struck by just what a snug fit he is for this strange new footballing landscape. Spatial distancing is Müller’s entire job: a ghost player for a ghost game, a man who has built not just a career but an entire role on remaining germ-free, at arm’s reach, two metres away at all times. “It felt a bit like the atmosphere you get for old man’s football, 7pm under floodlights,” he joked afterwards.

He started wide on the right, although with Müller this is only really of tangential relevance. When Benjamin Pavard ventures up the right, he often tucks in. When Robert Lewandowski drifts left, he often fills the gap. But these are only the most basic ground rules: most of the time, where Müller will happen to be at any given moment is really anyone’s guess, and generally a function of where everyone else isn’t.

Thomas Müller in action during Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga return, the 2-0 win at Union Berlin on Sunday.

Thomas Müller in action during Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga return, the 2-0 win at Union Berlin on Sunday. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

In a way, it’s a constant process of triangulation, of checking and scanning and drifting and adjusting, of runs bent at the last minute, of sprints momentarily slowed to a scamper, and then sped up again (and for a player not noted for his pace, Müller still has one hell of a burst on him). Perhaps the most relatable analogy is the epiphany of the Covid-era park jogger, forced to pick an equidistant path between two dog-walkers going in opposite directions, and discovering that the optimal course is in fact a curved line.

Often in sport, what we describe as instinct is actually learned experience. Yet what’s remarkable about Müller is how early in his career these habits seemed to develop. That nose for space, the ability to look at a snapshot and effortlessly spool it forward – well, obviously Lewandowski is going to cut inside here, and Neven Subotic is going to follow him and Serge Gnabry is going to bound through the centre and therefore I need to be 16 yards from the goal-line, on the right of the penalty area in exactly 2.8 seconds – has been part of his armoury for years – a decade ago he was merrily cutting England to ribbons in South Africa.

He’s no longer the star of this Bayern team, if he ever was. Fittingly, his infiltration of the record books has gone largely unremarked: seventh in Bayern’s all-time appearance list, hot on the heels of Franz Beckenbauer, fourth for Bundesliga goals for the club behind Gerd Müller, Lewandowski and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. He’s still only 30 years old, and hasn’t played an international since 2018.

Somehow, even in the most heavily marked era of the world’s most popular sport, Müller has managed to slip through the cracks, to escape detection, to find a little niche all of his own.

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You could argue, I suppose, that for a man who has won the Champions League, the World Cup and the Golden Boot, he still feels somewhat underappreciated, unduly deprived of his place as one of the most important forwards of the modern era. But by the same token, to give Müller his due would be in many ways to defeat the object of the exercise. Most likely when he finally retires, it will be on the day that Lionel Messi does too, or when the pope dies.

And as the post-Covid game takes its first tentative steps into the light, as an old game tries to define a new language for itself, Müller can be its icon. The perfect pandemic player. The player you want to watch when you’re not really sure what you’re watching. The player best appreciated by not being appreciated at all. A player who inspires not rousing symphony or spontaneous song, but simply a respectful and slightly disorienting silence.

EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team
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