Rising Ballers: Can Jamal Musiala win a Ballon d’Or?

Thomas Müller will be remembered as one of the most confusingly great players of all time. 

He can’t finish like Cristiano Ronaldo, he can’t dribble like Lionel Messi and he can’t pass like Toni Kroos. Yet, he’s one of the most successful players of his generation. 

Müller has earned his living on timing and spatial awareness. He’s never been the most technical or fastest player on the pitch, but he always makes the right decision — it’s the reason he has 141 goals and 157 assists in his Bundesliga career. And at 33 years old, his retirement looms. 

But Bayern Munich fans have no need to worry. They already have their heir to Thomas Müller. His name is Jamal Musiala. 

In the 88th minute of a 3-1 win over SC Freiburg in the 2019-20 season, Musiala trotted onto the pitch to make his Bayern debut, and at the time becoming the club’s youngest-ever player at 17 years and 115 days old.

While Musiala did not make any further appearances that year, he quickly became a key player in the squad in 2020-21. He appeared 26 times in that campaign, including 7 starts and 7 goal contributions. His role grew even further last year, as he played over 1,000 minutes for the first time and tallied 10 goals and assists combined.

Now, in 2022-23, Musiala has become a bona fide star — the kind of star who has his own GQ 10 Essentials video. He starts week-in, week-out for Bayern and appears regularly for the German national team, starting all three 2022 World Cup matches. The young star doesn’t turn 20 for another four days and Bayern Munich can’t afford to drop him. 

Musiala lacks any glaring weakness and he affects the game from every area of the pitch. He can progress the ball through midfield, into the final third and also use his end-product to contribute goals and assists. Not only does Musiala possess the full attacking toolkit, he is a willing presser and defender as well.

According to FBref, Musiala averages 1.6 tackles per game, 1.17 blocks and exactly 1 interception. While those numbers sound small, for a player who spends most of his time as a winger or attacking midfielder, he ranks quite highly among his positional peers in Europe. His interceptions average is in the 96th percentile for comparable attackers. The mere fact that he blocks about a shot per match shows how committed he is to defense.

In attack, Musiala’s ball control elevates him among most other young attackers. The ball simply sticks to his feet. When the young German collects the ball in a crowded field, Musiala can slalom with confidence around defenders to create space for himself. His skill shows up in the numbers, too, with 2.49 successful take-ons per match — meaning he dribbles past more than two players most games.

The way Musiala can contort his long body makes him an especially dangerous dribbler. At a full 6 feet, Musiala is on the tall side for a skillful attacker. For comparison’s sake, Kylian Mbappé is 5-foot-10. When Musiala stretches his legs while dribbling, most players that tall would find it hard to retain possession, but Musiala does so with ease, allowing him to feint defenders dramatically and pull off audacious moves. 

This season, Musiala has added goals and assists to his game at a blistering rate. In 20 Bundesliga appearances (17 starts), Musiala has 10 goals and 7 assists. More importantly, his underlying numbers suggest it’s sustainable. He posts 0.62 non-penalty expected goals and expected assists per number, meaning he takes shots and makes passes into positions where the player has a high probability of scoring. His decision-making has a maturity that belies his age.

If Musiala manages to stay healthy and in-form for the foreseeable future, he could surpass Müller in all-time totals in a Bayern uniform with ease. Except, therein lies an issue.

Is staying at Bayern the best thing for Musiala? That sounds like a ridiculous question. Bayern has won 10 straight Bundesliga titles and will probably win their 11th this season. They’re one of just a handful of teams that competes semi-regularly for the Champions League, having won the tournament twice in the last 10 years. They always have an excellent squad and a high-caliber manager. 

Yet, to reach the pinnacle of the game — the apex at which players win both trophies and individual awards — he probably has to leave the Bundesliga. A player in the German league hasn’t won a Ballon d’Or since Borussia Dortmund’s Matthias Sammer in 1996. Bayern’s dominance has diminished the league in the public’s eyes; most fans don’t associate the Bundesliga with the world’s absolute best players. If he were to transfer to Real Madrid or Manchester City, Musiala would better position himself to eventually claim the title of world’s best player. 

Musiala has the talent to win multiple Ballon d’Or trophies. Whether or not he does may depend on him leaving the Bundesliga.

Jack Hallinan is a sophomore writing about the top wonderkids in mens and womens soccer in his column “Rising Ballers,” which runs every other Wednesday.