Toni Kroos' tenure at Real Madrid has been a roller coaster filled with highs and lows. While glimpses of his greatness have been manifested sporadically, he's been heavily criticized for not living up to expectations. Here at Managing Madrid, we've put up with a lot of hate for Kroos that we may not necessarily agree with. Truth be told, not everything is his fault - not even his poor play as of late.
To this day, the way Xabi Alonso left Real Madrid has puzzled us all. It's not so much that the club lost its engine and part of its soul, but it failed to replace him. Xabi Alonso is a generational and unique player. He can distribute the way Kroos can, but with more range and more defensive awareness. He is the perfect midfield organizer who can tackle and lead from the pivot. Xabi Alonso is irreplaceable, but if you're going to let him walk to another team, you have to ensure you have your bases covered. Real Madrid didn't.
Ancelotti was always a genius at converting players to different positions - it's arguably his strongest asset. He converted Pirlo to a deep-lying playmaker at Milan in order to accommodate Rui Costa in a higher role. He converted Di Maria to a central midfielder who could run tirelessly and start attacks from deep in order to accommodate Gareth Bale, and afterwards, he was essentially asked to reinvent Toni Kroos as a defensive midfielder.
There are conflicting opinions on whether or not Toni Kroos can actually play this role successfully or not. Defending was not a strong suit of his, despite his ability to put pressure on opposing midfielders. His best position has always been just in front of the pivot(s). In Germany he was a monster, and arguably was the best player in the World Cup. In that timeless 7-1 thumping in Belo Horizante against Brazil, Kroos bossed the game, and it helped that he had Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira behind him to do the dirty work. Kroos is a Xavi, not a Xabi.
Now, without any prior experience or proven track record in a position he's completely unaccustomed to, Kroos is the one being asked to do the dirty work, and he's struggled in big games - and it's harsh to blame him for it.
He has struggled on big occasions in this position since last year. And somehow, Real Madrid have taken one of the most promising players in World football, flipped him to a position where he has to be the spine of the team, and have watched him struggle since last season without reacting to it or making an adjustment.
Albert Einstein has a great quote about insanity.
"Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"
Toni Kroos is not an average footballer, nor is he as poor as we see him at times. Far from that - he's an elite central midfielder who needs a proper supporting cast. But the problem is - and has been for a while now - that it's not possible to accommodate Toni Kroos properly due to the managers' inability to drop someone in order to push Kroos up the pitch and insert a proper defensive midfield general - one who is vocal, can tackle, has positional awareness in the pivot position and can do the dirty work. Who do you drop to accommodate this move? We won't delve into it, but for obvious reasons, you can't drop anyone who's higher up the pitch than the German maestro.
Kroos played some brilliant football for Real Madrid, but it hasn't been sustainable. In his first match against Sevilla in the European Super Cup, Kroos played like he was born to be a Real Madrid player. Aesthetically, his style of play is one that suits Real Madrid's vision of fluid football powered by talent and brains. Kroos is a smart player. But again, these performances have unfortunately been sporadic and unsustainable - especially as his tenure with Real Madrid progresses. Last season he was overworked as the defensive midfielder in a position Real Madrid had no proper depth in. This year, it's more of the same, with the small exception that Casemiro can provide Kroos with relief from time to time.
His stats this year are a bit better than the eye test. Compared to last season - per game - Kroos has a better pass completion rate, has more assists, more clearances, and more interceptions. But stats in football (in particular, moreso than other sports) can be deceiving - this is something that Gabe, Mike, and myself talked about on this week's podcast. He's regressed in these categories: chances created, tackles won, successful take-ons, and blocks. On both sides of the spectrum though, these stats are hardly significant, and the sample size this season is still small.
Yesterday there were plenty of comments here in the post-game about Toni Kroos being poor. I re-watched the entire match and focused solely on Kroos, and I can tell you everything here gets exaggerated immensely. Kroos was fine for the most part. His defensive positioning was sound, and Real Madrid's defensive shape as a whole was solid. Kroos tends to position himself parallel to the ball when the opposing team has possession and not so-much behind it. This allows him to cut off the pass and also recover quickly if the ball gets in behind him. Typically he guards the passing lanes while the defenders in behind him will cover the space and Kroos will drop back to help once the ball goes there. These are clear instructions from Rafa, and it's clearly something that works. Sociedad had spells of comfortable possession yesterday, but the defense wasn't too threatened by it bar a couple chances which are normal in the grand scheme of things.
With the ball, he was solid too. His dashboard below (via FFT Statszone) shows that he completed 59 of 67 passes.
So maybe - much like most of Real Madrid's problems - the struggles that Kroos are having are exaggerated.
In a sense they are, but it doesn't mean there isn't an issue with playing Toni Kroos in a position that doesn't particularly bring out his best. He may do well there, but it may again lead to a collapse, and it's wasting his talents. Kroos is a player who can pick you apart if he plays in an advance role with fewer defensive responsibilities.
So while Kroos as a DM can work, it also pushes the boundaries of his limits if Real Madrid go to it consistently. Real Madrid are yet to win a trophy with Kroos leading the team from the pivot (misleading, I know, but that position is the engine of the team). In big games, this combination has failed, and the only time it's really worked in a big match was against Barcelona last season in the Bernabeu, but that's because Real Madrid had packed the midfield - a feat impossible if all of BBC are healthy.
The conundrum of it all is that nothing will change until the end of the season, and even then, it's difficult to see what changes can be made, because it requires someone out of the front six players being sold or parted with to create a more balanced line-up. We'll keep an eye on this as the season progresses, and revisit the Toni Kroos positional scrutiny following the next big game.