Jamal Musiala exclusive: Messi comparisons, neuro-athletics and how to pick a lock

“Shall I be honest?” says Jamal Musiala with a shy laugh. “I’m the best player here.”

The light-hearted demand from the press conference is about the basketball skills of the DFB players, not their core competence. But in terms of content and style, the 19-year-old could just as easily have answered a question about his position in the football hierarchy.

Hansi Flick’s national team boasts battle-hardened centre-backs (Antonio Rüdiger, Niklas Sule), midfield maestros (Ilkay Gündogan, Johsua Kimmich), tricky strikers (Thomas Müller, Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane, Thomas Müller) and the ethereal Kai Havertz, but no you play Soccer much like Musiala.

‘Magic’ is the word most people use to describe Bayern Munich’s No.10 play at home because they can’t believe how he misguides opponents, dreaming passes that cut through the defensive lines, and conjures up beautiful bouquets of flowers in the smallest of spaces.

Lothar Matthäus, world champion from 1990, recently described the Stuttgart-born son of a Nigerian father and a German mother as “Messi-like” in his performances. Hyperbole? Yes of course. But everyone nodded in agreement, more or less, because all other superlatives have already been used up.

Only Musiala himself urges restraint. “It’s an honor to be compared to Messi, but I find it difficult,” he says, a little embarrassed at the suggestion. “He’s played at the highest level all his life.”


Jamal Musiala’s ball skills were evident in his young career (Photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

A little later we meet in a room overlooking the fortress-like Al Shamal Stadium, which Germany has chosen as its base in Qatar, an hour outside of Doha, at the northernmost tip of the peninsula. Musiala speaks more English than German and is much more comfortable off the podium, but it’s immediately clear why they call him ‘Bambi’ in the Bayern dressing room. There are the lanky legs, but even more so that sense of innocence about him: a child prodigy so focused on getting better that he hardly realizes how good he already is.

“I’m very critical of my own performance,” he says the athlete. “It’s always been a part of me. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. But I feel like it’s kept me humbled and I want to achieve more.” Musiala adds that it annoys him when critics praise him, perhaps for a goal (27 for Bayern, one for Germany) or for an assist (17 for Bayern, one for Germany), after a game in which he didn’t play particularly well by his own estimation.

“That’s annoying. Because I know I could have done better, could have played better in this or that situation. But you take both into account and then just see what you can do in the next game.”

A good three years after moving from Chelsea’s academy to Bayern Munich as a 16-year-old – a bargain that will surely one day be turned into a bootleg film, starring a bearded Oscar Isaac in the role of sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic – Musiala has become one , unless the Key player for the German Serie A champions, the man they are looking for to open up massive defenses with one of his usual dribbles or precise through balls.

He can play a deeper role and pull the strings in midfield, but it would be a huge surprise if Flick, who gave him his first-team debut during his successful 18-month spell at Munich, didn’t entrust him with his usual offensive role at this tournament.

As you might expect, Musiala takes the responsibility of being the nation’s designated locksmith lightly. “I try not to think too much about all these things, I just try to have fun and be as free as possible, treat it like any other game.”

But is that possible for the premiere game at the World Cup? “Sometimes all the talk makes you a little nervous. But I keep the same routine for every game. Once you’re on the court, everything else disappears. You’re back in the flow. And everything comes easily.”

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His usual preparation includes a long afternoon nap for evening games, but more demanding work is also done behind the scenes. As much as Musiala’s individualistic play looks like a throwback to another era, he’s also the consummate modern professional, employing a small army of experts to strengthen his body and mind.

Including a “Neuroathletics” specialist who combines brain training with fitness and exercise. “It’s just the little things that can make the difference, like e.g. “Coordination, making sure your eyes are on the ball properly, quick turns, making minor pains go away with better balance, and so on,” he explains. “That has helped me a lot over the last few years. For example, there is a big difference in my posture.”


Jamal Musiala (right), then at Chelsea, takes on future USA international Yunus Musah, who plays for Arsenal in 2019 (Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Video analyzes had shown that in the past he often slumped during sprints and lost acceleration. “I’m not the biggest (muscle wise) so stability is important to me,” he says.

A growth spurt caused knee and hip problems a few years back, but he’s always had those really long legs and the ability to control the ball better than anyone around him. “People would say I’m always lucky, I’d always get the ball somehow,” he laughs. “From a young age, I always felt more comfortable going into one-on-one situations and dribble past players. It has gotten easier over time. At that point you have to have the confidence to beat anyone.”

That last bit matters. Musiala believes that it is not for lack of raw talent that dribbling has become an almost lost art form in modern football. “There are many players with the quality of playing one-on-one, but something is holding them back. Maybe it’s tactical, maybe their youth coaches told them not to dribble as much when they were younger.”

Most Goals & Assists in Bundesliga 2022-23

player Goals & Assists

Jamal Musiala

fifteen

Randal Kolo Muani

14

Markus Thuram

13

Christopher Nunku

12

Nicholas Vollkrug

12

Musiala, on the other hand, was encouraged to take on players during his academy days in London, where his family lived for nine years before returning to Germany in 2019. “They pushed me into it, and I was able to do a huge part of my game,” he says.

He says he doesn’t watch “an insane amount of football” other than to look back on his own exploits, but part of his homework is studying the old masters. “The way Messi plays with defenders, you never know what he’s going to do next. He will wait for you to make the first move and then go the other way. Same with Neymar. They have that calmness on the ball. It’s like they’re never in a hurry. A lot of players have mastered that, but I feel like there’s still room for improvement on this side.”

Experience helps, of course. “With the amount of games you have, situations start to get repetitive. You’ll know what to do before anything happens, so things flow a little more naturally.”

There’s probably a good word for someone who sees things before they happen, but it seems unnecessary to spell it here. As the world will soon find out, Musiala’s game doesn’t need fancy letters or numbers. It screams loud enough, all by itself.

(Photos: Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)



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