Jamal Musiala exclusive: Messi comparisons, neuroathletics and how to pick a lock

“Should I be honest?” says Jamal Musiala, with a sheepish laugh. “I’m the best player here.”

The lighthearted question from the press conference room is about the basketball skills of the members of the Germany team, not their main competition. But in both substance and style, the 19-year-old could well have answered a question about his position in the footballing pecking order.

Hansi Flick’s Nationalmannschaft boasts battle-hardened central defenders (Antonio Rudiger, Niklas Sule), midfield masters (Ilkay Gundogan, Johsua Kimmich), tricky forwards (Thomas Muller, Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane, Thomas Muller) and the ethereal Kai Havertz, but not one plays football like Musiala.

“Magic” is the word people use most often to describe Bayern Munich No 10’s game at home because they can hardly believe the way he deflects opponents, envisions passes through defensive lines and conjures up bouquets of beauty in the smallest spaces. .

Lothar Matthaus, the 1990 World Cup winner, recently branded the Stuttgart-born son of a Nigerian father and a German mother “Messi” in his performances. Hyperbole? Yes, of course. However, everyone more or less nodded in agreement because all the other superlatives have already been exhausted.

Only Musiala himself warns of moderation. “It’s an honor to be compared to Messi, but that’s difficult for me,” he says, a bit embarrassed by the suggestion. “He has been performing at the highest level his entire life.”

Jamal Musiala’s ability on the ball has been 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 chose as its base in Qatar, an hour from Doha on the northern tip of the peninsula. Speaking in English rather than German, Musiala is much more comfortable off the podium, but it’s immediately obvious why he’s being called “Bambi” in the Bayern dressing room. There are the lanky legs, but even more, this sense of innocence about him: a prodigy so focused on improving that he hardly realizes how good he already is.

“I’m very critical of my own performances,” he says. the athletic. “That has always been a part of me. Maybe I’m too hard on myself. But I feel like that has kept me humble and wanting to push for more.” Musiala adds that he gets angry when critics praise him, perhaps for scoring a goal (27 for Bayern, one for Germany) or an assist (17 for Bayern, one for Germany), after a game in which he has not played particularly well. Good by your own estimation.

“It gets annoying. Because I know that he could have done better, played better in such and such a situation. But you take both into consideration and then see what you can do in the next game.”

Three good years after joining Bayern from the Chelsea academy as a 16-year-old, a heist sure to one day be turned into a heist movie, with a bearded Oscar Isaac in the role of sports director Hasan Salihamidzic, Musiala has become in one of, if not the Key player for the German series champions, the man they are looking for to open massive defenses with one of his usual dribbles or precise passes.

He can play a deeper role, pulling the strings in midfield, but it would be a big surprise if Flick, who gave him his first-team debut during his successful 18-month spell in Munich, did not trust him with his usual attack. role in this tournament.

Musiala, unsurprisingly, carries the responsibility of being the nation’s designated locksmith lightly. “I try not to think too much about all that stuff, I just try to have fun and be as free as possible, treat it like any other game.”

However, is that possible for the debut game in the World Cup? “Sometimes all the talk about it can make you a little nervous. But I keep the same routine for each game. Once you’re in the field, everything else disappears. You are in the flow again. And everything is easy.”

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

Among them is a specialist in “neuroathletics” who combines brain training with fitness and movement. “It’s just little things that can make a difference, like coordination, making sure your eyes are on the ball correctly, turning quickly, making little pains go away with better balance, etc.,” he explains. “He has helped me a lot in the last two years. There is a big difference in my stance, for example.”

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

Video analysis had shown that he used to crash during sprints, losing acceleration in the process. “I’m not the biggest guy (in terms of muscle), so stability is important to me,” she says.

A growth spurt caused him knee and hip problems a few years ago, but he always had those really long legs and the ability to control the ball better than anyone around him. “People said I’m still lucky, that I always get the ball somehow,” he laughs. “From a very young age, I became more and more comfortable going into one-on-one situations and dribbling past players. Over time, it has become easier. At that point, you have to have that confidence to beat anybody.”

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

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Musiala, by contrast, was encouraged to sign players during his academy days in London, where his family lived for nine years before returning to Germany in 2019. “I was pushed to do it and I was able to make it a big part of my game.” , He says.

He says he doesn’t see “a huge amount of football” beyond looking at his own actions, but homework includes 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, then he will go the other way. The same with Neymar. They have this calm on the ball. It’s like they’re never in a hurry. A lot of players have mastered that, but I feel like I can still improve on that side.”

Experience helps, clearly. “With the number of games you have, situations repeat themselves. You will know what to do before things happen, so that everything flows 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 out here. As the world is about to discover, Musiala’s game needs no embellishments of letters or numbers. He screams loud enough, all by himself.

(Photographs: Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)

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