Briefly after winning their 10th European Cup, Real Madrid declared its intention to take a new direction. Carlo Ancelotti and his squad were still celebrating their huge success, proving themselves the best side against every opponent in the process. Yet behind the curtains, Real Madrid’s board was working on producing a big change. And so, without any sign of doubt, the Spanish club said farewell to the most unbalanced midfield trio of his recent history and decided to sign two playmakers. The first one, who was key to this new direction, was Toni Kroos.
The German midfielder arrived from Bayern Munich after playing a season under Pep Guardiola who had profoundly affected him. Indeed, the atypical number ten who regularly drops deep and makes himself available throughout the entire width of the pitch to create numerical advantage is gone. Kroos is now a player of constant participation who doesn’t get away from the build up phase. In many ways, he becomes Bayern Munich’s Xavi Hernandez.
In that sense, Real Madrid’s goal seems clear. Replace the extremely destabilising and unpredictable Angel Di Maria with the very reliable and cerebral Kroos. Putting it simply: chase chaos and make room for order. Everything seems to move in the right direction, but just a week before the end of the transfer market, Xabi Alonso, the central midfielder and extension of Ancelotti on the pitch, leaves the club. Circumstances aren’t clear, but in short Ancelotti and Kroos find themselves in a complicated situation. There is no time anymore for Kroos to make transition progressively to the deep-lying midfielder role, like we could anticipate it. The number 8 must learn it the hard way….and right away.
Kroos, having zero experience in this position, therefore views this forced mutation like a challenge. The German midfielder has already displayed a superb ability to learn new things with Guardiola, but this new role (mediocentro in Spanish) is probably the most complex in the game. This due to his strategic position on the pitch and the number of different tasks he’s supposed to perform.
If we define the very basic part of this role, we can see that:
– In the build phase: He must make the link between the defence and the rest of the team after recovering the ball, choosing the right option based on the position of the 21 other pieces.
– In offensive phase: He must offer a passing line behind or in parallel to the ball, in a coherent manner with the ball circulation, with of course, taking into consideration a possible loss of the ball.
– In defensive transition: Perform the adequate task (press, cover a teammate, make a tactical foul, support a particular zone).
– In defensive phase: Cover the central area in front of the defence, depending on its occupation by the opposition and behave as an integral piece of the defensive system until the ball is recovered.
All of this, of course, in adaptation with the style and approach of the team. Clearly, it’s a key position. A football team, whatever its ambition, can’t handle a central midfielder making poor decisions without suffering big consequences. Has Kroos the qualities to play in this position?
After a season and a half, with a first period of assimilation of eight months, we can respond yes. The path was difficult, sometimes costly, but the German understand the role and even more importantly, identified himself with it. Let’s see:
From the first moment of the build up phase, Kroos shows that conceptually, he fits naturally in his new role. His mobility is total and his availability, excellent. He offers a passing line at practically any height and on the entire width of the pitch. If the team intends to out-pass a zonal marking or an aggressive pressing unit, Kroos makes himself available, facing his teammate with the ball. If it’s necessary, he takes the position of a centre-back. Even after a simple throw-in. The player has taken full responsibility of the construction of the play. Being there when the build up starts from very deep or when his team is already close to the center. Kroos is a constant passing line for his defenders. With the ball at his feet and facing the game, Kroos displays his best qualities. His reading of the game is sensational, to the point where it’s extremely hard to see him making a poor decision, and his passing technique is close to perfect.
His right foot is super precise and his left foot is nothing short of excellent. He can send a tense ball in the central zone to serve a teammate who is offering a passing line, send a through ball behind the back of the defence and make a diagonal pass with his right or left foot if it’s the only way to make the move progress. Most of the time, his teammate receives the ball in such good conditions that a simple first touch without changing the orientation of his body is enough. It’s very impressive. Even more for a player who’s passing is so complete.
If Kroos sees a good passing line between the opposite defence and midfield, he acts on it without fear. And if he sees a run behind the back of the defence that can end up with a goal, he has no trouble to acknowledge it with a pass. When he sends a ball to a player feet, the ball can sometimes arrives a bit slowly but never too fast. When passing into space however, it’s the opposite. In particular when the space is in front of him. The pass tends to be a tad tense and that’s the main reason of his rare failures in this exercise.
Beyond his passing talent though, Kroos remains a very limited player with the ball. He doesn’t have any particular sophistication or technique to use it. And so he drives the ball forward only if he clearly sees a good opportunity or plenty of space, relying on his ball protection technique, which is the shield of his footballer identity. Even when he drives the ball on an average distance, he tends to stop his run when there is a new obstacle. Toni is aware of his limits, technically and physically, as well as the dangerous aspect losing the ball and reacting in consequence. In possession, he’s a very responsible midfielder. An element of extreme reliability when building the play.
