How Toni Kroos could reinvigorate Manchester United's ailing midfield
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When Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayern Munich raised the curtain for the Bundesliga's second half (otherwise known as die Rückrunde) last weekend, managers Lucien Favre and Pep Guardiola weren't the only bosses looking on: Jupp Heynckes and Joachim Löw were both there, but it was the visit of Manchester United's David Moyes and Phil Neville that really raised questions.
United have been linked with a plethora of players after their poor start and no fewer than four of them - including Dante, Mario Mandzukic, Patrick Herrmann and Max Kruse - were playing in the game at Borussia Park. But, rather surprisingly, they weren't the ones being watched by Old Trafford reps, but Bayern’s talismanic midfielder Toni Kroos.
They might have snapped up Juan Mata from Chelsea, but there are many reasons why United should still be chasing Kroos. The player is unsettled, and his frustrated reaction to being substituted in Wednesday night's late win over Stuttgart will only add more fuel to the fire.
It's well documented that the 24-year-old Germany international has only 18 months left on his current contract at at the Allianz Arena, but with the Bayern academy graduate making the most appearances under Guardiola, it’s unlikely the European champions will let him go easily. Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge insists the Bavarians are keen to extend the youngster's deal: "We are interested that Toni prolongs his contract," he confirmed.
After previous contract renewal talks broke down there aren't yet plans for them to re-open. "I am under contract with Bayern Munich," Kroos told Kicker. "Actually, there are no further talks scheduled, and I will therefore fully focus on the second half of the season.”
United, meanwhile, will make life hard for Bayern to fulfill their intentions.
Jupp to scratch
Kroos was promoted into Bayern's senior team at the tender age of 17, making his debut in a 5-0 home victory over now 2.Bundesliga side, Energie Cottbus. The game is remembered for two reasons: firstly, he became the youngest player to represent Bayern in the Bundesliga (a record broken by David Alaba in 2010) and, better still, notched two assists inside 20 minutes of coming on.
As he was slowly bled into the side, it was clear Kroos possessed all the qualities of a great attacking midfielder. But in order to further his career, Bayern were required to send him out on loan for more first-team experience. Thus, in January 2009, Kroos was shipped out to Bayer Leverkusen until the end of the campaign.
But it was in the young midfielder's second season at Leverkusen - under Bayern coach-to-be Heynckes - where he really established himself. Heynckes thought highly of his temporary acquisition, and made the teenager an essential part of his side which challenged Bayern Munich for the title. Kroos was key, despite being used further wide than where Heynckes would later deploy him in his all-conquering Bayern juggernaut.
But while it was clear Heyckes saw an attacking midfielder in Kroos at Bayern, Pep Guardiola saw otherwise.
Since the meticulous Spaniard took the reins, Kroos has been moved back into a central-midfield role to accommodate him in the former Barcelona chief's 4-1-4-1 formation. When Guardiola arrived at Bayern, he made his ideologies clear: ball retention was integral. Revolutionary changes were made, most notably in the roles of Kroos and right-back-turned-central-midfielder Philipp Lahm.
In his deeper role, Kroos’ game is focused on keeping possession and finding passes for his more advanced team-mates. But his previous years as an attacking midfielder have certainly helped, and this attacking psychology has seen 61.8% of his completed passes go forward, with a herculean overall pass success rate of almost 92% in the Bundesliga.
Tug of war
Should Bayern fail in negotiating a new contract with Kroos – it's reported he wants to double his current wage of £75,000 - they may be forced to sell in the summer or risk losing him on a free the following season. The champions usually get their own way, but won't fancy the latter should the situation escalate.
For United, Kroos could be the belated but much-needed replacement for Paul Scholes, and ease some tension on the ageing Michael Carrick. He’d slot seamlessly into Moyes' double-pivot 4-2-3-1 alongside Carrick in the short-term, with his success for Bayern this season coming alongside another disciplined midfielder in Lahm.
But it appears United aren’t the only English club evoking interest in Kroos’ services. It's been suggested that Chelsea may be interested in pouncing should the German become available, but with an already overcrowded midfield it’s hard to see why a player of such magnitude would want the competition should he depart for England. It may hinge on the possibility of David Luiz leaving in the summer.
Kroos is an ambitious target for United, even by their standards, and Moyes & Co. know full well that Bayern won't let him go without a fight. But when there’s the chance of a player like him becoming available - see Mesut Özil and Arsenal as a case in point - it’d be absurd not to pursue. He could just be the missing piece this under-fire team has been looking for.