Kroos is Germany's man in the middle
"I expect Toni Kroos to play a very different role than in the last couple of tournaments," Joachim Loew said this week, before adding: "He's become more mature, more aware of his responsibilities." As far as compliments go, this was a very interesting one from the Germany manager: Two parts praise, one part reminder not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
At the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, the Bayern Munich midfielder had spent most of his time complaining about a lack of action. In South Africa, his impatience was put down to inexperience and therefore largely excused. But two years later, Kroos rubbed quite a few players the wrong way with his public demands of playing time.
The fact that Loew relented and effectively rewarded the cultured playmaker for his egotism with a starting berth in the semi-final against Italy -- the idea was for him to control Andrea Pirlo, the consequences were catastrophic -- made the defeat against the Azzurri even more painful. A lot of the pre-World Cup talk has been about players having to toe the line and the need to increase togetherness was implicitly directed at him.
Whether the son of a former GDR badminton champion mother has really become more of a team man is hard to gauge. In January, he threw his gloves to the floor in a show of petulance after Pep Guardiola had substituted him in a league game for Bayern. The Catalan left him out of the next two Bundesliga games by way of punishment. A few weeks later, Bastian Schweinsteiger reenacted the gloves scene in jest after a substitution. The joke was on Kroos, and it gave a telling insight into the way his reaction had been perceived by the rest of the team.
Kroos returned from his mini-ban to perform with distinction until the end of the season. Injuries to Thiago Alcantara and Schweinsteiger made him an automatic starter, so it's impossible to tell whether he had actually changed his attitude or simply found no reason to complain. The same holds true for the national team right now: As the one and only fully fit central midfielder of stature -- Philipp Lahm, Sami Khedira, Schweinsteiger are all short of match fitness - he is all but guaranteed to feature in the starting XI against Portugal on June 16 in Salvador, either as a no. 10 or as one of the two holding midfielders.
Loew has praised Kroos as "a really important building block of the team" and it's not an exaggeration to claim that he's become vital to Germany's tournament chances like never before. No wonder he's struck a very contented figure in the last few days.
The national manager's words about "maturity" and "awareness of responsibility" didn't just address Kroos' off-the-pitch behaviour, however; they are also qualities that have been somewhat missing in his game. For all his elegance and wonderful passing skills, Kroos had a tendency to go AWOL when the game didn't go according to plan.
The 4-4 qualifying draw against Sweden -- Germany had led 4-0 -- in late 2012 was a prime example. There were worrying signs of that phlegmatic approach in the 2-2 draw with Cameroon on Sunday but his performances for Bayern in the last few months have shown that the kid from Greifswald, who was so talented that he was made to play football without shoes in school to give others a chance, has grown up.
Kroos' key game in that respect came against Borussia Dortmund in the DFB Cup final last month, when he battled, hassled and fouled as the sole defensive midfielder as if he'd never done anything else in his life. "Some observers perhaps needed to see this game to realise that I can play in that position without the opponents getting one good scoring chance after the next," he told reporters during the training camp in South Tyrol, a little defensively. "I always knew that I can play that way, as well as our coach," he added in an interview with Sport-Bild, "otherwise (Guardiola) wouldn't have made that decision".
His problem has never been one of ability, but one of application. His former teacher told Die Welt that he only did "the bare minimum" to graduate from school. His missing Germany's sole chance to score against Spain in South Africa with a very controlled but slightly meek volley -- Iker Casillas made the save -- was faintly symbolic, and it's been often impossible to tell the score from his body language. Kroos plays his game, come what may and that self-centred approach to his work is both a source of strength as well as a weakness.
Two years ago, Werner Kern, the former Bayern Munich youth director, called Kroos, who was named the "Best Player" of the 2007 U-17 World Cup, "the most talented player since Karl-Heinz Rummenigge". The assessment was tinged with regret; he'd felt that Kroos hadn't made the expected progress in his two years on loan at Bayer Leverkusen. He did, however, improve markedly in his second season under Jupp Heynckes at Bayern in the treble-winning 2012-13 season, and in the last Champions League campaign, he played more passes (1212) than anyone else in Europe, including Barcelona's Xavi, Spiegel Online found.
Bayern's reluctance to meet Kroos' wage demands -- he's out of contract in 2015 -- is an indication that some of the doubts, the ones about his sociability as well as the ones about his playing style, have not fully subsided. However, they have unquestionably become a lot smaller and, the way things have been going, Kroos will now get a chance to put all the prejudices to bed in Brazil once and for all.
"I've developed in a good way over the last two weeks," he said, with typical confidence, "I don't think about the possibility of not playing". Neither does Loew. Kroos is peerless in midfield at the moment, quite literally.