Predator Mueller in search of precision
Loew needs to solve the Bayern star's positional problems for Die Mannschaft to click into gear
REPORTING FROM LILLE
ROUND OF 16
GERMANY v SLOVAKIA
(Tonight, 11.50pm, Singtel TV Ch 142 & StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven EURO)
Thomas Mueller would loathe the comparison, but he's beginning to look like Wayne Rooney.
Not the current incarnation of Rooney, the deep-lying, string-pulling, defence splitting skipper that Roy Hodgson claims to see in training every morning.
But the old Rooney, the club and national legend blessed with talent, pedigree and a dazzling resume and yet, somehow, in need of a permanent home.
As Germany prepare for their Round-of-16 clash against Slovakia in Lille tonight, they have a proven predator in search of a position.
After three group games without a goal, Mueller is caught between a rock and a hard place, or in this instance, a surprisingly ponderous midfield and a lumbering attack.
Joachim Loew has essentially borrowed his formation from the World Cup, but the execution seems different, slower and more laboured.
The fluid, passing style that characterised their flamboyant brilliance through the knockout stages in Brazil is strangely absent at Euro 2016.
Loew's nimble midfielders - Mesut Oezil, Mario Goetze and Julian Draxler - still buzz around the centre circle's honeypot, but Mueller's lack of involvement has the look of a distant cousin at a family wedding.
He's part of the group, but not quite; his presence warranted if not entirely justified. It's certainly not for the want of trying.
Only the heroic efforts of Michael McGovern, the Northern Irish goalkeeper who put in one of those life-changing performances that captivate international tournaments, denied Mueller a goal in the final group game.
But his positioning, rather like his shooting accuracy, is slightly off.
Five goals in each of the last two World Cups, along with 32 in all competitions last season, practically grant Mueller immunity from German prosecution.
But his countrymen and women are mildly apprehensive ahead of the knockout stages (as they usually are before Die Mannschaft invariably obliterate all before them on the way to the final).
Mueller remains the odd man out.
Initially, Goetze appeared to be out of sync with those around him, clearly unsuited to the demands of a No. 9.
His slight physical attributes and subtle footwork are better served with Goetze facing the goal.
But Loew displayed his customary reluctance to make a major tactical decision until his team had played a couple of tournament games and finally promoted Mario Gomez.
The move paid off, for Gomez. The Besiktas frontman scored the winner against Northern Ireland, but also betrayed his comparative limitations as a footballer surrounded by fleet-footed dynamos.
Gomez lacks Goetze's light touch and Mueller's heavy industry, not to mention the latter's assists.
Of all his impressive stats, Mueller's 12 assists at Bayern Munich last season are of equal importance to Loew.
Germany's wily manager resists the obvious temptation to pander to the clamouring masses and throw Mueller up front. He wants those assists.
With only three German goals in three games, he needs them.
Mueller offers more than both Goetze and Gomez combined, but his incisive running, cutting inside from the right to such devastating effect has so far been nullified by smart defending.
The Irish practically tag-teamed the Bayern forward, taking turns to push him further to the periphery and out of harm's way.
Still, the problem isn't really Mueller's marginal influence, but the inability of others to come to the fore.
At the World Cup, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Oezil, Mueller and the now-retired Philipp Lahm appeared to take turns in dominating contests, as if passing the Man-of-the-Match from one standout performer to another.
Khedira and Jerome Boateng both took exception to Michael Ballack's recent criticism that the current crop is short on leaders.
Khedira likened Ballack's remarks to a "comedy", but a "documentary" might have been a fairer interpretation.
Germany trudged around rather aimlessly against both Poland and Northern Ireland, with the performances lacking both direction and leadership.
With neither Kroos nor Khedira establishing a stranglehold in midfield, Mueller was only further isolated out on the right flank.
If he stays out wide against Slovakia, he risks being marginalised by a defensive Slovakia.
If he heads up front, Germany are deprived of his pass and assist qualities and, if he drops into the hole, Loew is left with a less mobile No. 9.
Mueller's position against Slovakia, and its subsequent success or failure, could define Germany's tournament.
Of course, Loew has been here before. Before the World Cup quarter-final, he pulled Lahm out of midfield, dropped him in at right back and suddenly everything clicked.
Now he needs to settle the Mueller conundrum to reconnect Germany's fluid forward line and turn on the goal supply.
For the Germans to finally fire, Mueller must come in from the cold.
i’m not worried about Thomas Mueller not scoring... He was close (against Northern ireland) and i’m sure he’ll score in the next match.
- Germany coach Joachim Loew on Thomas Mueller.