Even if he doesn’t have any limit in terms of passing, Kroos has a clear predisposition to make his team progress together. When passing from the back, he tries to involve his full backs to make the defensive line progress and then look to combine with his midfielders to win more space in front of the opponent. If he sees that his team positioning is good, he maintains a passing line behind the ball, moving through the entire width of the pitch to occupy the free spaces. As an old student of Guardiola, Kroos thinks about setting his team in order and prepare well before looking for the breach in the opposite team.
This well marked approached, mixed with his enormous ability to offer a passing line in build up phase makes him a very influential player. Indeed, by being so much involved in the first passes and then imposing his particular vision, Kroos naturally determines the football of his team. In absolute, it is a good thing. A player who systematically takes the right decision in the initial phase allows his team to control games. Problems appear when he’s not involved by his teammates and that his team loses the ball poorly. Then, his limitations show.
In defensive phase, we can verify two things that are clearly suggested before losing the ball. The first, is that Kroos is slow. In his body mechanic and in terms of running pace. His acceleration is decent, but beyond 5 meters, it is easy to see how much running on average and big distances, even in advantageous situations, ends up by seeing him finishing behind. To this slowness, we can add a rigidity of the body. When he needs to change direction, being naturally or aggressively, he has problems. When he needs to turn around himself fast, he suffers enormously. In all the situations where he’s forced to evolve with his back to the opposite goal with a certain amount of pressure, we can see him limiting his intervention to a sideway or back pass. Toni isn’t equipped to make himself facing the goal quickly or eliminating an opponent with a dribble and this handicaps quite seriously his possibilities of performing higher on the pitch. The second point is that the German isn’t intense by nature. Understand here that it’s very rare to see him pushing his level of mental and physical involvement to the maximum.
With that in mind, his behaviour in terms of press clearly seems like an anomaly. That a player with such physical and technical characteristics spends so much energy on this exercise isn’t rational. Indeed, Kroos plays his moments of highest intensity in two different contexts: When he’s in position of the last defender, forced to run to his goal and when he’s pressuring an opponent. In itself, the first case isn’t surprising. In extreme situations, players tend to surpass their nature and give everything. The second case though isn’t extreme at all, and here the explanation lies without a doubt in the season he spent working with Guardiola. The Spanish coach, in addition to transforming his game, has implemented strong concepts of press and the least we can say, is that the Real Madrid number eight has integrated them.
So Kroos displays the attitude of a very aggressive player when defending and pressing. He gives a particular attention to the phase of reading the game and goes out with determination to steal the ball. It it’s not possible, he tries to force a back pass. And if his opponent is in a good position to make the ball progress forward, Toni still tries to harass them. He presses with intensity and purpose. Despite his effort and implication, his success isn’t particularly good though, for the simple reason that it depends on the rest of his teammates. Defence is a collective concept and the press belongs to the defensive phases. In that sense, a lot depends on the context and the execution of the entire team. Kroos, having played under three different coaches since joining Real Madrid, has shown we can see him winning the ball back, and forcing a bad pass as much as failing to do so. In the worst cases, the German encourages the progression of the opposite team and destabilises the structure of his team. And that’s probably the point that explains why he doesn’t seem to convince everyone in his new role.
When the Real Madrid midfielder is beaten after a failed tentative press, his effort to get back into position is inconsistent. In many situations, he tries to recover at average speed, keeping an eye on the evolution of the move. He displays a behaviour completely opposite to the one he shows when pressuring and that can leave his team very exposed. Why such a contrast ? We can point to two main reasons.
First, we must look at it from a mental and physical point of view. The limits of Kroos in that aspect are a clear problem and he’s aware of it. As mentioned above, he’s regularly beaten while running against an opponent, even when starting from a better position. In that sense, the defensive interventions which require a sprint and one or several aggressive changes of direction constitute a group of effort that the player doesn’t seem always disposed to commit. Then there is a potential barrier on the mental side. Kroos knows that he’s naturally disadvantaged and decides to limit his involvement to a tentative of press and not much more. The second plan is more linked to the nature and formation of the player. Kroos is a creative player without intensity that was playing as Number 10 two seasons ago. So he doesn’t have any natural predisposition or academic formation to go beyond this like any other deep-lying midfielder would do in order to defend, because it’s his job.
