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Thomas Muller has been transformed from clapped-out old warhorse to chaos-bringing goal machine

The ball nearly got away from Thomas Muller. After a quick one-two with Robert Lewandowski to get inside the box, the ball was spinning away from him as he sliced at it with his left foot, getting just enough on it to guide it into the bottom corner.

It was a pretty typical Muller goal: all knees and elbows and control masquerading as chaos. 

It was also the start of a breathtaking individual and team performance which saw Muller and Bayern roll back the years and party like it was 2014.

With their 8-2 thrashing of Barcelona on Friday night, Bayern Munich established themselves as firm favourites to win the Champions League, and completed a remarkable turnaround under coach Hansi Flick.

In the space of just half a year, Flick has transformed Bayern from a superpower in rapid decline to the most formidable force in Europe. 

He has made Alphonso Davies into one of the finest players in the world, and embarrassed all those who claimed that Jerome Boateng was past his best.

Yet Flick’s greatest triumph of all has been the restoration of Thomas Muller. 

From a washed up, frustrated old battle horse on his way out the door, Flick has reshaped Muller into what he once was: one of the most unpredictable and therefore most potent attacking players in the world.

For a decade he was the beating heart of Bayern and Germany, but in the last two years, Muller had hit a career-low. 

Expelled from the Germany squad in an act of politicking from Joachim Low, the veteran forward was also at loggerheads with Bayern coach Niko Kovac. 

Though he kept doing the business in terms of assists, Muller was in and out of the first team, visibly disgruntled and far below his best.

‘For me, the ups and downs of my career were always relatively easy to explain,’ said Muller in April, in a thinly disguised barb at Kovac. 

The Croatian coach had frustrated him tactically and repeatedly attempted to assert his authority over Muller, rather than getting him onside. 

By October last year, the striker was agitating for a move away, and the Bayern bosses essentially faced a choice between their troubled coach and their homegrown club legend. Unsurprisingly, they went for the latter.

Yet even then, few could have predicted how emphatically Muller would return to his best form. 

Flick’s much vaunted talents as a communicator seemed to blow away all the cobwebs which had been building in Muller’s game since long before Kovac. 

In and out of form since 2016, the forward seemed increasingly to be raging at the dying light. But as he tells it, all that was needed to flick the switch was a bit more trust.

‘You have a different feeling on the pitch when you feel trust,’ he told the Suddeutsche Zeitung earlier this month. ‘You don’t overdo it, and you don’t start doing stupid things or trying to hard.’

That freedom allowed the 30-year-old to ‘once again stamp the Thomas Muller stamp on games’, as he rather loftily puts it. 

That stamp is easy enough to quantify: in the 20 of the 24 Bundesliga games since Flick took charge, Muller grabbed either a goal or an assist.

Yet Muller’s resurgence was as much a question of tactics as one of mentality. 

Like Carlo Ancelotti a few years before him, Kovac had struggled to fit Muller into a 4-3-3 system, and even when he adapted to 4-2-3-1, the general structure was often too rigid for Muller to do what he does best, running between lines and redrawing the spaces on the pitch as he does so.

Under Flick, by contrast, Muller found a freedom which he had not felt since the days of Pep Guardiola.

‘Back then, every player was allowed to have an individual take on his position according to his preferences, his strengths and his weaknesses,’ Muller told the Suddeutsche Zeitung

‘And yet you still had a clear task to fulfil. There was no could have, would have, should have. If you didn’t do what you were supposed to do, someone else would come in and fill the position.’

Flick, like Guardiola, understood that you have to give space to a player once christened the ‘space interpreter’. 

He welcomed the chaos, because he knew the control that lay beneath it. And Muller has repaid his trust in spades.

When Kovac left, there were some who wondered whether Muller had become too powerful, having almost single-handedly toppled a second coach in the space of four years. In the weeks and months since, he has proved again why his influence is so great.

A career that was spinning away from him is now back under control. The local hero is once again the beating heart of Bayern, and the longer he keeps playing like this, the harder it will be for Joachim Low not to reach for a hefty slice of humble pie.

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