Max Kruse’s late but accelerated rise to Bundesliga prominence

With age comes wisdom. For 25-year-old Max Kruse, age brought wisdom in the unorthodox form of repainting his Maserati in camouflage colours during the summer. But unorthodox is an accurate summation of both Kruse’s rise to prominence and subsequently to the German national team in the last few months.

His age stands out when you look down the list of his other attacking colleagues in the latest Germany squad, because he’s older than Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil, André Schürrle, Julian Draxler, Toni Kroos, Mario Götze and Marco Reus. (Sidney Sam is the only attacking member of the squad who is Kruse’s elder and that’s only by 48 days.)

So Kruse is something of a late bloomer in footballing terms, especially given that his international debut only came in June this year. He received that call up from Joachim Löw, to what was more of a Germany “B” squad, after a breakthrough year in the Bundesliga with Freiburg.

Before that, Kruse’s career had failed to ignite. Germany as a whole may be lauded for its attitude towards younger players but as with any stereotype, there are flaws to this one. At Werder Bremen, Max Kruse was not given much of a chance by Thomas Schaaf at Bundesliga level despite scoring 19 goals in 39 appearances for the Werder Bremen Under 19 team.

He played in one Bundesliga game back in September 2007 as a substitute in Werder’s 8-1 win over Arminia Bielefeld – even managing an assist within five minutes of coming onto the pitch. Yet as BILD reported last month, Schaaf was concerned about Kruse’s attitude. While the two didn’t fall out with each other, the now former Werder coach was concerned at the time with the pomp and swagger of Kruse, along with his penchant for fast cars.

He may have made the bench five more times that season but the rest of Kruse’s time on the pitch came in the Regionalliga Nord with Werder’s second team. Nearly a year on from his Bundesliga debut, he fractured his tibia ruling him out for six months. Kruse was finding out then how things can change in such a short space of time, though luckily for him, he’d find that out to better effect a few years later.

He did make a comeback for Werder’s second team later on that season but at the end of the campaign, second tier St Pauli picked him up on a free transfer. At this juncture, Kruse was viewed as more of a midfielder, an adaptable attacking one at that as he moved to either side of midfield or as an attacking midfielder when required.

However, Kruse’s fitness after fracturing his tibia the previous year wasn’t quite there with him only completing two of 17 league starts for St Pauli that season. Overall though he still played 29 games, bagging seven goals and four assists as St Pauli were promoted to the Bundesliga.

Finally, Kruse’s chance to shine properly in the Bundesliga had arrived, right? Well, not quite. He took part in all but one game of the campaign yet his season personally, much like St Pauli’s, all but fizzled out after their historic derby win at Hamburg as the club were relegated.

Two goals and six assists was a decent return but no more than that. He was keen for a move to the Bundesliga but none came, so he signed a new three year deal with St Pauli. On the pitch, the fitness issue still seemed to be niggling away at Kruse. Whilst accepting, of course, that fitness is not the reason behind every substitution, Kruse did finish 21 of the 27 games he started in the Bundesliga that season – a marked improvement on the two in 17 from the previous campaign but Kruse wanted more.

He admitted only last month to the Frankfurter Allgemeine how his professionalism has improved and the summer of 2011 in particular proved this. In the holidays, he spent a week and €2100 to be with personal fitness trainer Pedro Gonzalez in Mallorca, preparing for the season ahead.

As the Hamburger Morgen Post put it at the time, Kruse was motivated like never before. Not only did he start every one of St Pauli’s league games in the season that followed but he also had eight goals and four assists after just 12 matchdays. That goal tally only went up to 13 by the end of the campaign but by then, he had done enough to earn himself another shot at the Bundesliga as Freiburg paid half a million euros for him in May 2012.

He was joining the club at a good time too, given Freiburg’s rise from the foot of the Bundesliga at the start of the year to the relative comforts of mid-table, thanks to the work of new coach Christian Streich. “In Max Kruse we’ve signed a midfielder capable of posing a real threat in front of goal,” said Freiburg’s Sporting Director Dirk Dufner at the time.

Under Christian Streich though, Kruse would evolve from a midfielder into a striker. As in the previous summer, Kruse spent time before pre-season training began with Gonzalez in Mallorca. It again had the desired effect with Kruse being the only outfield player to play in every game of what would be an outstanding Bundesliga campaign for Freiburg but this time around it was the positional change that had the greatest effect on Kruse’s fortunes.

He scored on both his full debut for Freiburg in the DFB-Pokal and his Bundesliga debut for the club in an opening day draw against Mainz. With 11 goals and eight assists, Kruse was the club’s top scorer and one of Freiburg’s star players in their run to fifth spot in the Bundesliga. To call him the star player would do a disservice to the way in which Freiburg have worked under Christian Streich but his all round contribution to the team was superb.

As Kruse himself put it, after many seasons where he’d had a good half of a season, this campaign with Freiburg was the first time he was able to be consistent for a complete season. It wasn’t his greatest goal and assist tally in his career either but accumulating the 11 goals and eight assists at the top-level of German football counted for more – something which was recognised with Kruse being named the Bundesliga’s best new player too. That, along with the fact that he’d been such a crucial part of Freiburg’s run to a Europa League place was enough to convince Borussia Mönchengladbach to pay the buyout fee for Kruse.

It could have been a return to Werder Bremen, had Thomas Schaaf wanted to re-sign him, but he was wary given his past experience of Kruse, so in stepped Gladbach who paid a fee of €2.5 million for his signature. That sum was five times what Freiburg had paid for him but a price that looked a bargain given the way Kruse had played over the course of the season. Before he could join up with the Foals though, he had a dream to fulfil.

The squad that Jogi Löw took to the USA in the summer was not a full strength one but it was nevertheless the chance for Kruse to make his debut for Die Nationalmannschaft and he made quite an impression. In the first game of the tour, he laid on Lukas Podolski’s third against Ecuador and against the United States, he came off the bench at half time to set up Heiko Westermann for Germany’s first of the game before scoring their second. Germany lost the game 4-3 but Kruse had won quite a few admirers on the trip, the most important one being Joachim Löw.

He didn’t receive a call up to the next squad in August but by then, the 25-year-old was already hitting it off with his new club Borussia Mönchengladbach. Having had little success up front with €12 million record signing Luuk De Jong last season, Lucien Favre opted to start the campaign with Kruse alongside another summer signing, Raffael, in attack.

It’s been a pairing that Favre has subsequently played in every Bundesliga game so far this season with Raffael scoring five and setting up four for Gladbach. The star of the partnership though, and indeed of the Foals season so far has been Kruse. After just 12 games this season, his integration into the side has been seamless, scoring seven and setting up six. That puts Kruse high up in both the Bundesliga’s scoring and assist charts.

Only Robert Lewandowski has provided a better accumulative total of goals and assists (14) than Max Kruse so far this season. It’s little wonder that since September, Kruse has made it into every one of Joachim Löw’s Germany squads. Had Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez not been injured, Kruse’s selection may not have been as likely. Still, it should be appreciated given that Kruse is likely to make an appearance for Germany on Tuesday night at Wembley, even if it is from the bench, how far he has come over a relatively short space of time. But, then again, as a man with a camouflage Maserati, Kruse himself no doubt appreciates his own acceleration.

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Archie is a freelance sports reporter and producer with a strong interest in all things Bundesliga. You can follow him @archiert1

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