Toni Kroos should be held among the elite midfielders of the 21st century because of the trophies he has won during his career. Discuss. [40 marks]
It’s the exam question I wanted to see on my A-level paper. It’s worth debating too. Whether you remember him for tearing Brazil apart in Belo Horizonte, steering the Real Madrid midfield to a Champions League trinity or swooping in that free-kick against Sweden, Kroos is undoubtedly one of the best players of his generation, let alone midfielders. His reputation took a knock last season as he and just about everyone else at Los Blancos struggled in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, but it’s no surprise that he’s now leading the revolution under Zinedine Zidane.
Born in Greifswald, East Germany just as the Berlin Wall was coming down, Kroos joined Bayern Munich 16 years later. After a year or so in the youth sides, he captained Germany at the Under-17 World Cup in South Korea, flying home from eastern Asia not with a winners medal, but a bronze one and the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player. Ottmar Hitzfeld felt that his performances in the white and black of his country warranted a promotion to the first team and, at the age of 17 years and 265 days, Kroos became the youngest player to feature in a competitive match in Bayern’s history.
Even with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mark van Bommel and Zé Roberto marshalling the midfield positions, a teenage Kroos managed to make 12 league appearances as Bayern powered to the Bundesliga title. His big break came early in the campaign away at Red Star Belgrade in the UEFA Cup when, after coming on as a substitute with Bayern 2-1 down, he was put on free-kick duty.
He spotted up two dead-balls from virtually the same position – in-swingers from the left – and turned the game on its head. The first, a delightfully lifted cross, landed straight on Miroslav Klose’s head, before the second found its way all the way through and into the bottom corner. There he was, grinning ear to ear by the corner flag as his teammates bombarded him with hugs. An arrival, of sorts, on the big stage and the prelude of what was perhaps to come.
However, by the midway stage of the following campaign, Kroos’s rise to prominence had levelled out. The addition of Tim Borowski to the midfield had limited his chances on the pitch and he was shunted out on an 18-month loan to Bayer Leverkusen in January. The first stint of that spell wasn’t easy, with Leverkusen languishing in midtable under Bruno Labbadia.
Die Werkself did manage to reach the DFB-Pokal final in Berlin but lost out to Werder Bremen as Mesut Özil netted the winner. That summer, Labbadia made way for Jupp Heynckes, who’d just come out of retirement to take interim charge of Bayern for the final two months of the previous season. That appointment changed everything for 19-year-old Kroos.
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An outstanding second season in red and black saw everyone sit up and take notice. Leverkusen fans were treated to weekly displays full of technical and tenacious brilliance as Kroos quickly became one of the form players in the Bundesliga. His array of passing, masterful technique and arrow-like shooting made him one of the most complete midfielders around, even if he lacked the physical strength and speed.
Without being known for his efficiency in front of goal, Kroos quickly built a reputation of a specialist at scoring from range – and in style too. There were bending free-kicks, arching strikes and pinpoint volleys, but also composed finishes from inside the 18-yard box; an entertaining variety that attracted the attention of his parent club and international boss.
Having made his senior Germany debut in March, Kroos was named in Joachim Löw’s final 23 for the World Cup in South Africa. There was no place for him in the side or on the substitutes board for the opening two group games but, with Germany in need of a result against Ghana at Soccer City, Low thrust him on for the final ten minutes of the 1-0 victory.
After sitting out the demolition of England in the last-16, Kroos was given more game time in the dismantling of Argentina in the last eight. Kroos, along with the likes of Özil, Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller and Jérôme Boateng, laid the foundations for what was to come in Brazil four years later as a World Cup-winning side was born.
Löw’s growing trust in his youngsters, and Kroos in particular, was evident as he sent the midfielder on for the final half an hour against Spain in the semi-final. But, with Carles Puyol heading La Roja ahead in the 73rd minute, die Mannschaft grew increasingly frustrated. Kroos, coming up against Andrés Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi Alonso, was unable to create anything and squandered an opportunity to score at the back post with the game goalless as Iker Casillas saved his volley.
Although this was a lesson learned, there was something telling about the way a 19-year-old kid came on and took control at set-pieces as if he had done for years. A happier World Cup semi-final was waiting on the horizon.
Kroos arrived back at Bayern that summer with another bronze World Cup medal. A season under Louis van Gaal saw more opportunities to play than before, but it still wasn’t clicking at the Allianz Arena. That was until Kroos’ key mentor rocked up in the summer of 2011.
