One of the most featured images in German sports media over the past year shows Jude Bellingham sitting alongside Jamal Musiala, both 17 at the time and wearing England shirts. The photo shines a light on the friendship between two talented players who once played against each other on table tennis tables and video game consoles, and who have now become dominant in the German Bundesliga. While Bellingham already made his first statement for England on Monday, his good friend is determined to do the same on Wednesday when Germany take on Japan in Group E of the World Cup.
“I think we have a very good team that we can go very far with,” Musiala told ESPN. “The quality is there to be a title contender. We go to this tournament with the mindset that we can win the cup. You have to believe in it. I do.”
The 19-year-old traveled to Qatar with huge ambitions and the outcome of Germany’s World Cup title chase depends on Musiala more than some people think. During the first half of the season, he was Bayern Munich’s standout player, where head coach Julian Nagelsmann started building the whole system around Musiala as a No.10.
German head coach Hansi Flick, who mentored the promising talent during his time at Bayern Munich and wanted him to choose Germany over England (where Musiala played for Chelsea academy from 2011-2019 ) also identified his former pupil as the centerpiece of his attacking structure, with Musiala providing an element of unpredictability due to his dribbling skills.
“Musiala is a prime example of what we like to call a ‘needle player’ – a player who carries the ball through small spaces and tight spaces between multiple opponents. His technique, but above all his agility and quick decision-making , allow him to do this like few others,” says tactical analyst and trainer Martin Rafelt.
Musiala could very well be the most gifted pocket footballer in the world alongside Barcelona and Spain midfielder Pedri. The clash between the two heavyweights on Sunday could be epic. But while Pedri is widely admired in Spain, Musiala is still underrated in some fan circles at home. A journalist recently noted that German football has been mostly about counter-pressing and intensity over the past decade and a skinny, light-footed teenager contradicts a belief system.
“A style of play like Musiala’s is often seen as too risky, but it’s extremely useful to break through tight defences, especially to do it quickly and frequently without needing to be extremely patient,” Rafelt explains. For decades, the style of German football has revolved around passing. The World Cup-winning teams of 1974, 1990 and 2014 all relied heavily on accurate and clever passing, while dribbling was far less important. Musiala embodies a more challenging style in that he deliberately moves into heavily covered areas and takes on one or even two opponents.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (US)
“I think I play more offensively than last season when I was often used as a number 6 and I had to learn that first,” Musiala said. “Now I’ve found a position that I really feel comfortable in. I also like my pace and I take it from game to game.”
What helps Musiala apart from his pure football skills is how he handles mental pressure. The close relationship with his mother, who raised him and his younger sister alone, and the fact that he shows almost no interest in luxury help him focus on his game.
“In my time as a journalist, I’ve met few players so down to earth, which I think isn’t just because he hasn’t been in this millionaire game for a long time. , but also because of his character and his state of mind”, explains Munich journalist Kerry Hau, who has followed Musiala since his arrival at Bayern in 2019. Hau also attributes Musiala’s humility in part to his upbringing in England where the academies can be a bit difficult for young hopefuls “He was a guy who had nothing good going for him and had to work hard for everything.”
Being determined and motivated in his profession allows him to understand the game more quickly and approach it with more maturity than most 19-year-olds, even at the highest level. “I always try to work on myself,” says Musiala. “For example, my score in front of goal was already good. Nevertheless, I worked hard to be as efficient as possible, mainly with [Bayern’s] assistant coach Dino Toppmoller after practice. Now I am even more often in positions from which I can shoot. We train exactly the situations that I also receive during the game. The kind of goals I score now, I’ve already done in training.”
Musiala’s ability to not only create goalscoring opportunities for others through his dribbling, but also his urgency to score himself can be crucial for Germany during the World Cup as the four-time champions have no high-level striker in their team.
“He’s been past prospect status since the summer, which you can see by the way he interacts with reporters,” Hau said. “He’s a lot more relaxed and not as shy anymore. He’s a man now who has no problem keeping up physically and with the demands of playing in the starting lineup every three days.”
Perhaps some find it worrying that Flick has to rely on a 19-year-old who is currently in his second full season at senior level, but Musiala is undoubtedly a generational talent of unrivaled quality. “He shares a style of play with Mario Gotze and to a lesser extent with Kai Havertz, Leroy Sane and Julian Brandt, but he is able to do so with more drive towards goal than Gotze and needs even less space than the other three,” says Rafel.
Mario Gotze was Germany’s golden boy a decade ago and fell out of favor in the years after his World Cup-winning goal in 2014. Thanks to a resurgence in the Bundesliga after a move to the Eintracht Frankfurt this summer, Flick gave Gotze another chance by selecting him for the World Cup squad. The on-field similarities between Gotze and Musiala are an advantage for both in that Gotze can serve as a back-up for the starting playmaker, while Musiala can benefit from Gotze’s experience.
A mentor figure for Musiala is Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan, who was quoted telling Musiala during games that he would protect the areas behind him because Gundogan wants his young team-mate to thrive. Veterans who took part in the 2018 World Cup campaign that ended in group stage elimination know that Musiala brings something no one else can.
His unpredictability is just what Germany may need, especially in games where long periods of possession lead nowhere. It’s surely a big task for a 19-year-old to become a potential difference-maker for a nation like Germany, but Musiala has the tools to tackle it.