Thomas Mueller acknowledges that, at 30, he’s not as fast or as strong as he once was. But he may be a whole lot smarter.
“After a defeat,” he said, “you’re always more intelligent than before.”
In that case Mueller and his teammates have been doing a lot of learning this season because, with four losses in 15 games, Bayern Munich has lost as many times before the holiday break as it lost in six of the last seven full seasons.
All seven of those previous seasons ended with Bayern Munich atop the German Bundesliga; after a 6-1 rout Saturday of Werder Bremen, the team is fourth. In six of the seven previous seasons, Bayern Munich led the league, by wide margins, in both goals and goal differential. This season they lead in neither.
Mueller blames that on the passage of time.
“In life and especially in sports, it’s always generations,” he said. “Some players change but you have a group and for five years they are top. When maybe one or two key players are gone, something is missing.”
A midfielder, Mueller went through a similar transition with the national team a year ago. Germany entered the World Cup in Russia as the reigning champion and among the favorites to win again. Instead, after turning over more than half its roster, Germany lost to Mexico and South Korea and was eliminated in the group stage for the first time in 80 years.
Now his club team is enduring a similar transition.
Only six of the 11 players Bayern started Saturday also started the team’s 15th game last season. Even the coach is new with Niko Kovac, who managed the team in 2018-19, having been fired last month.
Through all that Mueller and striker Robert Lewandowski, 31, two of five outfield starters older than 30, have remained the team’s most productive players. Mueller leads the league in assists with 10 and Lewandowski has 28 goals in 23 games in all competition.
And while Mueller’s assists total has him on pace to shatter his career high and challenge Kevin de Bruyne’s Bundesliga record, he acknowledges that it’s becoming harder to keep up.
“Every sport, it’s getting quicker, it’s getting stronger. The players when they are 18 they are different than I was when I was 18,” he said.
“Now every team — every good team — has two wingers. They are fast, they can dribble. And the game has changed a little bit. Twenty years ago you played a lot of crosses [to] big strikers with the header. Now you need the speed to find the chances to score.”
But if Lewandowski and Mueller have slowed with age, their experience has more than made up for that. The objective, after all, isn’t to run the fastest. It’s to arrive at the right place at the right time.
“It’s more important how efficient you are, not how many meters you run,” Lewandowski said. “If you are older you get the experience and it’s maybe easier to be there in the right place.”
For Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the club’s chief executive and the third-leading goal-scorer in team history between Lewandowski and Mueller, Bayern’s struggles this season may have less to do with age than with complacency after winning 21 trophies in the last decade.
“It’s not easy if you are winning, winning every year titles,” he said. “They won everything in the past 10 years. They played three times in the Champions League final. They won eight times the Bundesliga. They won the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA Super Cup. So it’s not easy to keep being hungry.”
That doesn’t mean the club’s members, who own 75% of the team’s joint stock, are satisfied with the slow start.
“I’ve been a long time in the club and always when we finished second it was never good,” Rummenigge said. “We got criticized.”
But Mueller and Lewandowksi aren’t so sure complacency or a lack of hunger was ever an issue. The team, after all, is the only one to win all six games in Champions League group play.
“Every day in the morning, when I wake up, I love to compete,” Mueller said. “The titles are only the result of the behavior and of the things you love to do. The most important thing is to be the best. That’s my reason to push in training sessions that are hard or not so fun.
“When you are used to winning you suffer a lot when you’re down.”
Added Lewandowski: “I want to be better. Every day. If I wake up and I say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to the training ground,’ that means I have to finish my career.
“To be on the top is good. To stay on the top is harder.”