Toni Kroos made it his mission to persuade Germany manager, Joachim Low, to start the 26-year-old in their Euro 2012 semi-final exit against Italy.
Consistently displaying his displeasure from the bench throughout the tournament, Kroos received extreme faith from his manager to aid Mesut Ozil in combatting with Italy’s abundance of ball-playing midfielders. On the day, Low’s men were considerably outplayed, whereas Kroos failed to impress in a right-sided attacking midfield role that ultimately limited space in the final third for either German to maximize their talent.
Four years later, in a completely different midfield role, Kroos has transitioned into key component in Low’s setup.
Where the German excelled in an advanced playmaker role prior to Euro 2012, now, Kroos is at his utmost best in a midfield trio as the designated passer, rather than a destroyer or a chief creator. Ultimately it wasn’t an entirely new prospect for the Real Madrid star considering he’s always showcased his ability to fulfill various duties in central areas – put simply, Kroos is the ideal all-round midfielder that can meticulously dissect the opposition with his metronomic passing, yet is also capable of utilizing his physical stature to dominate the centre of the pitch.
However, the evolution of Kroos’ game didn’t occur overnight. Since that tragic defeat to Italy in Warsaw, Kroos has played a significant role in Germany’s World Cup success, and most recently, Real Madrid’ eleventh Champions League title. From open play, Kroos sets the tone of the match with his composed passing and willingness to locate open space to receive the ball. And from set-pieces, the German’s deliveries have been the catalyst to several pivotal goals for both club and country.
To be frank, his impact in midfield is unparalleled from a stylistic standpoint, as Germany are now suited to play on the counter-attack, but equally adopt a false-nine system that heavily emphasizes quick movement, constant interchanging, and possession dominance. But Kroos faced a different task in Germany’s Euro 2016 opener against Ukraine, where he was responsible for directing the route of attack, but also offering protection for a backline without the injured Mats Hummels, and the retired Phillip Lahm.
Essentially, German supporters and Low would prefer Kroos perform superbly in both phases, but here, his limitations were on display. From an attacking perspective, he was one of Low’s best performers – which isn’t saying much due to several average performances from his teammates – as he recorded the most passes, created the most chances, whilst winning all of his take-ons.
In other words, Kroos did what he does best, and that’s passing his side to victory. Whether it was quick combination plays to evade defenders, an inch-perfect free-kick that resulted in Shkodran Mustafi’s opener, or the splendid ball over the Ukraine defence for Sami Khedira, Kroos provided penetration and invention to a German side struggling to create chances from open play.
Yet, out of possession – mostly in the opening half – he was left with too much space in midfield to cover, thus enabling Ukraine to pose a threat via swift counter-attacks.
Nevertheless, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s late cameo and insurance goal suggests he’s nearing full-fitness, which provides Low with the midfield trio that starred in Brazil two-years ago. Schweinsteiger offers additional muscle in central areas, and a defensive shield that will enable Kroos to play within closer proximity of the interchanging attackers.
Low’s attack was at their best when they played quick intricate passes amongst each other, and while the German manager may insist several shots from outside of the box was a tactic to limit counter-attacks, in truth, they simply lacked runners behind the defence. Mario Gotze didn’t offer much as a false nine, Mesut Ozil’s appreciation of space was evident, but he lacked runners to supply passes, whereas Thomas Muller’s movement from the right was lacklustre. At times, the reigning world champions were simply guilty of circulating possession casually, opposed to quickly moving forward and combining in tight spaces – they were dangerous when doing the latter.
On the other hand, apart from Mustafi’s winner, and Jerome Boateng’s distribution, Germany’s defence were vulnerable when Ukraine pushed men forward to deliver crosses into the box. In fairness, Low is forced to play an inexperienced make-shift back-line, which once again emphasizes the risk of presenting Kroos with such significant defensive duties.
Although Germany have developed a ‘getting the job’ done identity in recent years, there were too many underwhelming performances in one night to assume they won’t improve as the tournament progressed. Schweinsteiger’s return to fitness offers a new dimension to Low’s midfield, while Mario Gotze’s role as a false nine could be sacrificed for a classic centre forward in Mario Gomez.
What can’t be denied is the numerous options available to Low, and similar to Brazil, regardless on whether he persists with the same XI or makes various changes, anything less than a winner’s medal will be deemed a failure. But unlike four years ago, Low can now rely on Kroos’ passing to control the tempo and outcome of a nations fate.