After playing just 67 minutes in the last five Bundesliga games, Thomas Müller is not happy, with some reports even linking him with a move away from Bayern. The situation on Säbener Strasse remains delicate.
"Müller spielt immer," former Bayern Munich coach Louis Van Gaal famously stated in 2010: "Müller always plays."
Niko Kovac evidently sees things differently. Thomas Müller has made 495 appearances for Bayern Munich since making his senior debut in 2008 but, under the current coach, the last five of those have been from the bench.
"When we're short of options, he'll certainly get his chance," said Kovac ahead of Müller's latest substitute appearance against Hoffenheim on Saturday. It was an intriguing remark to make about a player of Müller's experience and standing; one usually made about young, up-and-coming talents, not World Cup Golden Boot winners.
Müller has only made four competitive starts this season and only once has he lasted the full 90 minutes — against fourth-division Energie Cottbus in the cup. New arrival Philippe Coutinho is preferred in the number ten role, yet it was Müller who set up Robert Lewandowski's equalizer against Hoffenheim after replacing Kingsley Coman after an hour.
When confronted with Kovac's comment by journalists post-match, Müller abandoned his usual Bavarian dialect and switched abruptly to English: "Nothing to say," he said, and then he was gone.
Kovac and Coutinho
Now, a more permanent departure could be on the horizon, with tabloid Sportbild reporting that Müller, who has also been considered surplus to requirements by Germany coach Joachim Löw, is set to hold talks with Bayern during the international break.
Were Müller to leave, it would mark a departure from the usual balance of power in Munich. Müller, Bavarian born and bred, embodies Bayern like no other, but his jokes and laid-back demeanor shouldn't be misunderstood; coaches who cross Müller don't tend to last long, as Carlo Ancelotti can testify.
"Clearly, my qualities aren't one hundred per cent needed," said Müller in August 2017 after being left out of the starting lineup. One month later, the Italian coach was gone.
Müller doesn't enjoy the smoothest relationship with Kovac either — and he's not alone. Despite the gala performance against Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League, in which Müller did not feature, doubts over the Croatian's tactical proficiency remain, particularly among the more experienced players in the dressing room.
Kovac's preference for Coutinho over Müller could conceivably be seen as an attempt to bolster his own authority by sidelining an influential voice in favor of another newcomer. He certainly seems to have Coutinho's support.
"He is a top coach and a great guy who likes to work hard," said the Brazilian, who was anonymous against Hoffenheim. "He's open and honest with everyone and we get on well. I'm happy to be working under him."
Despite his demotion, Müller remains as productive as ever. He has set up 14, 16 and 12 goals in the last three seasons respectively and no other Bayern player has registered more assists than Müller this season (four already), although he has never come close to matching his own record 20 goals from the 2015-16 season.
Throughout his career, Müller has played all across the attack, usually as a number ten but also from either wing or as an auxiliary number nine. The self-christened "Raumdeuter" or "space interpreter" is hard to pin down; a big enough challenge for even the most accomplished of tacticians, let alone a relatively inexperienced coach such as Kovac, who is yet to fully shake off the conservative mindset which characterized his football at Eintracht Frankfurt.
Joshua Kimmich, quickly developing into another Bayern talisman, has been particularly outspoken, criticizing Kovac for his late substitutions during the 2-2 opening-day draw with Hertha Berlin and lamenting after the 3-2 win over minnows Paderborn recently that Bayern are still "not living up to [their] own expectations" and "not winning games in the manner in which [they] would like to be winning them."
That, of course, was before Bayern's best performance of the season against Tottenham but also before one of their worst against Hoffenheim. The reality is that Bayern are currently somewhere in between the two, with issues which still need ironing out, including Müller's role and future.
"There has been a trend in the last five games which hasn't made me happy," Müller told kicker magazine in an interview to be published in full on Thursday. "If the coaches only see me as a substitute in future, then I have to start having a think. I'm too ambitious for that.
"I've only just turned 30, I'm top fit and I'm hungry for success, both with Bayern and also personally. I'm absolutely convinced that I can help the team with my abilities."
Bayern make the short trip to Augsburg after the international break looking to return to winning ways and, with Coutinho undergoing a long trip to Singapore with the Brazilian national team, Müller will be hoping to get his chance. But under Kovac, it's no longer the case that "Müller always plays."