With the help of Berlin-based football writer @LGAmbrose, the Cloudbet Blog takes a look at Germany's last Group F match against Hungary without stalwart playmaker Thomas Muller in the side.
The Raumdeuter roams
Thomas Müller, the Raumdeuter, isn’t the same Raumdeuter anymore.
The Raumdeuter. The “space investigator”. A term Muller coined for himself to describe his greatest talent: reading the game and being in the right place at the right time, completely undetected.
For Müller, it meant a quasi-wide role, starting from the left or (more usually) the right, rarely getting involved in the build-up, roaming into space, then appearing in the box - in space - at the crucial moment. A poacher not stationed up front.
Someone played that role for Germany in Saturday’s 4-2 defeat of Portugal - but it wasn’t Müller. It was Kai Havertz. Not that Müller wasn’t crucial in the win; he was. Over the past couple of years, Germany have missed Müller, but they have also missed Mesut Özil. Luckily for them, Müller has returned, and his intelligence is now used to dictate terms more than it is used to get on the end of goal-scoring chances.
He was absolutely crucial on Saturday. To steal a basketball term, he is a player with enormous gravity. But it isn’t because he is a superb dribbler or an explosive runner - he is neither of those things - it is because of his incredible understanding of the game.
Müller puts himself in positions that force players on the defending team to ask questions and make decisions - Whose man is he? Should they close him down?
Portugal didn’t have the answers to these questions as Müller the Raumdeuter slash playmaker pulled them apart on Saturday. Prior to Germany’s early disallowed opener, Müller positioned himself right up against the defence.
Germany are heavy favourites against Hungary
How Thomas Muller pulled Portugal apart
Muller’s magic was on display from the very start. Take a look at the build-up that resulted in Gosens netting in the first five minutes, only for Serge Gnabry to be ruled offside.
With Germany in possession, the ball moves towards the left, and the Portuguese midfield follows it - leaving a huge amount of space on the right.
Muller is quickly closed down, but manages to move the ball on - Germany now outnumber Portugal on both flanks.
Matthias Ginter, driving from centre-back, has space to deliver a dangerous cross. Gnabry can’t reach it, but Gosens, flying in from left wingback, manages to connect - only for his effort to be disallowed as Gnabry is judged offside.
Still, that entire situation comes from Müller exploiting Portugal’s positioning, finding space, and dragging players towards him.
At 1-1, Müller again attracts the attention of the Portugal defence, with Germany outnumbering them at the far post. After his first attempt is nodded down by the defence, he is able to float his next effort into the box just in front of Havertz. 2-1 Germany.
He was also involved in creating the third and fourth Germany goals.
For the third - scored in the 51st minute - the ball is in an entirely unthreatening position, with Portugal behind it as Müller receives possession from Gündogan, tightly marked by William Carvalho, and sends it straight back to his midfield team-mate.
But from there Müller wanders. Müller is always wandering. But it’s never an accident. He wanders over to the right, in the space behind Carvalho, dragging him away from Gündogan for the next time he receives possession.
Portugal are stretched and Gündogan has time to pick his pass, and he does, passing to Havertz on the touchline under Müller’s instruction. Müller drifts off the backline again, plays a quick one-two with Joshua Kimmich…
… and has plenty of time to find Gosens in acres of space on the left.
Gosens squares, Havertz scores.
For the fourth, Müller is again in a nice, advanced position, occupying Ruben Dias as the ball goes backwards and Renato Sanches leaves Kai Havertz to press Mats Hummels.
Müller smells blood. He drifts deeper, into midfield, dragging Dias with him and pointing to Havertz to make his run in the space that Dias is vacating.
By the time the ball arrives with Müller, Dias has been dragged out of position, Havertz is ready to dart beyond into the space, and Portugal left-back Raphael Guerreiro has to choose between closing down Havertz and tracking Kimmich on the overlap.
The ball goes to the right, then across goal for Gosens to head home.
In form Havertz is Muller 2010, not Muller 2021
And now Germany may well be without Müller against Hungary, and possibly for their last 16 match, should they qualify. The problem is, there’s not really any replacing Müller.
Havertz is the closest Germany have, but is much more of a goalscorer than a provider or a man to cleverly link play and open up gaps - he would’ve been a fine Müller replacement in 2010, but not in 2021. The pair have very different roles and Havertz, right now, has different strengths to this iteration of the Raumdeuter.
If Germany can’t replace Müller like-for-like, their only option then is to do something different. The players on the bench in contention for a spot in the front three, Leroy Sané and Timo Werner, are even less analogous to Müller than Havertz is, thriving in open spaces rather than roaming to find and exploit tighter areas on the pitch.
Is Goretzka the answer?
So Jogi Löw is likely to plump for Leon Goretzka, who has returned to fitness and featured from the bench against Portugal. He wasn’t ready to start that game, but the Hungary clash may be different.
In Goretzka, Germany has a less subtle, more physical, less attacking presence.
While the attacking performance against Portugal was exciting, the DFB-Elf remained nervous when defending counter-attacks, and there is still clear room for improvement against the ball.
Including Goretzka as an extra midfielder could provide this sternness in midfield without taking away too much goal threat; the Bayern Munich man has a habit of chipping in with goals for club and country, while his inclusion could also free up Gündogan to arrive late in the area more often than he has so far.
The extra physicality in midfield could do Germany the world of good and getting more out of Gündogan, who has played a disciplined role so far but became something of a Raumdeuter himself as he scored 17 times for Manchester City last season, would be an added bonus.
Müller is crucial to this side, no doubt, but his absence does not have to spell disaster.