Thomas Muller has always been special. Having first taken to the pitch as a four-year-old for local Bavarian side TSV Pahl, Muller has flourished. Signed by Bayern Munich at 10, he impressed through the age groups and made his Bundesliga and Champions League debuts while still a teenager. Born less than an hour away, Muller quickly became a fan favourite, helping Bayern to six league titles, a hoard of cup trophies and a Champions League triumph.
For many fans, Muller is Bayern Munich. He represents everything they admire about the club. Off the pitch, he is charming and funny, and on the pitch, driven and focused. No other player can find space in attacking positions the way Muller does, with the term raumdeuter (space interpreter) coined for his positional ability. Bayern supporters see him as a one-of-a-kind player and more importantly a one-of-their-kind player.
He was handed the captain's armband for this season's curtain-raiser as Bayern beat Borussia Dortmund on penalties in the DFL Supercup. But despite that, he has played just one full game this season, a routine win over 3.Liga minnows Chemnitzer. Carlo Ancelotti benched him for the second game of the Bundesliga season, surprising supporters and even causing the usually laid-back Muller to express his shock and disappointment: "I don't know exactly what qualities the coach wants to see. Apparently mine are not 100 per cent in demand."
The 27-year-old may find solace with his international team-mates as Germany look to secure their place at the 2018 World Cup. Joachim Low's side face Czech Republic and Norway, having won all six of their qualifiers so far. Muller is their top scorer in the campaign with five goals for Die Mannschaft, and is one of the first names on the teamsheet. Unlike his club boss, Muller's international manager has no concerns over the 85-time Germany international.
"He is an incredibly positive factor in our team, a leading player. I know what Thomas Muller always provides for us," Low told reporters. "He is essentially confident in his abilities, just as we actually are, too. So this one time he didn't play from the start [for Bayern], fine, but with us he has always put in solid performances, always scored lots of goals."
Before the current Bundesliga season kicked off, there was already pressure on Bayern boss Ancelotti. The former AC Milan and Real Madrid manager is expected to easily win the domestic title, but the club's earliest Champions League exit in six years and poor pre-season performances saw former Bayern Munich players Stefan Effenberg and Dietmar Hamann come out and criticise him.
Ancelotti is defiant, saying that the words of Effenberg and Hamann have no effect on how he approaches his day-to-day management at the Allianz Arena: "There are a lot of critics, but as I said, no pressure for me.
"Everyone can have his opinion in football. I cannot say to Effenberg or Hamann 'you are wrong', because in football there is no truth – everyone can have his opinion. In football there is no one thing good, another thing wrong. You have to respect the opinion.
"For sure, I'm not under pressure from these critics, because they are critics, but from the other side there are the opinions of the people who are with you. It's a balance."
Another strong performance from Muller for Germany could further sway the opinions of people who should be on Ancelotti's side. No player is bigger than the team, but Oliver Bierhoff is acutely aware of Muller's importance to Bayern Munich.
"I hope that Bayern is aware of the fact that he is a figure people identify with the club," the European Championship winner told Bild. "I wish that they would say as a club, “He has to play.” People come to the stadium for him, he has unbelievable qualities. And precisely as a striker you need some support."
Muller's uniqueness as a footballer was once described by coach Hermann Gerland to SZ as the type of player who is "completely s*** for 90 minutes, but then scores that one goal." It makes him difficult to fit into a particular system, and with Bayern Munich having signed James Rodriguez, Corentin Tolisso and Sebastian Rudy to compete in an already crowded midfield, there seems to be even less space to fit him in.
However, if Ancelotti does not become a managerial raumdeuter, and find somewhere for Muller in the starting XI, his space in the Munich dugout could easily be taken by someone else.