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Benitez banking on long-term benefits from Kroos

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The German will start fewer matches owing to his coach's rotation policy and have to adapt to some tactical tinkering but he will be just as crucial for Real Madrid this season.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Wind the clock back 12 months and Toni Kroos had played in every minute of Real Madrid's first five matches of the season. Carlo Ancelotti had placed full faith in the World Cup winner and seeing the former Bayern Munich man on the bench for even one minute did not seem like an option. He was one of the Italian's numerous untouchables in the starting eleven.

A year on and things are changing for German international. Rafa Benitez's rotation policy has already seen Kroos sit out one match completely and play just over an hour in two others before being hauled off. He has played the full 90 minutes in just three of Madrid's opening six matches of the campaign.

The reasoning is clear. Benitez, wary of what happened to a number of Madrid's star men in the latter stages of last season, is using rotation to keep players fresh, even this early on in the season. Luis Enrique was ridiculed for something similar last season but eventually the plan worked out with the treble. Now Benitez is trying to ensure his men are as strong at the end of the season, the business end, as they are at the start.

Kroos was one of a number of players to play week-in, week-out last season but he was the only one to complain in a roundabout way. "I haven't played more in my life and I'm getting tired," Kroos said last November after featuring regularly for Madrid, Bayern and Germany in 2014. "To make matters worse, in Spain there is no break in January, like there is in Germany, so I have to get by. I guess I will be rested at some point."

That rest never came and he, and Madrid, suffered.

Now Benitez is looking after his star performers from the off and although that should play out well in the long-run, it has had a stop-start impact on the start of the season for Kroos. He has yet to show his best form and that culminated in a far from convincing performance against Granada at the weekend. When Kroos underperforms, Madrid underperform.

It is not only minutes on the pitch where Kroos has seen a change, however. Knowing that the 25-year-old is more accustomed to playing further forward than he did at the Bernabeu last season, Benitez has tried to put more of a defensive burden on Luka Modric to free up Kroos. The coach has also tried to use Casemiro, a more naturally defensive-minded player than the German, to break things up at the back.

Madrid were almost forced to play Kroos deeper last season. A player more used to playing further up the field, the arrival of James Rodriguez and the departure of Xabi Alonso, ironically to Bayern, left a gap for the new arrival alongside Modric in the middle. Kroos had played deep before but never as a defensive midfielder. He was not accustomed to tracking back, tackling and breaking the play up but that was now part of his job.

The early signs are that Benitez may free Kroos up to move further forward and give Modric instructions to cover his back. When the German was left on the bench for the 6-0 destruction of Espanola Casemiro partnered Modric in the middle but using the Brazilian alongside the German, and in-turn giving a rest to the Croatian, should also work well.

Kroos has not come flying out of the traps this season but he needs to adjust to the methods of Benitez, the tinkering with his role and the fact that he will not be playing every week. However, that does not change how important he will be for the team.

"I know how important he [Kroos] was for the team last season and how difficult it was for him to hold down the fort in midfield virtually alone all campaign, so what I want is to keep him fresh," said Benitez. "Luka [Modric] and Kroos make the different when they're on the pitch. I will rotate by making changes in certain positions but Kroos is very important for us."

Last season the crest of a wave from winning the World Cup with Germany, and playing a key role in that success, kept Kroos going, as well as the change of scenery from Munich to Madrid. As the season wore on so did the legs of Kroos, and the chances of silverware for Madrid.

This season the hope is that the opposite will happen. Madrid want players such as Kroos fully fit at the business end of the season, the part where they faltered last term, and with a full pre-season behind him and rotation already in full swing, Kroos should be the biggest benefactor. His form may have not hit top levels just yet but we will soon start to see the benefits of rotation and tactical tinkering.

After an indifferent start to the campaign his form improved against Athletic, which provided Madrid with their toughest match of the season so far on paper. Madrid pressed throughout the match and Kroos, alongside Modric and to a lesser extent Mateo Kovacic, was key in that plan. It worked, with Madrid running out 2-1 winners at a stadium they have struggled in recent seasons.

It may only be one game so early into the season but the initial signs are that the rotation will only benefit the German. He worked well alongside Kovacic as well as Modric, and later in the match Casemiro, too. The hope will be that things only gets better with time.