Florentino Perez, Real Madrid's current and most-storied president, has a reputation for splashing money on luxury golden-boys that boost the team's marketing value, but he doesn't get nearly as much credit for the under-the-radar signings he makes in-between. Every now and then, Real Madrid will bring in a world-class player on a bargain deal. In 2010, Perez snatched Mesut Özil from Werder Bremen for a reported €15 million. In 2014, it was Toni Kroos who arrived - the German midfielder parting ways with Bayern Munich who agreed to sell in exchange for an incongruous €25(ish) million.
Both were highway robbery. To give perspective on these two signings, consider that in 2010 AC Milan purchased a rapidly-fading Robinho for €18m; and in 2014 Ander Herrera was released from San Mamés to Manchester United for €36 million.
Pockets of the fanbase expressed concerns over whether Toni Kroos was an actual fit for this team. The German was not the leader or supreme organizer that Xabi Alonso was, nor had he ever been tested or proven in playing such a deep role. The team had also just come off of a successful stint the year before - so why swap midfielders with an enemy you had just slayed and thoroughly embarrassed in the Champions League semi-finals? It's a no-brainer. Real Madrid were shedding a post-peak Alonso from their roster while adding an elite genius - a high IQ player entering his peak and coming off a World Cup tournament he dominated so unequivocally that you could name the Cup after him.
Sure, Toni Kroos is the third-highest paid player on the team, and sure, he is not a pure defensive midfielder, but his acquisition was still a bargain. Now, nearly two years after his signing, people are starting to appreciate just how valuable Kroos is. At the ripe age of 26, Kroos' ability to play multiple positions, distribute the ball, shoot from distance, and use his positioning to drop into deeper channels - all at the highest level - makes him an ideal box-to-box midfielder in today's modern game.
Real Madrid are two games away from completing their second season in the post-Alonso era, and it's interesting to zoom-out and see just how well (or poor) the team is coping without him. They have missed his leadership, that much is true, but there are ample angles to consider. Retaining Alonso and losing out on someone like Kroos could have set the team back years. The Basque general has had costly mental lapses with Bayern stemming back to last season, and Real Madrid have, at the very least, made it to two consecutive Champions League semi-finals with Kroos in the midfield. This all, despite the fact that Kroos is still learning his role, was playing without Luka Modric beside him in key stretches after the team's 22-match unbeaten run last season, and has been shuffled around again under Zidane with Casemiro's emergence.
His intelligence for the most part has masked his inexperience as a defensive midfielder. With Casemiro behind him and Modric beside him, he looks even more imposing - slinging forward and showing the dynamism he typically does with the German National Team. When Casemiro was unavailable against City, Zidane's decision to insert Kroos as the team's anchor was like duck soup. Kroos - as unnatural as a defensive midfielder as he is - turned in a man-of-the-match performance against a helpless City side.
Last season, Real Madrid's Ancelotti-led Decima love child - theoretically missing their two engines in Alonso and Di Maria and rocking two new faces in Kroos and James Rodriguez - had a +80 goal-differential in the league, up 13 from the previous season. They had also made it to the Champions League semi-finals - about as far as a team defending a European crown can reasonably go, given that the last team that successfully defended their Champions League title was AC Milan back in the 80's. In truth, it was a surprise to some that Real Madrid even made it as far as they did. They were decimated with injuries with no proper depth to compensate for it. Toni Kroos was overworked and drained by the end of last season's campaign, and the fact that Real Madrid finished in the position they did despite all of the external factors surrounding them points to a bigger picture - that this team can bear and endure, and once surrounded with the right pieces, Toni Kroos will prove his worth, and the team will benefit therefrom.
Valencia nearly ended Real Madrid's La Liga campaign on Sunday by thoroughly outplaying Zidane's men in large stretches. Real Madrid were out-shot, out-possessed, and out-worked overall. The team's defense was visibly unnerved. While Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed most of the attention in bailing Real Madrid out with his brace, Toni Kroos was keeping the team afloat - completely eclipsing the entire team when it came to dictating play and distributing the ball. On that occasion, Kroos completed 71/72 passes - far and away the best mark on the entire team. All of this, by the way, was without Luka Modric - the man who tends to alleviate the most pressure off of the German's shoulders on a consistent basis.
Kroos' pass-chart from Sunday is an aesthetic-junkie's dream, though that one red line might just drive an OCD person up the wall.
Things are changing now. Toni Kroos no longer needs Luka Modric or Casemiro to shine. If Real Madrid have the resources to surround him with the right players on a consistent basis then they will hit some sort of threshold where they can overrun teams, but at this point, with injuries and suspensions, those situations are a bonus, and so long as Real Madrid can have their best midfield trio for the big games they will live with Kroos stepping up against lower-profile teams to compensate for losses to other key midfielders.
Something has shifted somewhere, and it's hard to pinpoint where it's shifted exactly. After a tumultuous one-and-a-half seasons where Toni Kroos was trying to find his place in a team enduring perpetual crisis mode, it suddenly clicked, and Toni Kroos has morphed into the game-changing two-way player that was envisioned with his signature in 2014.
If one were to guess, Casemiro's emergence and diligence, coupled with Zidane's vision, surely made an impact.
Casemiro's rise gave way to the liberation of Kroos as the midfield anchor. In hindsight, it wasn't so much about who Casemiro was, it was about what he represented. Casemiro is a rugged defensive midfielder acting as defensive insurance which allows Kroos to venture forward and reach into his bag of tricks - a bag filled with looping diagonal through-balls and intricate vertical passing while providing a shooting threat and the occasional goal.
Kroos has been decisive and surgical. He plays the ball quickly, with conviction, and his flow is conducive to the way Real Madrid builds their attack. If Real Madrid have a carbon copy (in theory) of Cristiano Ronaldo on the opposite flank in Gareth Bale to besiege opposing wings with their pace, they also have a Modric 2.0 directly beside him in Kroos. The German World Cup champion gives Modric someone to conspire with in midfield and dictate play. They both have the vision to make passes no one else can see, they both close down opponents brilliantly and systematically, and they both can percolate out of tight spaces by ricocheting passes off each other in cross proximity.
The way Kroos has been distributing the ball lately has been otherworldly good. Kroos makes passes look more basic than they are. If Carvajal, Danilo, or Bale make a run down the right flank, you can count on Toni to pick them out and catch defenders sleeping, causing them to spread themselves before inevitably collapsing with an in-swinging cross.
Not limited to the 'obvious' cross-field defense-shifting switch, Kroos has been able to dissect napping defenders from central positions - a huge asset against teams who shift their focus towards Real Madrid's dangerous wings, or stubborn air-tight defenses in general.
Plays like the last one above will be key against Atletico's rabid defensive scheme. Diego Simeone has implemented some of kind sorcery that prevents teams from scoring goals, but as showcased against Bayern in the 2nd leg, they are vulnerable, and will inevitably slip, which gives rise to the importance of three things:
- The runs from Ronaldo, Benzema, and Bale - cheating off the defender to find a pocket of space - will need to be plenty.
- Kroos and Modric using their vision to recognize those runs within a split-second and taking advantage of them to sling incisive through balls; and
- Finishing. Chances like the one above can't be wasted against a team whose rate of conceding chances is few and far between.