When Thomas Müller eventually hangs up his boots, potentially as the World Cup’s top scorer of all time, he’ll be remembered for many things, not least as having revived a joke about corner yogurts. But while Müller’s name has become a by-word for so many records and plaudits over the last seven or so years, one word will always be synonymous with the German.
Müller was rumoured to be heading out of the Allianz, on loan at least, before Louis van Gaal gave him a shot. King Louis was a man who would later the employ the then-most expensive Premier League player of all time, Ángel Di María at wing-back, so it now doesn’t seem so absurd that Müller, thought to be a centre forward, was shifted out wide by his boss. But the youngster didn’t compromise his game, and began to shine; positional nerds watched on as he went from strength to strength without showing the traditional traits of a winger. An adjective was born for this style of player: “Raumdeuter”.
Let’s start with the basics: Raumdeuter translates roughly as “space investigator”. A term coined by Müller himself, The Ramdeuter’s game revolves around not what you do with the ball, but the decisions you make without it. Often referred to as a poacher on the wing, Müller’s biggest strength is being able to see a run before anyone else; while ball-playing centre-backs and deep-lying midfielders are often considered as the players who read the game better than anyone, a Ramdeuter relies on his intelligence far more than his physical ability, which is obviously unusual for a player deployed out wide. Müller in particular sees his decision-making as instinctive, rather than something that van Gaal helped to instill.
Van Gaal made some strange decisions in his two years at United that included pressing Arsenal with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick, and taking Rashford off at half-time for Ashley Young to assume the lone striker’s spot against Tottenham. But perhaps his interest in playing Anthony Martial on the left wing was less random than some of his other mishaps, and inspired by the raumdeuter play of Müller at Bayern. A wildly different prospect to Müller physically, Martial displayed a German-like composure in front of goal when he first arrived at Old Trafford, and his touch was often enough to create his own space. Premier League defences often struggle with pace, but they struggle with space too.
A better example of a Premier League raumdeuter though is Dele Alli; a player that draws defenders like Müller, has a ferocious streak, but ultimately his biggest talent is being in the right place at the right time. Alli succeeds in the Premier League because he’s clinical with the space that Premier League defences offer him. Like a good box-to-box midfielder, the Spurs man often finds himself in the opposition’s area during the pivotal moment, and though there’s more to his game than just his movement, it’s a big strength of his play. Like Müller, he’s an expert of exploiting space, and defences in this country have struggled containing the runs he makes.
Big frontmen are more and more a thing of the past as in the Premier League especially, as movement terrorises defences. Firmino often operates as a false nine for Liverpool, but such is the fluidity of the front four’s positional play, it often only takes one of them exploiting space to finish off a chance. De Bruyne plays less like an Özil-esque playmaker, and more like a second striker capable of drifting beyond the striker; Özil himself has found the net more this season than last, by making Alli-like runs from number 10 to number 9, to finish off chances that other Arsenal players like Iwobi and Sanchez are stepping up to make instead.
But it’s perhaps with Özil’s team-mate Walcott that the original definition of the raumdeuter role is most evident. Last term, Walcott was a figure of ridicule, capable of only running into full-backs; since the age of 16, he has relied on his trademark electric pace, as he has no other particular outstanding abilities. With his confidence shot, Alex Iwobi ahead of him in the pecking order, the winger spent the summer working on his stamina. Now he presses from the front. He gets back to help his full-back. But most critically, his uses his best attribute – that lightning acceleration – to get into the positions that Alexis Sanchez drops out of. Like Müller himself, Walcott is a footballer accused of lacking a footballing brain; by focusing on what he does off the ball, he’s reinvented his relevancy at the Emirates.
In an age in which surrendering possession is more common than ever, some might say that exactly how to beat a raumdeuter, is to give them the ball: it plays to their weaknesses. It’s harder than it may seem to just close the spaces they exploit, and a raumdeuter, typically, should only need one chance. Perhaps the Premier League is the perfect place for this breed of footballer, and maybe we’ll see more out-of-sorts wingers and midfielders with bags full of stamina, modelling their play on those who rely simply on being in the crucial positions when it matters. In a twisted, unwitting way, maybe Louis van Gaal did introduce a tactical novelty to our shores after all.