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Jun 16, 2014

Muller makes the difference

Our ESPN expert panel recap Germany's impressive form in a 4-0 victory over 10-man Portugal.

Thomas Muller might just have the most apt Twitter handle imaginable.

"@esmuellert_" literally translates as "it mullers," a pun that echoes a well-known phrase from the reign of Der Bomber. Gerd Muller, the former West Germany and Bayern Munich striker, scored so many goals with so many unusual parts of his body and from so many unusual angles that his name became a verb and he himself an "it" -- a thing that banged in the goals with supernatural inevitability. (Incidentally, that all happened 40 years before "zlataner" was added to the Swedish dictionary.)

Against Portugal, Thomas Muller scored the opening goal of Germany's World Cup campaign in classic "wait for the keeper to move" fashion. The 24-year-old has only been on penalty kick duty at Bayern since the autumn of 2012, when he converted his first spot-kick in a Champions League game in Lille. Bastian Schweinsteiger called his teammate's technique "spectacular," but of course, it isn't. Muller, who scored three goals in Germany's 4-0 win, takes penalties in the same lazy, sloppy way he dresses during games: his socks half-rolled down, a muscle shirt sticking out underneath his kit. Add his 5 euro haircut and legs like beanpoles to the mix, and it's clear that he doesn't really look like a modern footballer at all.

Muller has bemoaned that "muscles don't grow" on him but also credited that deficit for forcing him to be more proficient upstairs. "My legs have helped me," he told Suddeutsche Zeitung. "If you can't just count on your physical attributes, you have to switch on your brain and make certain runs to avoid getting tackled."

GermanyGermany
PortugalPortugal
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Match 13
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After Germany's win Monday, Muller beamed that "every goal was more beautiful than the next" -- but beauty is strictly relative here. Perhaps his two other strikes are better described as Muller-esque, gems with rather unconventional appeal. For the third German goal, he blocked a clearance from Bruno Alves and pounced on the half-volley with his left foot.

The goal that made it 4-0: a classic abstauber (German for close-range goal) executed with his right foot while falling backward. "Muller is a man of small goals," former Germany player and coach Helmut Schon once said. He meant Gerd, not Thomas, but the same could just as easily be claimed about the 24-year-old. He doesn't so much as score goals; he steals them, and with the infallible instincts of a veteran pickpocket. "He is one of those guys with a nose," Joachim Loew said about his hat trick hero after the final whistle in Salvador, Brazil.

Down but not out, Muller reacts after completing his hat trick.

Portugal, it must be said, did their bit to help Muller to his sixth, seventh and eighth World Cup goals. Paulo Bento's team played a curiously high defensive line that left acres of spaces for the three mobile German forward players to run into. Muller, the self-styled raumdeuter (space interpreter), didn't have to resort to his built-in GPS to find secret routes or hidden shortcuts to goal. All that Germany needed were a few decent through balls.

In any case, much of Muller's work was invisible to the millions watching at home. He's one of those forwards who does most of his good work "off camera," whether it's hassling defenders or taking up positions that allow his teammates to find room. "He did a great job up front," Loew said after the game. "He kept on creating openings for others."

Muller's performance will have eased the pressure on manager Joachim Loew.

The 54-year-old manager didn't just enjoy the result, either. Muller's performance also ensured that nobody will criticise Loew for not taking more orthodox strikers to the World Cup or revisit the "false nine" debate. Muller did his job from a deep position but with all the know-how of a classic centre-forward; defining his role in numerical terms is irrelevant.

Muller was also involved in one of the game's key moments -- the expulsion of Portugal defender Pepe. He went down rather theatrically after a stray hand had connected with his chin and then sat around clutching his face as Pepe pushed his head down on his. It wasn't quite a headbutt, but probably warranted a red card for stupidity.

- Curtis: Portugal already on the brink
- Delaney: Three points from Germany's romp

Whether Muller was trying to provoke that overreaction -- the referee had not whistled for the earlier foul and Pepe had no real reason to be so irate -- will be his secret, but it's not unfathomable. Muller is what folks back home would call a hund -- it translates as "dog" in German, but as "sly, clever dog" in Bavarian.

His greatest quality, however, is a simple one: Muller is efficient. That word, often used as a backhanded compliment in the past, had gone out of fashion in the context of this "new" German team. "Efficiency up front is key," general manager Oliver Bierhoff (himself a former striker) had warned ahead of the competition. Germany are not prepared to be gallant, nice-to-look-at losers anymore. Thanks to 2010's winner of the Golden Boot, they should have a decent chance to win the whole thing Muller-style -- with plenty of beautifully non-beautiful goals.

Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian, among other outlets, and is author of Englischer Fussball.