July 25, 2017

Max Kruse – The Wabi-Sabi striker

The Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi translates loosely the beauty of the incomplete and imperfect. Max Kruse’s season certainly would serve as a picture of the concept. After a year of pain and horror at VfL Wolfsburg the 29-year-old has been one of the revelations of the Rückrunde. Partly because of Kruse’s good form Werder turned from relegation fodder to Europa League candidate within the space of a couple of months.

One of the themes of Kruse’s career appears to be the fact that he is a bit different than other footballers. At times he has a few pounds too many on his body. His poker playing ways and nightly excursions were a thorn in the eye of the Wolfsburg officials. Furthermore, Kruse never kept his opinions to himself. Being an outspoken character with an attitude towards football being one of the many things enjoyed in life has certainly been a problem for Kruse at times. Besides not fitting in at Wolfsburg, the officials at Gladbach were at times unhappy about his personal life and the way the striker could be a bit flashy with camouflage Maseratis and his notorious gambling. He won’t change, Kruse told German football magazine 11 Freunde last November:

“I won’t be broken down. I want to show that you can be successful footballer without adapting entirely (to the world of football). … I do have a private life besides football. Just like people who are at the office between 8 in the morning and 5 in the evening. Whether I’m playing poker, taking a trip to the sauna or watching television that should be entirely up to me.”

Peace and calm

One might be tempted to think that Kruse regards being a footballer as a bit of a joke. That is not the case according to the striker. His first stay at Werder ended after three years in 2009 and all Kruse had to show for it was one appearance as a substitute. However, after joining St. Pauli things changed according to Kruse:

“There were other things in life that were important to me. I’ve pondered an awfully long time about that. It finally became clear to me after I started playing for St. Pauli that I had to do more if I wanted to reach the place where I wanted to be.”

Two years of hard work in Hamburg earned Kruse a move to Freiburg where he managed to establish himself as a regular in Christian Streich’s side. 11 goals in 34 matches was impressive enough for Borussia Mönchengladbach’s sporting director Max Eberl to take a chance on the Reinbek-born attacker.

What followed were arguably the two best seasons of Kruse’s career. His striking partnership with Raffael was a dream come true for both players it seems. Kruse intuitively knew how Raffael moved and the Brazilian could rely on the fact that he would be found by his partner. The two of them were at times so unpredictable, it made it almost impossible to defend against Borussia Mönchengladbach during the best of times for the Foals. (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that his partnership with Fin Bartels, a similarly shifty, tricky hybrid forward took off in the spring) Kruse credits former Gladbach coach Lucien Favre for advancing his career during his time at the club:

“Favre was an important person for my development. We never drank a cup of coffee together privately just the two of us. But, he respected my character and I respected his.”

However, after Kruse’s move to Wolfsburg and a season with 32 matches and only four goals scored the striker’s career had seemingly reached a dead-end. At that point Kruse had 14 national team appearances and four goals for Jogi Löw’s team to his name, but after year full of scandals and poor performances his name suddenly turned toxic.

When Werder Bremen decided to purchase the player it was considered to be a massive gamble for the Green and Whites. However, the critics of the move have been silenced by Kruse’s 14 goals(a new personal best for the striker) in under 2000 minutes and his five assists. His performances have turned the Bild Zeitung’s opinion around. During his days in Wolfsburg the paper broke one scandal story after another. These days Germany’s biggest tabloid wonder when Kruse is going to make a comeback for the national team.

Having calm surroundings has been the biggest change for the striker ever since he left Wolfsburg. In Bremen simply didn’t care when he had a crash on the Autobahn at four in the morning. Kruse is given leeway to be himself, and his coach Alexander Nouri can expect performances for that in return.

The 29-year-old’s performance against Ingolstadt probably encapsulated what makes him a great striker. The four goals he scored demanded different skill sets, but Kruse can do it all from finishing a counter attack to putting a penalty kick past a goal keeper without losing his cool.

Creative output

One interesting aspect of Kruse’s career is the fact that he thrives when he’s found a partnership with one or two players in the attacking line up. At Gladbach there was Raffael, currently it’s his former St. Pauli teammate Fin Bartels and back during his days at Freiburg there were Jonathan Schmid and Daniel Caligiuri.

The Wolfsburg lineup included a lot of quality during Kruse’s time at the club, but somehow the attacker never figured out how to relate to Dieter Hecking’s way of playing football or how a potential partnership with Bas Dost or Nicklas Bendtner could work.

The difference between last year and this season are striking. For the Wolves Kruse seemed to be lost in a system that didn’t really play to any of his strengths. His passing skills, the way he can read the game and link up creatively with players like Bartels and Raffael simply weren’t appreciated by Hecking. Nowadays it seems like there is a blind understanding between Kruse and the rest of the Werder Bremen attacking line up.

Kruse may be outspoken and may be a bit of handful of the pitch. However, the striker doesn’t seem to forget what a hellish season he did have at Wolfsburg and how important it is for him to play in a system that partly focusses on his strong suits. After becoming the first Werder player in over 20 years to score FOUR goals in a Bundesliga match Kruse actually credited his teammates for the win instead of boasting about his own performance.

What if…?

At the start of the season most experts expected Werder to fight against relegation once again. However, a player of Kruse’s quality really should realistically be part of such a team. The scandals and the fact that the striker never has hidden who he is as a person turned out to be too much bad news for most Bundesliga clubs, which meant that Kruse was forced to rebuilt his career at a club like Werder.

What would have happened if the 29-year-old had decided to refrain from his controversial hobbies, nightly tips on the Autobahn and partying when Bild is present? It seems like the striker isn’t the sort of person who bothers with such what ifs.

The fact that Kruse was over 20 years old when he started committing to making it as a footballer and the fact that he ended up at Werder instead of a big club means that his career can be considered to be somewhat imperfect.

And that is probably where Kruse’s charm lies most of all. At the Weserstadion they don’t care about his personal life. The Nutella eating, poker playing, unprofessional ways of Kruse wouldn’t go over well at several German clubs. Being matched up with a club that desperately needs him means that everybody gets something out of this partnership. Players like Kruse are supposed to be extinct these days. But, his imperfections are part of what make him and the way Werder Bremen have played this season great.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 30-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball and on the @AufstiegPod.

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