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Toni Kroos: A Master of Ball Progression

A visual deep dive into the German legend’s progressive passing.

Real Madrid CF v Athletic Club - La Liga Santander Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Real Madrid’s games always run on Kroos’ rhythm” - Casemiro.

Toni Kroos, Real Madrid’s midfield general, has played and won a lot with Casemiro. Casemiro (along with Luka Modric) has probably been the closest to seeing the rhythm Toni Kroos brings to Real Madrid’s matches up close.

Having already managed Kroos in his debut season at the Bernabeu in the 2014-15 season, Carlo Ancelotti was well aware of the things the German can do. But Carlo could not count on him for the initial stage of the season as Kroos remained sidelined with fitness issues until late September. His integration back into the team was rocky, though, not from a personal point of view but a collective one. Real Madrid suffered two painful defeats at the hands of Sheriff and Espanyol in Kroos’ first two games since returning. However, neither Kroos nor his team has had to look back ever since.

The greatest myth in the history of all myths is probably labeling Toni Kroos as a sideways pass merchant. Kroos has been one of the world’s greatest ball progressors for more than half a decade. Any resurfacing of that myth is genuinely discardable. Toni Kroos has the numbers, iconic performances, and trophies to back that over the years. This season is no different. His passing numbers per 90, in LaLiga, are downright scary.

From fbref.com

His wizardry in ball progression is not limited to passing only. Despite not being among the fastest players in the league, Toni Kroos is very good at carrying the ball into dangerous areas. In terms of shot-creation and the final phase of build-up, the areas where Kroos’ carries end are very significant for Real Madrid. Here are some of his progressive carries this season:

From fbref.com
From fbref.com

Kroos wears and plays the ‘number 8’ role for Real Madrid. With or without Luka Modric, Toni Kroos usually plays on the left-hand side of the midfield. His progressive passes are not limited to vertical passes to the left-winger or the overlapping left-back. Kroos can switch play in the blink of an eye with emasculate precision, from left to right.

This is an extremely essential phase in Real Madrid’s build-up. Under Zidane and under Ancelotti, the team constantly looks to overload on the left and switch play to the right to make use of the vacant space. Kroos is well and truly Real Madrid’s conductor-in-chief for these switches which can take place in the defensive half (as seen in the first video sequence below) and in the offensive half (second sequence).

The clinical nature of Toni Kroos’ ball progression also helps Real Madrid overcome difficult situations. His famous wave of the hand towards Vinicius to drown Barcelona in El Clasico at the Bernabeu in 2020 is still fresh in memory. Here’s one recent example of such precision and elite awareness that created a significant opportunity for Real Madrid in a game where Sevilla's defense was turning out to be very hard to unlock. Kroos does well to remain stable enough to pass the ball to Benzema, immediately makes himself available as a passing outlet then screens Vinicius’ run, and delivers a surgical through ball to the Brazillian with his weaker foot:

Despite suffering from defensive lapses and a drop in intensity towards the final phases of certain games, Real Madrid have done well to stay on top of most things prior to their visit to Anoeta. While goals from Benzema and Vinicius have been the highlight of this mini-streak, Toni Kroos and his ‘Kroos-control’ have been very important as well.

[Stats and visualizations are shown from the timeline prior to Real Madrid’s win vs. Real Sociedad]