With Heynckes at the helm, he properly established himself in the Bayern team, featuring in the majority of their league fixtures as they fell behind Jürgen Klopp’s heavy metal Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga for a second year on the bounce. In the Champions League, Bayern were aiming to reach a home final and they were handed kinder draws for the last 16 and quarter-finals.
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After an initial first-leg defeat, Basel were emphatically dispatched at the Allianz before Marseille were brushed aside in the last eight. José Mourinho’s Real Madrid, who were on the verge of toppling Pep Guardiola’s domestic dynasty in Spain, visited Munich for the first leg of the semi-final with Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Ángel di María and Özil in their ranks.
Kroos’ 17th-minute corner caused havoc in the Madrid penalty area, allowing Franck Ribéry to belt one under Casillas to give the hosts the lead. Benzema, Ronaldo and Özil combined to net an equaliser shortly after half time before Mario Gómez struck in the closing minutes to edge Bayern in front going to Madrid.
With the same scoreline playing itself out at the Bernabéu, Chelsea’s Champions League final opponents were decided from the spot. In a shoot-out unbefitting of the names stepping up and the importance of the occasion, five kicks were missed. Neuer saved from Ronaldo and Kaká before Casillas stopped Kroos and Philipp Lahm. Sergio Ramos blazed over, allowing Schweinsteiger to seal Bayern’s spot in the final from 12 yards.
Heynckes’ men were frustrated for large parts against a resilient Chelsea side whose hopes of qualifying for the following season’s edition were hanging on this very game having finished a lowly sixth in the Premier League. Bayern finally broke in and it was Kroos who picked the lock, sending a sweet cross over the Chelsea backline for Thomas Müller to head into the ground and over Petr Čech.
Kroos, whose winning assist was about to clinch his first Champions League medal, then watched from the back post as Didier Drogba leapt and butted the ball into the back of the net, Neuer’s wrist not strong enough to keep it out. It would be Drogba who would crush Bayern’s fairytale triumph after Čech had saved from Arjen Robben in extra time, and Ivica Olić and Schweinsteiger in the shoot-out.
So, no trophies for Bayern at the end of the 2011/12 campaign. The year after, they finished with a treble. Kroos missed the run-in to Bundesliga, Champions League and DFB-Pokal victories after picking up an injury in April. Nevertheless, he played an integral part in one of the most successful sides in the club’s history. Then Guardiola arrived.
His system of a three-man midfield meant Kroos had to drop his number 10 tag and adapt to become a more well-rounded central midfielder alongside Schweinsteiger and now with Lahm sitting behind them. That was how Germany lined up in Brazil the following summer, with the spine of the team very much in the Munich mould.
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Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira may have alternated alongside him, but Kroos started each and every match of Germany’s run in the finals. After the first round of fixtures, and with none of their rivals particularly impressing, Löw’s side began to stand out. A stumble against Ghana in the groups didn’t hinder their prospects of progression and, after another struggle against African opposition in Algeria in the last 16, they were through to the quarters again. Mats Hummels plonked a header past Hugo Lloris from Kroos’s free-kick to seal a semi-final place and Germany were the villains again, loitering in the way of the samba football nation who just happened to be the hosts.
As this decade comes to a close, that night in Belo Horizonte is arguably recalled as the single most shocking 90 minutes in the last ten years – and Kroos was at the heart of it. Lahm had been shifted back to his familiar right-back spot, with Khedira and Schweinsteiger deployed in defensive midfield to unleash the attacking Kroos that we saw serve up endless showstopping performances in the Bundesliga. Finding Muller for the opener was his first contribution; his second saw him split the Brazil defence to pick out Muller, who set up Klose to slot past Júlio César at the second attempt. Germany’s third came off his own retro Adidas boots, letting fly from the edge of the area to beat a desperately diving César.
Two minutes later he robbed Fernandinho in midfield, strode forward, set Khedira through before getting the ball back and sliding it into an empty net. Khedira rolled in the fifth some moments later as the tears flowed around the Estadio Mineirão. André Schürrle hammered in a couple more for good measure after half time before Oscar scored the sheer definition of a consolation goal to bring up that famous scoreline.
