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How Toni Kroos might be playing his best ever season of football

Kroos has added more defensive wrinkles to his game, and in addition to dominating his nominal on-ball stats, has helped as a ball-winner too

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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.

In what might be, God forbid, the last season of arguably the greatest passer in football history, it’s worth noting that Toni Kroos, 32, may currently be at the apex of his powers.

That almost doesn’t add up. Kroos has done it all and seen it all. He has won a World Cup, the Champions League five times, and been crowned with six domestic titles. He has ranked first in passes into the final third three times (four if you include this season until now), has ranked top five in assists five times, and top 10 in key passes four times.

But there hasn’t been a drop-off in play in 2022. This season, Kroos has slung more progressive passes than anyone in Spain, and is playing what might be the best defense of his entire career. His 1.7 tackles per game are tied for first in the team with Real Madrid’s anchor, Aurelien Tchouameni.

No one in La Liga has had more touches on the ball than Kroos this season. He is the chief protagonist in everything Real Madrid do in the build-up phase, and his 5.9 long balls per game are the most of any midfielder in Spain.

These aren’t empty-calorie stats. They are loaded with precious bits of ball-progression, press-resistancy, organization, and breaks on offense. Kroos has contributed to the team winning. His up-tick in defense has allowed him to anchor games as not only a deep-lying playmaker, but a reliable shield when Tchouameni sits.

Kroos’s 20 tackles in La Liga are behind in the team only to Tchouameni. He has 19 blocked shots in all competitions — more than any midfielder on the team and second only to Eder Militao. He has blocked 16 passes (team-high). Against Barcelona in October, he slid in for a game-high five tackles, and put in one of the best two-way performances by a midfielder in El Clasico in recent memory.

His step-ups in midfield to suffocate Frenkie de Jong were perfect all game:

Kroos hovers in Frenkie’s vicinity off the ball, making life uncomfortable for the Dutchman. Frenkie is a good player — an apt dribbler and good on the ball. He couldn’t escape Kroos’s pocket — physically and mentally, and is already reacting to shield the ball away from Kroos before he receives the ball. Most players at this level can ward off the defender in that situation without losing possession. Kroos wins the ball comfortably. The subtle tackle led to a terrific transition attack where Vinicius gets the ball in the box just seconds later.

Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - LaLiga Santander
Kroos put in one of the best performances by a midfielder in recent Clasico history this season
Photo by Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Kroos also covered zones horizontally — sheltering for full-backs, doubling up on wingers, and mopping up Zone 14:

Real Madrid fans are used to seeing those tackles come from Casemiro, or even Modric, Valverde, Tchouameni, and Camavinga. Kroos’s expertise has always been in his unrivalled passing ability. He has slung more passes into the final third than anyone else in Champions League history. It is an astronomical gap between him and #2. Kroos is elite at several offensive traits, and has been for years. The defensive wrinkle — at this volume and consistency — is new.

Watching Kroos this season has been breathtaking, and perhaps the new gear he’s hit has somewhat to do with this (possibly) being his last dance.

You often don’t see his genius until he’s not on the field. Against high-pressing teams, he is a necessary paladin. So much of the dialogue is always about Real Madrid’s struggles breaking down a low block, but there is so much room for improvement against teams who hold a higher line too. Kroos funnels possession against these teams.

Not having him in the line-up against a high-flying Rayo Vallecano side in Vallecas in November was like taking a major organ — probably the heart itself — out of a body and expecting it to survive. Modric had an uncharacteristic off night in Vallecas, and without Kroos to steady the ship, it sunk. (That, in itself, is a huge indication of tactical problems and structural issues that could arise in a future without Kroos and Modric.)

If this is Kroos’s last season, replacing him next season will be impossible. Signing a good midfielder is one thing, signing a player to do what Kroos does, by default given that he’s a unicorn and probably the best ever at what he does, is unfeasible. At best, you remain a great team, but in a different way. The playing style and dependance will have to change.

Kroos has always been good on defense behind the ball. This season he’s been reading plays a step ahead of the pack:

When Oliver Torres receives the ball from a square pass in midfield, he and Kroos both have two-to-three options. Kroos can either hedge back and back-pedal while letting Torres carry the ball, mark the outlet pass to the right, or swarm Torres. Torres can react with several options that open up based on what Kroos decides.

It all happens at lightning speed and it’s subtle, but Kroos effectively paralyzes Torres with his press. Rather than heading at him straight on, he does it at an angle to narrow the passing window with his left foot. That causes Torres to retreat while Kroos dispossess the Spanish midfielder cleanly with his right foot where he had purposefully channeled him into.

What should’ve been a simple play for Torres — a highly capable midfielder — ends up in confusion and panic. Kroos reads the play instinctually.

That Sevilla game was another great example of how good Kroos has been defensively, both on an individual level, and in the collective swarm:

That is a collective effort, but you’ll find Kroos as one of the lead characters in defensive sequences like that where the team has to converge on the ball carrier in midfield. Kroos has had 25 tackles this season in the middle third in all competitions — the most of anyone on the team.

That energy is infectious, and raises the spirits of everyone on that side. Ferland Mendy is one of the best defensive left-backs in Europe and Vinicius Jr works as hard as any winger on defense. Kroos’s uptick on defense has been a big boost to both of them, and has alleviated some of the burden of new-recruit Aurelien Tchouameni in a post-Casemiro world.

It has helped with the over-reliance on Luka Modric to do so many things at once too. Modric has long been Spider-Man. He has played the role of saviour for nearly a decade now. Under Zinedine Zidane’s watch, when Casemiro was up the field in attacking positions and the team held a high-line with the wing-backs high up the field, Modric was often the only midfielder sprinting back to help Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. He did it, and continues to do so, but it’s taxing, and Kroos helping in transition more now makes it easier on the collective.

It hasn’t all been perfect from Kroos on defense. Against Girona, old habits reappeared, and his jogging in transition hurt them on a couple occassions. Some of that could’ve been down to fatigue, or that he’s human and no player is perfect all the time. Kroos is one of the players who will stay back and watch the World Cup from home, so perhaps some of those sequences will be cleaned up, or fewer and far in between, once he hits the ground running fresh after the World Cup ends.

And that also points to another part of this unfolding chapter on Kroos’s 2022 - 2023 season: This article in some ways is premature. Kroos will be vital in the second half of the season, as he’s one of the players who will have to carry the load after the World Cup. Whether he can carry what’s needed or not, he will be involved heavily and a protagonist in Real Madrid’s story in a campaign that is far from over.

As Michael Laudrup once said, after every World Cup, players come back out of form. Real Madrid saw this first hand after the 2018 tournament. Kroos is one of those who could be immune to that.

Kroos currently sits at 1387 minutes on the season. Keep an eye on that number. Only three players — Vinicius Jr, David Alaba, Fede Valverde — have played more. By June, The German might sit among the top-two in minutes played, and with that volume, I’d expect him to lead the league in every category that illustrates a massive usage rate: Touches, passes into the final third, number of passes received, etc.

At this rate, we may look back on this season as Kroos’s best season ever on an individual level, and if the team manages to lift major silverware with him as the linchpin, it would cement his 2022 - 2023 campaign even further.

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