In any case, the weak effort he offers after a failed press has an impact on his team, in addition to the strong image that it leaves. Most of the time, his partner in the double pivot and the centre backs manage it well, but it remains something with negative impacts. With such a small margin of progression physically, the player doesn’t have much choice. He must learn to suffer more or refrain from his aggressive approach in order to adapt further to the needs of his team. Without that, they’ll continue to suffer. Beyond that troubling and important point, the behaviour or Kroos in defensive transition is relatively good, though limited and with room for improvement. He’s capable of offering a good cover for a full back or centre back as long as he’s not forced to run very quickly to his goal and that the distance to cover isn’t too important. If it’s there is a risk of one on one situation in with a lot space, he tends to force one of the centre backs to swap with him. If he’s too far to press in that phase, his natural reaction is to step back with his defence and try to form a defensive structure. When an opponent enters his zone, the German doesn’t hesitate to try to steal the ball and displays a good technique. His timing is good when it comes to releasing his foot. He rarely goes to the ground but doesn’t look afraid to do so. In addition, we can mention serious progress in terms of focus. The player doesn’t disconnect unless he’s let completely out of the move (failed press).
In defensive phase, his positioning is good but has plenty of room for improvement. Kroos is in the right zone but rarely in the ideal place and collect the ball behind his back remains an option for his opponents. Clearly here, his lack of experience plays an important part. And of course, his natural tendency to get out of position to press when the defensive phase is too long is also a problem. He lacks patience in that phase. Generally, he moves well according to the move of the team and can provide help in the wings if needed. If the moves enters the box, he follows without invading. He doesn’t display impulsive gestures or seem particularly pressured emotionally in that situation. He remains cold and sends his feet only if it’s a clear option for him. With that in mind, he also tends to position himself as a passing line in front of the ball when his team hasn’t yet clearly recovered the ball. He can seem a bit too eager to move forward. When it’s finally done, he then offers his best version. An mathematical reading and decision taking of the situation. Mentally Kroos is quite well adapted to his position. Cold, focused and very cerebral. It fits well.
In the offensive phase, the player shows a mix of his qualities and limits. He’s a permanent passing line in parallel or behind the ball that participate actively to the build moves thanks to his passing abilities. He knows how to accelerate, calm or recycle possession of the ball. If he’s pressured though, he tends to suffer and can occasionally lose the ball after a poor first touch. The slowness of his body and his total lack of virtuosity with the ball makes him a player that can be neutralised, at least in terms of his passing influence. In that case, we can note that Kroos knows how to create space for his teammates if he’s man marked. At his pace, he knows how to attract a player into a trap and open a space for his team. So he maintains a certain level of contribution, even without the ball. His shooting technique is excellent. He can use any surface of his two feet very well and has a real talent to elect the correct way to approach the shot. In his new role though, he finds it very hard to get into positions that allow him to do so. And that is probably the main and only negative loss he suffers when playing as a deep-lying midfielder.
The German never really attacked space, and his time with Pep and Ancelotti didn’t change that. Unless he clearly sees his team with big trouble to surpass the first defensive line, he remains quite deep on the pitch. Even when used in a more advanced role, Kroos shows that he feels like he belongs to a deeper role. He drops deep to participate actively to the build up phase. In addition, he’s also a great free kick and corner kick taker, as in all the exercises that involves shooting the ball. He knows how to give effect to the ball and offers a great precision. Especially when hitting a target at the second post. In defensive free kicks and corner, he participate by contributing to the zonal defence. But among a group of players who are very intense by nature, he’s very rarely the first one on the ball.
In conclusion, after a year and a half of experience in that position, there is no doubt that Kroos is now a deep-lying midfielder. His behaviour in the construction phase, even when asked to play higher, presents him as player who completely belongs to the base of the game. Kroos identifies himself as the link between defence and the rest of the team, behaving as a bridge during the entire game. He doesn’t illustrate any type of movements or attitude suggesting that he should evolve higher. On the contrary, his limits – physical and technical – are big arguments against another change of position. Kroos is a fantastic passer, very involved, without any fantasy, who plays football slowly. There is no other role on the pitch that favours him more than deep-lying midfielder in terms of space and time. The only negative point, that looks like a parasite in his game, is the contrast he shows between his aggressive approach when pressuring and his inconsistent application after it. But as seen during his recent evolution, it is safe to say that this problem has an expiration date. Kroos is a very cerebral footballer who is still learning his new job and the most likely scenario is that he’ll end up correcting it soon. When this is the case, he’ll probably seem much more convincing to the public.