The late Johan Cruyff couldn’t hide his admiring awe of Germany’s midfield master during that summer. “Kroos is a wonderful player,” he said. “He’s doing everything right: the pace in his passes is great and he sees everything. It’s nearly perfect.”
Even the Brazilians weren’t letting their footballing persuasions get in the way of their praise for Kroos, who they endearingly nicknamed ‘O Garçom’ – the waiter – during the tournament for his compelling knack of serving his teammates on the pitch.
He was on hand to provide balls on a plate in the final, too. It was his backwards header which inadvertently sent Gonzalo Higuaín through on goal and his corner which was headed against the post by Benedikt Höwedes. Then, in extra time, he rolled the ball to Schürrle down the left and watched as the Chelsea forward crossed for Mario Götze to poke past Sergio Romero. This time it was a different grinning Bayern youngster properly arriving on the world stage as Kroos ran over to celebrate.
“A magnificent player has arrived, as he showed at the World Cup, where he was one of the best in the competition,” Florentino Pérez gushed as he stood next to Kroos at his Real Madrid presentation later that summer. “His great performances in recent weeks do not come as a surprise, but as confirmation that we had chosen the right player.” When the 24-year-old took to the microphone, he sounded out the necessity of winning the Champions League, something that Los Blancos had done for the tenth time just months before. “I’d like to win it again this year,” he said.
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However, the big-eared trophy was draped in Blaugrana ribbons the following May as Luis Enrique’s Barcelona completed a treble to condemn Real Madrid to their shadow. Once again, Kroos and co came undone against the best. Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio rallied to dump them out in the semi-finals as Álvaro Morata’s away goal sealed their fate. Carlo Ancelotti made way as a result and Rafa Benítez held the Bernabéu hotseat for just half a season or so. In another managerial switch that swung the fortunes in Kroos’ favour, Zinedine Zidane took on the tie in temporary charge.
After defeat at home to Atlético Madrid at the end of February, Zidane propelled Los Blancos into motion both at home and in Europe. They soared to a four-match winning streak before beating Barcelona in the Camp Nou at the start of April to set a title race in motion. The Catalan club stumbled again at Real Sociedad before losing at home to Valencia the following week to let Real Madrid sit within a point from them at the top. Zidane’s side didn’t slip once in the run-in, but neither did Barcelona, who held their nerve to clinch the league at Granada on the final day.
Lionel Messi and friends fell to Champions League defeat against Atlético in the quarter-finals, with Los Rojiblancos meeting Real Madrid in the final in Milan. Kroos contributed once more in the pressure moments, swinging in a free-kick for Gareth Bale to head on and Sergio Ramos to scramble into the back of the net to hand Madrid the lead. Isco replaced Kroos in the 72nd minute, with Yannick Carrasco equalising for Diego Simeone’s men just a few minutes later. Madrid’s only German was made to watch the penalties unfold as Juanfran and Ronaldo took the roles of villain and hero.
By that night at the San Siro, the rest of Europe’s great midfields were being dismantled. Xavi had left Barcelona; Iniesta would do the same in 2018. Juve had lost Pogba, Pirlo and Vidal. Xabi Alonso and Lahm retired at Bayern, while Schweinsteiger departed for Manchester. That left Real Madrid’s trio of Kroos, Luka Modrić and Casemiro to mark a new era, one of undebated dominance from Milan to Kyiv via Cardiff, which saw the first two pick up their second, third and fourth Champions League winners medals. Their boss just happened to be one of the greats, too, and now they’d joined him in the hall of fame.
Since being reunited with the European Cup in Kyiv, Kroos has had his fair share of ups and downs. He and his German world champions were humbled in a tournament to forget in Russia, although that free-kick in Sochi will be remembered for a long time. When Kroos returned to Madrid in July, there was no sign of Zidane, whose office would be occupied by both Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari in the months to come.
Now the Frenchman is back at the helm, Real have emerged from the darkness with Kroos still one of the stalwarts in a midfield which is powering Los Blancos back to where they belong.
He may not have the grace and the guile of his Spanish counterparts or Croatian clubmate, but Toni Kroos will go down as a player who defined and drove a golden age at one of the world’s biggest clubs. With the tutelage of Heynckes, Löw, Guardiola, Ancelotti and Zidane under his belt, it comes as no surprise that the 29-year-old has the medal collection that he does, but it is a little shocking that so many people don’t give him the credit he surely deserves.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08