One of the most circulated pictures in German sports media in the past year shows Jude Bellingham sitting alongside Jamal Musiala, both 17 at the time and wearing England jerseys. The picture spotlights the friendship between two gifted players who once played against each other at ping-pong tables and video game consoles, and have now become dominant in the German Bundesliga. While Bellingham already had his first statement performance for England on Monday, his good friend is determined to do the same on Wednesday when Germany meet Japan in World Cup Group E.
"I think we have a really good team with which we can get really far," Musiala tells ESPN. "The quality is there to be a contender for the title. We go to this tournament with the mindset to be able to win the cup. You have to believe in it. I do."
The 19-year-old has travelled to Qatar with huge ambitions and the outcome of Germany's World Cup title quest depends on Musiala more than some people may realize. During the first half of the season, he was the standout player at Bayern Munich, where head coach Julian Nagelsmann has begun to build the entire system around Musiala as his No. 10.
Germany head coach Hansi Flick, who mentored the up-and-coming talent during his time at Bayern Munich and wanted him to choose Germany over England (where Musiala had played for Chelsea's academy from 2011 to 2019) has also identified his former pupil as the centerpiece of his offensive structure, with Musiala providing an element of unpredictability because of 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 gaps and tight spaces in-between multiple opponents. His technique, but especially his agility and quick decision-making, allow him to do that like not many others," says tactical analyst and coach Martin Rafelt.
Musiala may 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. One reporter recently noted that Germany's football has been predominantly about counter-pressing and intensity in the past decade and that a skinny teenager with light feet contradicts a belief system.
"A playing style like Musiala's is often regarded as too risky, but it's immensely valuable to break down compact defenses, especially to do that quickly and frequently without the need of being extremely patient," Rafelt explains. For decades, Germany's style of football has revolved around passing. The World Cup-winning teams of 1974, 1990 and 2014 all relied heavily on precise and intelligent passes, while dribbles were much less prominent. Musiala embodies a more provocative style in that he purposely moves into heavily covered areas and takes on one or even two opponents.
"I think I play more offensively than last season where I was often used as a No. 6 and had to learn that first," Musiala says. "Now, I have found a position in which I feel really comfortable. I also like my rhythm and take it from game to game."
What helps Musiala apart from his pure footballing skills is how he deals with mental pressure. The close relationship with his mother, who raised him and his younger sister on her own, and the fact that he shows barely any interest in luxuries helps him focus on his game.
"In my time as a reporter, I have met few players who are so down-to-earth, which in my opinion is not only due to the fact that he has not been part of this millionaires' game for long but also because of his character and mindset," says Munich-based journalist Kerry Hau who has been following Musiala since he arrived at Bayern in 2019. Hau also attributes Musiala's humbleness in part to his upbringing in England where academies can be a bit rough for young prospects. "He is a guy who had nothing gifted to him and had to work hard for everything."
Being determined and driven in his profession lets him understand the game quicker and approach it with more maturity than most 19-year-olds even at the highest level. "I always try to work on myself," Musiala explains. "For example, my scoring in front of the goal was already good. Nevertheless, I worked hard on it to be as efficient as possible, mostly with [Bayern's] assistant coach Dino Toppmoller after training. Now, I'm even more often in positions from which I can shoot. We train exactly the situations that I also get during the game. The kind of goals I score now, I've already done in training."
Musiala's ability to not only create goal-scoring opportunities for others through his dribbles but also his urgency to score himself may be crucial for Germany during the World Cup, as the four-time champions do not have a top-class striker in their squad.
"He has outgrown the prospect status since the summer, which you can tell from how he interacts with reporters," Hau says. "He is much more relaxed and not so shy anymore. He is a man now who does not have any issues to keep up physically and with the demands of playing in the starting line-up 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 the senior level, but Musiala is undoubtedly a generational talent with unparalleled qualities. "He shares a playing style with Mario Gotze and to a lesser extent with Kai Havertz, Leroy Sane and Julian Brandt, but he is able to do it with more drive towards the goal than Gotze and needs even less space than the other three," Rafelt says.
Mario Gotze was Germany's golden boy a decade ago who fell from grace in the years after his World Cup-winning goal in 2014. Thanks to a resurgence in the Bundesliga following a move to Eintracht Frankfurt this summer, Flick has given Gotze a new chance by selecting him for the World Cup squad. The on-the-pitch similarities between Gotze and Musiala are an advantage for both in that Gotze can serve as a backup for the starting playmaker, while Musiala may be able to benefit from Gotze's experience.
A mentor-like figure for Musiala is Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan, who has been quoted telling Musiala during games that he would protect the areas behind him because Gundogan wants his young team-mate to thrive. The veterans who were part of the 2018 World Cup campaign which ended in a group stage exit know that Musiala brings something to the table no one else can.
His unpredictability is exactly what Germany may need, particularly in games in which long spells of possession go nowhere. It surely is a heavy task for a 19-year-old to become a potential difference-maker for a nation like Germany, but Musiala has the tools to handle it.