One of the most entertaining things about watching the best teams in the world is being able to observe how they evolve – how they struggle to remain competitive and unpredictable. For teams at the top, the ability to change smoothly is essential as they fight to retain their position in the world’s podium.
And fortunately for us, the spectators, that is one of many abilities that have been mastered by the German National Team.
Almost two years ago, Pep Guardiola startled many around the world by playing German captain Philipp Lahm – a career-long full-back – as a central midfielder at Bayern Munich.
“Philipp Lahm is, perhaps, the most intelligent player I have ever coached,” the former Barcelona coach said then.
But many others were more surprised by how quickly Germany head coach Joachim Low embraced the change in his national side. When Low first moved Lahm to central midfield for the Maanschaft, there was harsh criticism from the press. However, Low understood that as the team looked to consolidate a more possession-based style of play, Lahm’s technique and coolness would be indispensable – just like they had been for Guardiola at Allianz Arena.
And he was right. Lahm’s move to midfield became, for a moment, a central part of Germany’s midfield play. But, after the World Cup, as Lahm announced his retirement from the national side, there was a sense that another change had to come in order to fill his gap. And that was when Toni Kroos’ transformation came in.
Despite his cool-headedness and outstanding passing technique, Kroos hadn’t been considered seriously as a central midfielder before – much less as one with defensive responsibilities. A little less than a year ago, Kroos was an attacking midfielder at Bayern Munich — an “enganche” that sat behind Robert Lewandowski and looked to influence mostly the offensive side of play.
However, as soon as the German arrived at Real Madrid at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, Carlo Ancelotti revealed that he had different plans for him. Ancelotti played him in central midfield in a role similar to the one that had been previously occupied by Xabi Alonso. And though he struggled at first, Kroos soon started to look like a natural.
Of course, it wasn’t long before Low took advantage of that same move for his national side as well.
Watching Kroos during Germany’s last World Cup Qualifying matches, it is hard to imagine him in a different position. At the edge of midfield, he has formed a beautiful partnership with Bastian Schweinsteiger — a synchronized duet that combines technique and physicality to dominate pretty much any opponent that stands in front.
On Monday, in the 3-2 victory against Scotland, Kroos pulled virtually all strings in midfield with an exquisite symphony of quick passing that helped keep Germany in possession for more than 72 percent of the game. He completed an astounding 138 passes – more, of course, than anyone else in the field. He had a 97 percent completion rate.
Despite their prolific scoring record, the German National Team are currently undergoing a sort of offensive transformation. They are still learning to cope without a strong presence in the opponent’s box, and trying to figure out Mario Gotze’s role in the team. And as those changes lead to mistakes, Kroos’ role has become key in order to keep the possession that the team relies on.
Drifting with certain freedom as Schweinsteiger drops deep in order to move the ball out, Kroos is the main link between defense and attack – the first touch in midfield. And when the ball is in rival territory, he follows closely in order to recycle possession once the team moves into awkward positions. This way, he makes sure Germany don’t lose their almighty grasp of the ball.
Kroos has even become an important asset for Germany during defensive transitions, the aspect where he seemed to lacked the most when he first moved to Real Madrid. His positioning has improved, both on and off the ball, and that has been crucial in order to stop counter-attacks and win back possession swiftly. In the matches against Scotland and Poland Kroos made a combined total of seven tackles – an individual best for his team.
Now, sure, the change in Kroos’ position perhaps isn’t as dramatic as that undergone by Lahm before him – even before playing as a central midfielder, Kroos often looked to obtain possession in similar areas near the halfway line. Yet, considering the changes he has shown in his role, his mentality, and his abilities, Kroos’ adaptation might even be more significant than the former German captain’s. It might also wind up being just as important.
After the match against Scotland, Low praised his players, and the man of the match, Thomas Müller, who scored two goals and put in an assist for the third one.
However, he also praised the collective work of the team and the systematical contexts that made the win possible.
“We largely controlled this game and didn’t allow Scotland any chances in open play. We were in possession most of the time,” he said.
All factors that would have been impossible without his transformed man in midfield.