Blue Eyes And Cold Blood: Toni Kroos Is Real Madrid’s Midfield Metronome
Written by Alan Feehely
In the age of the brand, Toni Kroos stands supreme. He’s simultaneously a brand himself and operating in a world where they don’t exist, or matter. Exactly six feet tall, the German wears Real Madrid’s number eight and lives in the centre of their midfield, the perfect equilibrium of the number on his back reflected in both his upright stature and the elegance of his play. Kroos isn’t a man reaching for anything. He’s living in his own space, effortlessly elite, operating like a finely-oiled machine in a world where others are coming off the rails to merely keep pace.
“Madrid have very demanding and emotional supporters,” he once said. “They’re either on cloud nine or feel lower than low. I’m not like that. I’m always kind of in the middle emotionally. I stay away from newspapers and reading things online but, of course, you can’t help but feel the club becoming unsettled when the results are wrong. But it wouldn’t make much sense to get carried away. The key is to work hard and stay calm. It’s easier said than done when the house is on fire but I’m blessed with the gift of not getting nervous, ever.”
Kroos’ tranquillity can sometimes be misdiagnosed as apathy, but it’s anything but. He’s a killer and a competitive animal, evidenced by his incredible consistency of performance throughout his time at the Santiago Bernabéu, especially. He arrived in the Spanish capital the summer he won the World Cup with his country, and since pitching up at Madrid has won, amongst other titles, LaLiga twice and the Champions League three times. Alongside Luka Modrić and Casemiro, he’s one third of one of the best midfield threes the game has ever seen.
“Kroos’ greatest trait is his consistency,” Matt Wiltse of Managing Madrid told La Liga Lowdown. “He rarely ever produces a poor performance. Out of a 60-game season, he plays 57 to 58 at an elite level. Part of that is down to his trust in his own abilities. Kroos has publicly stated that he doesn’t get nervous, not even walking out for a Champions League final. He’s simply unbothered by it all. He believes enough in his quality that he doesn’t worry about what could go wrong. Then, there are his obvious traits; his first touch, his progressive passing, his passing accuracy, his progressive carries.”
Kroos’ core competencies, as Wiltse has articulately outlined, were in many ways the stick used to beat him prior to the victorious World Cup in Brazil. Born in Greifswald, East Germany, on January 4th, 1990, Kroos began his career with Greifswalder SC at seven before switching to Hansa Rostock at 12. By 16, he had been picked up by the mighty Bayern Munich, moving a thousand kilometres from home to pursue a career in football.
He found it difficult to break into the first team at Bayern, however, despite his evident talent and his cool temperament, the latter of which, especially, marked him out as a different type of animal to the usual youth product. Frustrated with a lack of game time, he spent a productive season on loan at Bayer Leverkusen, but was often criticised by German commentators for his style of play. Kroos would keep the game ticking over with his relentlessly accurate passing, but didn’t fit the up-and-at-them, box-to-box style of midfielder that Germany’s footballing culture prized. What he needed was a receptive audience, and he found that in Spain, a nation that cherishes pass-masters of his ilk.
“By half-time Kroos had done nothing but pass,” Barney Ronay wrote after Madrid beat Liverpool in the first leg of this season’s Champions League quarter-final. “No tackles, no dribbles, no headers. Instead, he just ran the game, swirling that luminous white leather orb through the empty skies, hanging it up there, fizzing it, fading it, transforming the same ball everyone else was using into a malevolent thing imbued with its own weird intelligence.”
Kroos joined Real Madrid the summer his stock was at an all-time high after turning down a contract offer from Bayern that he felt undervalued his abilities. It was a good decision, with the midfielder becoming an all-time great at the Bernabéu, as well as the most decorated German footballer in modern history. Not that he was nervous making the leap, however. Kroos took the move in his stride with characteristic cool.
“I know that at this club you’re expected to win trophies but I’m the right man for that because I’m used to winning,” he said at his presentation. “I know this is the correct decision and I’m very proud to have made it. I cannot think of anything more wonderful than being here. This is the biggest club in the world. In 2013 I won the Champions League and in 2014 Madrid won it, and I hope we can win it again next year. I hope to be able to return the confidence the club has shown in me. I like pressure, I have done ever since I started playing. At Bayern there was only one option, to win. I’m here to win trophies and that’s what stimulates me.”
This directness and simplicity of communication is part of his charm, and also lends itself to a beautiful dichotomy in his character. Kroos is ordered and logical in his play, but also capable of the sublime, the clutch moment. He’s blond-haired and blue-eyed, always immaculately presented, but is never short of a sharp haircut and is covered in tattoos. He’s quiet and unassuming, but resolutely unafraid of expressing his naked ambition as well as exactly what he thinks about any given situation. “Kroos is a unique footballer in terms of his personality,” Wiltse continued.
“He’s a massive fan of James Blunt, which I find funny. He hosts his own podcast with his brother, he hates going out in public and he actually enjoyed lockdown because he could be with his family at home. Family and home life matter so much to him that he books his own private jet after international duty to be able to get home 12 hours earlier than he would just taking the normal flight prepared by the German Football Federation.”
