The striker question has long haunted Germany, but after Niclas Füllkrug's goal at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, an answer appears to have been delivered. But what does it mean for Thomas Müller?
After his first World Cup goal on Sunday — one that was not only pretty to look at, but also vital for Germany's hopes — you'd think Niclas Füllkrug would be unable to contain his excitement. Instead, the Werder Bremen striker remains as cool as Bundesliga fans know him to be, undeterred by the headlines or his heroics.
"I'm not really big on goal celebrations, because, as you saw with the Japan game, sometimes you end up empty-handed," Füllkrug said matter-of-factly. Indeed, both after the Spain game and two days later, the 29-year-old remains the picture of a down-to-earth character who feels he has done nothing more than his job.
"We aren't through to the next round so there's not much reason to be jumping around for joy," Füllkrug said of his goal. "As a striker, I often find myself in situations where I can be the hero, but there are also situations where a defender or Manu [Germany captain Manuel Neuer] do well and are not portrayed as heroes."
Füllkrug's disregard to molding an image or completing narratives is refreshing. Another goal or two against Costa Rica on Thursday, though, and the man nicknamed Lücke ("gap" — on account of the gap in his teeth) will be Germany's World Cup hero whether he likes it or not.
It would be a surprise for the No. 9 to start, but if he does, the repercussions for Thomas Müller are intriguing.
At 33, there is a case to be made that this is Müller's final tournament for Germany. Indeed, the Bayern man admitted that after the loss to Japan on November 23, that thought did cross his mind. Now, though, he is as curious as everyone else about what Germany's attack will look like in their final group stage game in Qatar.
"He [Füllkrug] definitely has the No. 9 on his back, and he smashed the ball in against Spain," a laughing Müller said when asked who would start in attack. "Niclas certainly showed in the last three games he knows where the goal is."
Füllkrug, on the other hand, is already tired of the whole conversation.
"That's a silly question. Shall we move on?" the Bremen striker asked.
"If we didn't have as many talented attacking players in the squad, Lücke [Füllkrug] up top and me just behind would certainly be a possibility," Müller added.
Germany coach Hansi Flick does have a lot of choices — but with Kai Havertz seemingly out of form and favor and Serge Gnabry a disappointment so far, the Füllkrug-Müller option certainly looks Flick's best choice.
With Müller himself out of form up top, the presence of a true No. 9 in Füllkrug makes Germany's attack more dangerous, particularly if Müller is to play deeper in a role that allows for him to better manipulate space. Indeed, the Bayern Munich man said as much himself.
"It will be important to be in the right position in order to cut off counterattacks should we lose the ball after taking risks," he said.
"That doesn't mean four people on the halfway line defending one striker, but that the first passing option is closed off. When that works well at Bayern, you can't get out. You can't always get what you want in football, but that will be our approach. We have to make a lot of short runs, position ourselves well and make lots of deep runs that sometimes lead to nothing but that take the opposition out of their position," he added.
Müller is perhaps the perfect candidate for this approach, but to do so in combination with a true No. 9 is intriguing and exciting for Germany. Although they find themselves in the same spot — an opening day loss followed by a draw — Germany go into the final game with a player they didn't have last time. Lücke has filled the gap.
"Against Costa Rica, we will spend a lot of time in the opposition half. That means we also need box presence," Müller said.
Füllkrug provided that during World Cup training in Oman, and then again in 20 minutes against Spain on Sunday. For the man who had no idol but as a kid watched Miroslav Klose, the No. 9 shirt is already his.
Now he just has to make sure he gets to wear it for longer than one more game.
Niclas Füllkrug the solution to Germany's striker problem?