Sun, 26/02/23, 11:46
Our slalom specialist Jamal Musiala
Being an opponent against Jamal Musiala on the football pitch is an unenvious position. The defender almost always come off worse. Sometimes they end up on the floor, one after the other, because all his tricks and feints cause them to lose their sense of direction and balance. Sometimes they tug desperately at his shirt, hoping to bring him down – in vain. He doesn’t fall, the balls stays at his feet. Or Musiala runs with light, gazelle-like strides towards goal, several defenders panting after him like stardust after a comet. In his most recent mega solo run against Wolfsburg in early February 2023, our number 42 began almost 50 metres from goal, cut inside, left no fewer than seven Wolves in his wake, entered the penalty area with a fluid snaking movement, untouchable, a short step to set himself up, head up, bam, goal!
It can’t be long until a new term enters football language: “He’s been Musiala’d.” A progression from outclassed or duped or disgraced. Rather than being a brutal method, Musialisation is more of an elegant and almost affectionate slap, so fast that the defenders don’t really feel the blow but are left dazed nonetheless. They’ve just been shown their limits for all eternity. “What just happened?” says their shocked look.
How does he do it?
Musiala’s snaking run, this frantic slalom through the opposition lines, begins with receiving the ball. Even the first contact is magnificent and always different. Musiala doesn’t simply receive the ball – he simultaneously initiates the next move. Sometimes he untwists, winding himself around the opponent with a flowing half turn, so quickly that he can’t react. But sometimes he just lets the ball run on, so that the defenders jump into the void. Or he knocks it past them immediately, without stopping the ball. Uncoupling Musiala from the ball becomes a virtually impossible task.
Lots of opponents, no problem
However, that’s only the overture. Because thanks to his brilliant first touch, Musiala is “able to create a new game situation”, as former FC Bayern youth coach Danny Schwarz once said in an interview. He creates space for himself. Either there’s now grass in front of him, which he can move over towards goal with his pace, or he initiates a new move with a penetrating pass. Or, as is very often the case, opponents pounce on him. “He can dribble through several players without any problem. A typical street footballer. He doesn’t say: ‘Now I’ll do two stepovers and pull the ball to the left with the sole.’ He does it intuitively,” says Schwarz. Every trick, every move, every feint of Musiala's seems to be ideally adapted to the movement of the opponents in such a way that they instinctively react wrongly and leave gaps, through which our star player can slip. His snaking run therefore doesn’t follow a set pattern but is always new and unique, which makes it unpredictable. Opponents become extras in an impressive show, made possible by special talent.
Musiala’s talent was apparent from an early age. “He was unbelievably nimble in dribbling, never gave the ball away. It was already a delight to watch him play back then,” said Micha Hoffmann in an interview. Hoffmann was his fist coach at TSV Lehnerz in Fulda, where Musiala began kicking a ball at the age of four. In the U9s he’d sometimes score four or five goals per game, or even 100 goals per season. He was already a difference maker back then. That didn’t change when he joined Southampton at the age of seven after his family moved to England, where he caught the eye of scouts from Chelsea and Arsenal. He soon moved to the Chelsea academy.
Bayern’s record-breaking teenager
There’s a grainy video clip from this period at the U12 Lech Cup in Poznan, Poland, an indoor tournament. Musiala is pressurised by two opponents by the corner flag. The ball sticks to his boot like a magnet. Then two quick feints – a third opponent comes over, but he can’t stop him either. Musiala breaks into the penalty area and sticks the ball in the back of the net. Bish, bash, bosh. We can observe the legacy of this movement in the stadium today. Even as the opponents became heavier, more muscular, more capable and rougher, Musiala did not lose his swing and assertiveness. And so, after his transfer from Chelsea to Bayern at the age of 17 years, he quickly rose to the first-team squad. Already after his first season there, he became an indispensable regular starter. He scored 20 goals in 100 games, more than any other teenager at FCB before him. And he also set a record at the World Cup in Qatar: in Germany’s match against Costa Rica, he had 24 touches of the ball in the opposition penalty area, more than any player in World Cup history. He himself said in an interview with 51: "I always had to deal with bigger and stronger opponents. To assert myself, I had to find other solutions and learn how to use my body in the right way."
That’s why as a seven-year-old, he had already learned tricks from his idols Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Zinedine Zidane. Through years of constant training in these special moves, he created his own. The snake run combines the tricks of his heroes into inimitable and irresistible movements.
Musiala doesn’t do it for show or a spectacular effect. In an interview with the Spanish sports newspaper as, he criticised his own generation, who increasingly gear their behaviour on the pitch towards social media potential. “Quite a few try to force dribbles in order to share them," he said. It’s much more important to know “at what point in the game they’re effective and can help your team to victory”. Although highlight reels of his dribbles are shared millions of times on Instagram and YouTube, he doesn't care: “Sometimes a simple pass can do more.”
An effective art
His snaking runs and game intelligence make Musiala a player who can single-handedly turn or decide games with just one or two compelling actions. Mainly because the opposing defence can hardly stop him from infiltrating the danger zone. If you look at shot maps of his games, you will see that he takes most of his shots inside the penalty area. But not only that: at the end of his snaking runs, there is also often a through-ball or a more precise square ball across the penalty area. Musiala scores goals and makes assists. His dribbling skills are not just art for art’s sake, stepovers for entertainment. No, it is effective and gives Bayern an unpredictability that can soon overwhelm opposing teams. Of course, Musiala's snaking runs are still art. They leave fleeting marks on the stadium turf, which disperse again during their execution. And yet they remain forever in the memory of all who get to witness them – which only happens when you’ve created something unique, incomparable and phenomenally beautiful.