By Clark Whitney | German Football Editor
Five years ago, Toni Kroos was the best player in the world in his age group. The central attacking midfielder won the Golden Ball at the 2007 Under-17 World Cup, and was promoted to the Bayern Munich senior team soon after. Club president Uli Hoeness praised the youngster to the heavens, even vowing to reserve the No. 10 shirt for the acne-spotted talent.
Things did not go as planned for Kroos, however, and the coveted shirt was instead given to Arjen Robben in 2009. After one-and-a-half seasons of stagnation, the youngster was cast away on loan to Leverkusen. In 18 months under coach Jupp Heynckes, Kroos blossomed. But his return to Munich was far from triumphant, as he struggled in a defensive midfield role in Louis van Gaal’s notoriously forward-minded system.
Fast forward to the current campaign and Kroos has finally made good on the promise he showed in his teens. Reunited with Heynckes, he has flourished in a central playmaking role, often displacing the previously untouchable Thomas Muller from the starting line-up. When Bastian Schweinsteiger was injured for the majority of four months, Kroos gradually gained Heynckes’ confidence, and is now an automatic choice for the role of deputy defensive midfielder.
With nurturing from his trainer and mentorship from Schweinsteiger, Kroos has made tremendous strides this season, progress that was affirmed on the greatest stage of all on Tuesday as Bayern earned a 2-1 win against Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final clash.
|How Toni distributes the ball, how he receives it, is very good. He's technically excellent ... He has made progress in the last few matches, I'm extremely satisfied with the player
- Joachim Low on Kroos
Deployed from the start as a central playmaker, Kroos formed a deadly triangle with Schweinsteiger and Luiz Gustavo that stifled the Madrid midfield. A harried Xabi Alonso was unable to dictate the flow of play as he so often does, but Kroos again and again negotiated his way through congested areas. At any depth of the pitch, the 22-year-old’s cool presence near and on the ball was welcome for the hosts. And when Schweinsteiger was substituted on the hour mark, the versatile youngster dropped into a defensive role and Bayern looked no worse off.
Even a few months ago, things might have been different upon Schweinsteiger’s withdrawal. In a November Champions League group stage match against Napoli, the vice-captain was forced off early with an injury, and the Germans were fortunate not to drop points after a complete defensive meltdown.
Real Madrid were by no means at their best in attack on Tuesday, but the fact that their chances after Schweinsteiger’s departure remained limited is a testament to the progress Kroos has made. With the ex-Hansa Rostock man in a holding position, the Bavarians’ control of the midfield never waned, and they pressed on for an eventual winner.
Kroos’ technique and playmaking vision have always been impeccable. It is in his ball-retention and decision-making skills that he has so vastly improved. From the quick one-touch passes to the clever dribbles between defenders, Kroos quite clearly has learned from Schweinsteiger the art of evading opponents. Against Real, his dribble from deep in his own half and pinpoint through pass to Mario Gomez on 40 minutes had Basti’s mark stamped on it.
TONI KROOS | SEASON-BY-SEASON AT BAYERN
Indeed, there are many parallels that can be drawn between Kroos and Schweinsteiger. Both played in attacking roles in their early days but are far too skilled in possession to be deployed out wide, and much better in ball retention than the typical No. 10. The younger star is more accurate in his shooting and passing; the elder has more refined defensive qualities, although the gap between the two is narrowing.
But the most significant similarity between the pair is their capacity to bring their best performances on the biggest stage. Schweinsteiger is already a German legend and needs no introduction. As a younger player, Kroos has less experience. But especially this season, he has emerged as an ever-reliable part of Heynckes’ side. He was named in Goal.com’s Team of the Champions League group stage, and despite never playing in a fully attacking role, has scored twice and given five assists in Europe’s premier club tournament this season. Joachim Low, meanwhile, has absolute trust in him in the German national team, and for good reason: with his side struggling in recent friendlies against Poland and Ukraine, Kroos scored a stunning goal in either game as the team came from behind to earn draws.
Looking back half a decade to when Schweinsteiger was of a comparable age, there is no question that Kroos is ahead of his team-mate’s benchmark. He is not yet the experienced leader that his team-mate is, and still has some work to do to refine his talent further. But Kroos' trajectory is staggering, and his attitude as an ever-eager student of the game will take him to even greater heights.
The future is bright for the youngster: in the coming years, there is no limit to what he can achieve.
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