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Kroos' flexibility leaves starting role in the balance

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The German was undroppable last season but the emergence of Casemiro has left the German's starting place in the big matches uncertain.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

He did things pragmatically; he did things without bells and whistles. Stereotypically, as a German, he did things efficiently. Despite Madrid's shortcomings as a collective last season, Toni Kroos shone in his first season in the Spanish capital. So far this season, however, the former Bayern Munich man has failed to produce the same kind of impact.

Kroos has not been poor in the opening few months of the campaign. Indeed, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo have played more matches than the German so far this season - featuring in all ten league matches - and Madrid are sitting pretty at the top of the table having enjoyed one of their best starts in years. The 25-year-old has been an important cog in that but his influence has not been as great as his debut season at the Bernabeu.

The statistics show that Kroos has produced just two assists in all competitions so far this term but his role in Madrid's side goes beyond that. Last season, alongside Luka Modric, he was the man to call the tune with his pinpoint passing and usual calm persona in the middle of the pitch. He was the man who paved the way for the chances to be carved out - the second stop in a four-stop cycle from defence to attack.

Now, despite being overworked and seemingly un-droppable under Carlo Ancelotti last season, the German international's place is under threat just three weeks before the crucial El Clasico meeting with Barcelona at the Bernabeu.

In the 3-1 victory over Las Palmas on Saturday, Madrid's No.8 played in a role more fitting to his shirt number. Since arriving in Spain, Kroos has played as a more defence-minded midfielder, a role that differed to that with Bayern and the German national team, but Rafa Benitez has tried the World Cup-winner in a variety of positions already this season. That flexibility is good for the club, especially with Benitez, a coach who likes to rotate, in charge, but that could also scupper his chances of starting in the big games when all of his teammates are available.

Rewind the clock back to the summer and it would have been unthinkable to have the German sat on the bench. Some Madridistas will still tow the same line of thought but the emergence of Casemiro as a solid, out-and-out defensive midfielder ready for the toughest matches has cast the No.8's role in doubt.

The Brazilian has played alongside Kroos this term and although his impressive performances in a role protecting the back-four have also freed Kroos up to boost Madrid's attack, Benitez has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal that will cause him a welcome selection headache when all are fit and available.

The expectancy is that Cristiana Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale will start most games and that leaves three other positions up for grabs. Bidding for a starting place are Kroos, Luka Modric, Casemiro, James Rodriguez and Isco, realistically, while Lucas Vazquez and Mateo Kovacic are likely to provide back-up.

Given Benitez's deployment of Casemiro in the matches at Atlántico Madrid, PSG and Celta Vigo, arguably Madrid's three toughest matches of the season so far, it is a good bet that the coach will want more of that ball-winning ability in his side against Barca, a team who likes to hold on to the ball more than most. The Brazilian's inclusion in the team to face the Catalans may well raise a few eyebrows but it will not be wholly unexpected. If it happens, and players such as Bale and James are back in the equation, expect Kroos to be the one to miss out.

The irony in Kroos' potential position will not be lost on him. Last season he complained of tired legs midway through the season but Ancelotti refused to sufficiently rest him. A starting role with Bayern was followed by a tough, if fruitful, World Cup in Brazil with Germany before arriving in Spain and playing regularly in all competitions, including the Club World Cup in January. Kroos was in need of a rest.

Now, with Benitez keeping his fingers crossed that key men including Bale, Benzema and James return to training this week, the 25-year-old could be in for some rest than he had hoped for.

Against Las Palmas Kroos at least showed his qualities in a more offensive role, a role that first caught Madrid's attention when the player was excelling for the Bavarian club and for his country. Modric may have showed that he is the team's real engine, while Casemiro again impressed in the middle of the park, but Kroos chipped in with an assist for Jesse's goal and looked good in a more attacking role for the most part.

It is a role he has been eased back into under Benitez and it is a role that Madridistas may see him in more often with the Spaniard in charge. Kroos will be rested but so too will Casemiro, Modric, Isco and James when the coach sees fit - and if club politics allow.

Now Madrid have more alternatives. Kroos has already showed he can shine in a more defensive role in the middle, similar to that of Xabi Alonso, but now he can offer an alternative to Los Blancos' other attacking options - and what an alternative to have.

With players heading back from the treatment room and big games in Seville and against Barcelona to look forward to, Madridistas are soon set to find out Benitez's preferred starting eleven for the big matches. Whether the reconstructions of Kroos back to a more attack-minded midfielder ensures his place remains to be seen.