2007 was a landmark year in Toni Kroos’ life.
The youngster had just set the FIFA U17 World Cup alight with some sparkling performances that had earned him both the Golden Ball and the Bronze Boot.
He was the fulcrum of the Germany side that finished third and had just started to make waves in the international youth arena with their performances; a harbinger of what was to come in the near future.
In the club scene, the youngster from Rostock was promoted to the Bayern senior squad by the legendary Ottmar Hitzfeld who saw in him ‘a future international.’ His national coach Heiko Herrilich labeled him ‘an unbelievable talent’ and Uli Hoeness, never one to mince his words said that Bayern were keeping the number ten shirt free for him.
Even Miroslav Klose, a man usually shy of words called him a ‘footballer with great instinct.’
Klose had little choice. On his debut for Bayern, Kroos laid on two goals for the forward in a 5-0 drubbing of Cottbus. A few weeks later, he provided an assist and scored a last-minute long range free-kick to give Bayern, what then looked an unlikely win at Red Star Belgrade.
The writing was on the wall.
In a country still searching for it’s heir to Michael Ballack, Toni Kroos was a prince in waiting.
But then suddenly the hype train ground to a screeching halt.
Kroos’ performances started to lack in bite and there were whispers of a lax attitude in training. At Bayern the motto is very much ‘shape up or ship out’ and many wondered if the pressure of playing for the biggest club in the land was starting to get to Kroos. Some even went as far as comparing him to the tragic Sebastian Deisler, who had suffered a mental breakdown while at Bayern.
Amidst it all, Bayern decided that a change of scenery would do him good. With Kroos struggling to get game time in a team with Franck Ribery and Luca Toni, a swift loan move was arranged and Bayer Leverkusen was glad to have the youngster on board.
At Bayer, Rudi Voeller showed a lot of faith in his burgeoning talent and with an 18 month loan arranged, new coach Bruno Labbadia had plenty of time to integrate the talent of Kroos into the side.
Starting mostly on the left hand side of an attacking 4-2-2-2 formation, Kroos was provided a suitable platform for his talents to flourish. He starred as Bayer finished the season as autumn champions, before tapering off, as is their wont, to finish with nothing at season’s end.
Voeller wanted to hold on to Kroos but Bayern and Louis van Gaal explicitly wanted their talent back. Even as Kroos’ stock had risen the last year, Bayern were aware that he was no longer the biggest fish in the talent pond, and they felt this would work to his benefit.
The Gelsenkirchen boy, Mesut Oezil had emerged as a player of prominence and Joachim Loew was building the future
of the Germany side along him. Bastian Schweinsteiger, long regarded as an underachiever was finally starting to come into his own and youngsters like Sami Khedira and Jerome Boateng were stealing the publicity and the limelight away from Kroos.
Van Gaal is renowned for bringing along willing youth players and just last season he propelled Thomas Mueller and Holger Badstuber into stardom and for the former, a leading role in Joachim Loew’s World Cup team.
Kroos though, had been a bystander at best, playing a supporting role and his biggest memory from the World Cup would be the volleyed opportunity he had to put Germany ahead, moments before Spain scored their decisive goal.
The trouble with Kroos at the moment seems to be his undefined role. Not since Michael Ballack’s heyday have there been so much debate about what exactly a single player’s best position is.
Kroos is a throwback to the early 90s, a player whose talent only truly flourishes when a team is built around him. Kroos is a conductor; a foot-on-the-ball play your passes kind of player, who are increasingly becoming a rarity in modern football. Zinedine Zidane was the last exponent of such a position and even he could do it under a suitable tactical framework later in his career. Juan Roman Riquelme is the other classic example of an ‘old-fashioned’ playmaker and superb that he was, Riquelme on his bad days, often looked like a relic from a lost generation.
The fear with Kroos is that he might be condemned to the scrap-heap of players who came to football ‘after their time.’
Van Gaal has played Kroos in four different positions already this season; behind the striker in a 4-4-1-1, on the left and on the right of the third band in a 4-2-3-1 and finally as the more offensive minded central midfielder in the anchoring two in the 4-2-3-1. Each role requires a different set of responsibilities and to his credit Kroos has performed competently in almost all, albeit without setting any pulses racing.
In Germany there is a slight fixation with associating a certain number to a player and expecting him to fit the mould of said number.
There is a six, a defensive midfielder to English readers, an eight, or roughly a central midfielder and a 10, a playmaker by trade. But in the last decade, there have been players who have cut across these role-divisions, making judging them entirely more difficult.
Michael Ballack is the most appropriate example, with his role best defined as a fusion of a 6, an 8 and a 10; i.e, he was often asked to defend, distribute and create for his sides, a role he fulfilled competently amidst much debate for the best part of a decade. Even the darling of the German public, Mesut Oezil does not fit any of the stereotypes. He is a 10 by definition although not by action. While he is the chief playmaker, Oezil is best described as Riquelme in fast forward. The kind of player who knits together moves but also has the speed, skill and mobility that a modern playmaker requires.
Which is more can be said of Kroos. The youngster’s biggest weakness is his lack of speed and mobility and in modern football lacking these two specific qualities can often make you redundant.
Kroos’ decision making, vision and passing though, is quite exceptional which means he can often run games on the basis of those qualities alone, albeit not from the position of an old-fashioned ten.
Van Gaal has realized this and has started to play Kroos in the central midfield position, while moving Bastian Schweinsteiger ahead of him. According to Van Gaal, it was because Schweinsteiger and Mario Gomez had developed a keen understanding, but the belief is that the wily old fox definitely had other reasons too.
That said, the central midfield position is Kroos’ future. With Germany chock full of talents in the Oezil mode, Kroos will find it hard to break into that group. Ironically though, that could work to his benefit as the central midfielder role in a 4-2-3-1 role offers the best chances for him to express his talents to the fullest.
Here, he can conduct, pass, distribute and to make up for his shortcomings on pace, by having enough time to see and evaluate the game and make his decisions accordingly; because even in modern football speed of though trumps speed of foot.
Of course to be successful in the long-term, he still needs to refine his defensive game and increase his strength but the truth of the matter is that at 20, Kroos is still coming into is own. As long as he is patient, he still has his best footballing years ahead of him.
The only question is whether Germany can wait that long.
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