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The Defensive Tendencies of Toni Kroos

A closer look at Toni’s form this season

Celta de Vigo v Real Madrid - La Liga Photo by fotopress/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.

The mailbag has blown up. There are more questions than ever before. I’ve decided to release different questions daily (on non-match days). If I answered them all in one go, it would blow up the universe — and no one wants that. Besides, almost no one on earth has the attention span to read 10, 000 words in one sitting.

As always, if you want to ask me a question, best to ask me on Twitter or Facebook.

Today’s question is from a Patron:

First, let’s get something out of the way — this idea that ‘Kroos is finished’ needs to get fleshed out of our collective system. Not that you’ve said that, Essa, but I’ve seen this narrative pushed on social media: Kroos is finished, Marcelo is finished, Carvajal is finished, Kovacic is not good enough anymore, Isco is a villain, and we need Florentino to go to his superstar tree and pick a bunch of ripe fruits like Kane and Hazard because that’s exactly how football works, etc. See: Me making fun of you all here.

I’ve written about Kroos this season already — mostly good stuff — and with the ball, he’s generally been fine. He started the season misplacing paces he normally wouldn’t (as was the case with the entire team), but he’s shifted a gear in that department, and is now the most accurate-passing central midfielder in La Liga statistically, and makes the most key passes on the entire team.

Still, he’s 28 — young enough that we know he’s not finished by any means, but old enough to know he has kinks in his game defensively that probably won’t be rectified at this point. His jogging in transition has been the elephant in the room for a couple years now. When the opponent is flying through on the break, Kroos will jog behind him as if he’s the ball-carrier’s running buddy — either that, or he just wants of a view dat booty.

Some of this is probably by design. There are benefits to not having everyone on the team making the same defensive run to save a goal. You conserve energy to do most of your damage high up the pitch, and if you arrange yourself higher on the field, you can serve as an outlet when the ball is retained — accelerating the counter-attack.

There are instances where you have to throw all that out the window, and just help the team defensively — and it’s those extreme moments that has me convinced Kroos just doesn’t want to sprint back. He’s been lackadaisical in this department in years past, but never has it hurt Real Madrid as much as it has this season. When you’re the last stopgap, there are no tactics, outlets, or energy conservation ideas in the equation anymore. In that moment, logic has to kick in, an engine needs to be revved, and you have to save the goal.

Here’s the thing with Kroos, though — he’s a different breed of footballer than Casemiro and Modric. You don’t need me to write that in an article, that’s just simple eye test stuff. But look deeper, and you’ll find that the role he’s asked to play defensively is also different, and when coverage is blown from other players, he’s not always in a situation to stall a counter. It makes him look bad, and it makes the entire defensive scheme look amateur.

Zidane’s line-up is not symmetrical, even if it looks that way on paper. Let’s say, if Casemiro is your anchor, with Modric on the right and Kroos on the left — it’s far from stagnant in reality. What Achraf had on the right hand side against Celta was Luka Modric doing a bunch of two-way dirty work — covering defensively, and doubling up on the flanks. Marcelo doesn’t have that with Kroos on the left side. The German is often asked to string things together higher up the pitch. He did this well against Celta. He had to. Ronaldo put up a dud, and the team needed more than just Gareth Bale doing tremendous work from all over the pitch. With Modric doing so much two-way work, there was burden on Isco and Kroos to create. This leads to all kinds of dominoes. Offensively, it helped at times (see: the assist for both goals, and Toni Kroos actually playing a very beautiful vertical game offensively all night in Balaidos). Defensively, Marcelo had to rely on Casemiro for extra coverage. Kroos was often caught high with no coverage, and in turn, this affected Marcelo greatly. Forget about relying on Isco in this scheme — no one knows where he’ll be half the time. It’s a guessing game.

Kroos was a much more advance midfielder than widely perceived. Some of the times he jogged back, I’m not entirely sure he changes anything even if he decides to sprint back. Maybe someone with Bale’s speed unnerves Maxi into coughing up possession below, but even cyborg-Kroos in full-throttle mode is out of his depth here, caught the way he is:

That’s straight up Casemiro territory. A glaring difference between this season and last season’s team is that last season, Kroos, Modric, and Casemiro were in sync. Not anymore. If Casemiro bombed forward, at least one of the other two would hedge back, and the whole thing was interchangeable. Look how high up Toni Kroos is on Celta’s first goal, and then look to see how badly out of position Casemiro is too. Not a chance Casemiro is saving anyone’s blushes here, particularly Marcelo’s:

Let’s be real. That goal is Marcelo’s fault. I’m merely pointing out that the chance of masking the Brazilian’s position here is zero, when it should be, umm, much higher than that. This is basic scouting. Unzue was probably shocked at how easy his plan worked, even if he knew it was a good plan. Heck, Daniel Wass’s post-game statement was embarrassing. If you decide to live and die by Marcelo’s defense and offense, then plan for it.

Here’s something: When the ball is in front of him, Kroos can hound opponents. You might not rely on him like you would Varane and Nacho (seriously, bless those two. Amid a season of chaos, these guys have been spread so thin, and instead of looking at fault, they’ve been two of the better players this season — particularly Varane) — or even Achraf, Casemiro, and Vallejo in terms of sprinting back, but, when the play is slowed down, let him chase opponents into discomfort:

Toni Kroos has some bad tendencies defensively, but he’s also ridiculously important to the team as a binding agent. There are a lot of people at fault this season — most of them all involved in Cardiff’s historic night against Juventus. None of these players are finished yet. There is individual blame, managerial blame, schematic issues, motivational issues, and a bunch of intangibles we’ve yet to fully unearth.

More mailbag questions will be released after the Villarreal match concludes.

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