“I’m not sure he’s unusual,” German football expert Chris Williams told La Liga Lowdown. “Maybe just normal. He has a popular podcast with his brother Felix, who plays for Eintracht Braunschweig. They just chat football, like brothers do. He’s originally an East German, the first to win the World Cup, and they are, on the whole, a little more down to earth and grounded, deep thinkers. Toni reflects this to a degree. He’s not your flash, gold Lamborghini, party-type player, so maybe he’s unusual in that regard.”
Different off the pitch, Kroos is differential on it. Versatile, he dominates the play wherever he’s positioned in central midfield, running games with his right foot. This season, he’s played 27 games for Madrid in LaLiga, scoring three goals and contributing eight assists according to FBref. He’s provided 101 shot-creating actions and 11 goal-creating actions, and his numbers hold up against other midfielders across Europe’s top five leagues. Kroos ranks in the 90th percentile, or better, for metrics per 90 minutes including assists, expected assists, non-penalty expected goals and assists, shot-creating actions, passes attempted, pass completion rate, progressive passes and progressive carries. The German ranks in the 99th percentile for passes attempted and progressive passes.
In LaLiga this season, he’s a consistent top performer in other key metrics. He’s fifth in terms of assists provided, second in assists per 90, fifth in expected assists, second in expected assists per 90, second in key passes, third in passes into the final third, sixth for progressive passes, third for through balls, first for corner kicks, fourth for shot-creating actions, third for shot-creating actions per 90, eighth for touches and eighth for pass targets. These numbers clearly point to undisputed quality, but they perhaps underestimate his greatest asset, his absolute serenity. Kroos takes control of games with a gentle but firm hand, playing with cold blood and laser precision. There’s nobody like him in the game.
“Kroos is dynamic and hard-working,” Jonathan Wilson wrote. “He can play at the back of midfield or at the front, in the centre or on the flank. He could certainly play as a box-to-box midfielder in a 4-4-2 if he were ever asked to do something so archaic. He’s creative without being flash, breaks up play without being violent. He’s physically robust without being a monster and astute in possession without overreaching. He has an understated efficiency that means he isn’t appreciated as much as he ought to be.”
“Kroos has always had an insane passing ability,” Williams continued. “Midfielders of real talent can thread the eye of a needle with a ball, and also retain the ability to score from distance. It’s what makes opposition players shake with worry. Do I press him, or drop off? How much space do I allow him? If you decide one way, then Kroos can hurt you the other, and vice versa. He’s a nightmare for any opposition side to police.”
Wilson’s assertion that Kroos isn’t appreciated as much as he should be was from 2013, since which much has changed in the public’s perception of Kroos. In Spain, at least, they know a diamond when they see one. “Kroos is rated as high as they come for Madridistas,” Wiltse continued. “He’s regarded by most as the greatest German to ever play for the club and one of the greatest central midfielders in the club’s illustrious history.
“His legacy has only improved in the last few seasons, despite not adding an additional Champions League title to his haul. Rather than underrating him, I think Madridistas pinch themselves and recognize the need to be grateful they have three players in midfield with the class of Kroos, Modrić and Casemiro. Choosing between Modrić and Kroos? That’s like asking a parent to pick their favourite child. We love and value each the same. I personally feel that when Kroos eventually leaves, he’ll be harder to replace than Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Modrić, peak Marcelo or Karim Benzema. That’s how highly I rate the German and the integral role he’s played in Madrid’s success these past five to six years.”
He’s similarly appreciated in his homeland, if not with the same vigour as in Madrid. “He’s well-loved in Germany, although these days you tend to hear more critical voices that Joachim Löw has stuck with him despite younger midfielders now making the grade,” Williams continued. “His time at Leverkusen really set the tone for his whole career, then his return to Bayern lifted it to the next level. There was great regret at Bayern that they let him go. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge reportedly told him that they wouldn’t pay him €10 million a year because he wasn’t a world-class player. He left for Madrid as a World Cup winner and the rest, as they say, is history. He’s why Bayern coveted Leroy Sané so much. They didn’t want to miss out on the next Kroos, the next big German national team player.”
Now 31, Kroos is contracted to Madrid until the summer of 2023. He’s said on record in the past that he wants to finish his career at the Bernabéu, and the level of performance he’s delivered this season suggests that he’s well able to keep to the standards necessary of European football’s most demanding club. In fact, one would imagine that he’d love the challenge, the pressure of living under constant pressure.
Kroos has said that he’d never consider a coaching career, so one would imagine the day he hangs up his impeccable, always white boots will be the last he’s directly involved with the sport he’s excelled at in his 24-year career, should you consider his first steps with Greifswalder SC. Kroos probably does. He’s been deadly serious about this game from day one, and will be until the end. Until then, Kroos will continue to Kroos. Madrid’s blue-eyed, cold-blooded teutonic metronome, running games and winning titles with a wink, a smile and nothing more.
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