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Jamal Musiala, das englische Wunderkind
A look at Bayern’s very exciting youngster.
Bayern Munich are, I think we can all agree, a pretty good football team. They won the Champions League and all, so it seems to be going fairly well in Bavaria.
The biggest reason for their strength over the past decade has been squad depth. There have been times when other sides have put out a stronger starting eleven, but at almost no point since 2012/13 have any club had a stronger squad than the Bundesliga champions. There are always options across the pitch. In central midfield, Thiago Alcantara’s sale meant that Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka became fixed as the first choice pair. Corentin Tolisso has suffered horrible injury problems but he’s still around as a solid contributor, while they added further depth in the summer with Marc Roca. They always have options there.
Which is why you don’t expect to see a 17 year old starting games in central midfield for Bayern. You definitely don’t expect him to then score three goals in 320 Bundesliga minutes, including a screamer against farmers’ league minnows RB Leipzig. Born in Germany to a German mother and Nigerian father, but raised predominantly in England, Jamal Musiala really has the world at his feet.
These things can change pretty quickly, especially with his rapid rise to prominence, but it currently looks like he’s going to play for England at international level. David Ornstein and Raphael Honigstein reported that the Football Association are “understood to be increasingly confident that he will opt for England”, owing at least in part to being “far more proactive and strategic than the DFB [German FA] in its approach, which has gone down well with Musiala and his family.
“It is thought Musiala has decided there will be no further switches between national teams at age-group level, though beyond that nothing is final.
“The FA does not expect Germany’s pursuit to end and there is a recognition that playing club football in Munich gives them an opportunity to exert daily influence over the situation, however Bayern manager Hansi Flick has advised Musiala to follow his instinct and ignore any pressure.”
We’ll see what happens, but it seems like it’d be a pretty huge blunder for Germany to let a youngster playing and scoring for Bayern to slip through their fingers. And potentially a pretty exciting emergence for England. But let’s take a look at what he’s actually doing on the football pitch before we christen him the new Gazza.
Musiala’s earlier cameos this season came on the left and right flanks before he really settled into the central midfield role. I suspect the left might actually be his best position right now, even if his long term role is in the middle. He has a great ability to dribble and shield the ball, deceptively so considering he’s still built like a teenager, and he uses that well to find a pocket of space in order to get a shot away. He’s less good on the right. In his brief minutes there he seemed to interpret the role like Aaron Lennon or Jesus Navas, just dribbling to the byline to put a cross in but never getting any quality on the ball. I’m not sure he offers much value there at all.
But it’s in the middle where he seems set to stay. He fits right into the tactical trend of the second half of the 2010s towards central midfielders who can dribble, shield the ball and withstand the press. The days of Xavi or Andrea Pirlo slowly caressing the ball seem to be behind us, with coordinated pressing systems ensuring central midfielders just don’t have the time and space on the ball anymore. You have to be “press-resistant”, and no league values this quality more than the Bundesliga. It makes perfect sense, then, that a modern era German coach such as Flick would play Musiala here.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that he’s running at triple his expected goals (per Football Reference with data provided by StatsBomb), but that’s fine. He’s getting about two and a quarter shots per 90 of a fairly middling quality, which is solid enough for a central midfielder but he’s not going to be more than an occasional scorer right now. He’s yet to create a single chance, but his 11 shot creating-actions so far are pretty solid. He’s involved.
His passing range so far has been both impressive and frustrating. When he picks his head up, he’s clearly able to pick people out and ping it from side to side, but too often his selection has been poor because he hasn’t been looking around. This isn’t at all unusual for even a really promising 17 year old, but his dribbling style can be quite “head down”. This has led to him at times making some fairly erratic decisions, at times going all the way back to the goalkeeper just because he can’t see what’s in front of him, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed. His 4.72 “progressive” passes per 90 is pretty solid without being outstanding, and enough to show he’s a net contributor in possession.
But it’s that dribbling that really stands out. He can still gain a little bit in terms of withstanding players trying to win the ball from him, but that should obviously come as he physically fills out. In a very small sample size he’s completing 3.33 dribbles per 90, which is a ton for a midfielder. He’s moving it forward pretty well, too. His 190.6 yards progressed forward from carries per 90 puts him ahead of all Bayern central midfielders bar Kimmich, the ball progression monster. He really does move it forward well at a good clip.
To make the obvious comparison, I don’t think he’s as good as Borussia Dortmund’s 17 year old English midfielder Jude Bellingham. The former Birmingham City man makes you wonder how on Earth he’s only 17, whereas Musiala feels merely like a very talented kid who just got his provisional driving licence. That isn’t to say the tools he has aren’t outstanding, because they are. He’s just going to need a little more guidance before he’s someone you’d really trust to regularly start games.
He’s in the perfect environment for it of course. Bayern obviously have a level of competition that makes it harder to break in, but he can also lean on an awful lot of experience and outstanding professionals to learn from every day. And on a coaching level, he’s made the move from England back to Germany at the right time. His development up until the age of 16 came at Chelsea’s academy, with some of the best facilities and youth development programmes in the world. “Chelsea is definitely the best academy to be at when you’re that age”, claimed Tom Carlton, youth teammate of Mason Mount and Declan Rice who didn’t quite make it. “You get everything you want”.
But once you get past that level, English football isn’t exactly the best place to start your first team career. Pathways are, as we know, not plentiful in the Premier League, but even if you get one, there are some frustrating tendencies. Musiala is a midfielder of a similar mould to many English players we’ve seen, such as Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the rest. These players all have pretty defined skillsets, but the common thing seems to be to just move them around into different positions over and over again. It’s happening now with Mason Mount. In Germany, Musiala is much more likely to be taught a clearly defined role in the long term without constantly being moved around. I do think he will benefit from this significantly.
This is what makes him interesting. He’s got the right blend of English and German football, bringing the sort of modern English “concrete born tricky bastards” as Carl Anka puts it, those raw skills and dribbling ability, with a more structured German approach to systems. We’re still talking about someone who needs to learn, but the talent is so obvious that he can really achieve big things.