Talking, shouting, gesticulating, encouraging —Thomas Müller tried everything on Friday evening in Leipzig to drag his teammates into the game.
Yet he was barely even in it himself, as Germany lost 1-0 to Hungary, a first defeat for head coach Hansi Flick which saw qualification for the final tournament round of the Nations League slip beyond the reach of the Nationalmannschaft.
With his Bayern Munich teammate Manuel Neuer absent due to a COVID-19 infection, Müller donned the captain’s armband at the former Zentralstadion. But it proved to be more of a burden than inspiration.
Apart from one rather harmless header, Müller, lining up in his preferred No. 10 role behind striker Timo Werner, endured an anonymous evening. When Hungary’s Adam Szalai scored what would turn out to be winning goal in the 17th minute, it was Müller who was off the pace.
The 33-year-old Raumdeuter — the “space interpreter,” as he’s been dubbed — looked tired.
From his unpredictable positioning to his unique reading of the game to his ruthlessness in front of goal, all the attributes which have enabled Müller to evade definition over the course of his career appeared to have deserted him.
He worked as hard as ever against Hungary, but his uncanny ability to always be in the right place at the right time, occupying dangerous positions before the opposition have even identified the threat, seemed a thing of the past.
For once, with the World Cup in Qatar just two months away, Müller has got his timing all wrong.
Müller and Germany need to pick up their form ahead of the World Cup
It’s not just with the national team that Müller has been having problems; the same issue has been visible at club level, too, where he has failed to contribute a single goal or assist in Bayern Munich’s last seven matches (5 x Bundesliga, 2 x Champions League).
In the previous three seasons, he had been directly involved in 90 Bayern Munich goals, scoring 27 himself and setting up 63 more — statistics that placed him firmly within Europe’s elite.
He’s currently some way off that level.
After 85 disappointing minutes against Hungary, Flick had seen enough and replaced Müller with Lukas Nmecha — who could also do little to bring Germany level.
But Müller’s form is of far greater concern. The offensive all-rounder has two months to rediscover his mojo before heading to Qatar. He’ll get his first chance on Monday evening against England at Wembley, a meeting of Group 3’s bottom two.
Even ahead of kickoff, Flick had explicitly warned that one or two players need to step up with the World Cup just around the corner. He could have been referring to several Germany players — but likely to Müller most of all.
Translated from German by Matt Ford