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Real Madrid: Is Toni Kroos one of the best midfielders of the 21st century?

Toni Kroos
(Image credit: PA)

Toni Kroos receives the ball facing his own goal; he takes two touches to control. He then swings a right leg and pings the ball 60 yards through the eye of the Liverpool backline. Vinicius Jr runs onto it, slotting the ball past a moustachioed Alisson Becker and giving Real Madrid the lead.

When pundits talk about how “experienced” this Real Madrid side is, it’s shorthand for Toni Kroos being able to make an assist like that in a Champions League quarterfinal against the English champions as if he’s in his back garden. From then on, Real Madrid’s 3-1 victory over Liverpool became a training session led by Kroos, who aside from a nervy ten minutes after half-time, controlled proceedings throughout. He drifted deep, he sprayed sideways. He led Real in his image, like a congenial general. He barely broke into a jog. 

And Liverpool couldn’t get within five yards of him. Klopp couldn’t even wait until half-time to foil his countryman, bringing on Thiago for Naby Keita in the first half, perhaps just to get someone on the ball with equal composure and driving range. Liverpool had their spells in possession but by closing time, Thiago, too, was left with the rest of the likely lads, playing from side to side, desperately hoping for Real Madrid’s six-man backline to part for a second. 

We’ve seen it time and again over the years - but we’ve barely watched it keenly. Kroos was utterly spellbinding for Germany at the 2014 World Cup but following a move to Real Madrid, he’s faded into the background. 

It was an interesting career decision; he was arguably the best no.10 in world football but at the Bernabeu, he drifted into a deeper midfield role. He could have commanded the same attention as someone like Mesut Ozil, James Rodriguez or Bruno Fernandes. He chose not to.

Toni Kroos has been imperious for Los Blancos - arguably the unsung hero of that midfield. Luka Modric sparkled as the flashy dribbler, Casemiro caught the eye as the opposite, while Kroos received fewer plaudits: the anti-Galactico, if you like. When Real Madrid knocked Bayern Munich out of the Champions League in 2017, all the talk was typically of Cristiano Ronaldo, putting Germans on arses on his lonesome, with three goals. 

It should have been about Kroos: vision so impeccable, that he left Bayern just as their empire ended and Real’s began.

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He’s not just unsung in his own team, either. Debates of the great midfielders come and go, of Xavi and Iniesta, Pirlo, Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, even Zidane himself. No one seems to pipe up with Kroos’s number. He certainly has the consistency over the past decade to deserve a place at the table - and his dismantling of Brazil in 2014 was the most iconic international performance since Zidane toyed with the Selecao in 2006. 

On pure ability, the German is up there with anyone - and his ability to seamlessly turn his hand to any midfield role over the past half-decade is pretty much unrivalled by his peers.

He’s just not flashy: that’s perhaps Kroos’s biggest crime. He had a fan in Johan Cruyff but he didn’t have the mystique of playing tiki-taka. He doesn’t have a vineyard, a Wikiquotes page or fellow professionals fawning over his raking balls. He’s a nerdy German, not a sexy Spaniard. 

Manuel Lanzini, Paul Pogba, Santi Cazorla, N’Golo Kante and Jack Wilshere have all been referenced in grime songs. It’s hard to imagine Kroos - apparently a big fan of James Blunt, Olly Murs and Robbie Williams - popping up in a Dave track any time soon.

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Yet Toni Kroos’s performance against Liverpool - a solid 9/10 performance - typified him as a player. Technically perhaps the best footballer on the field - yet happy to take a back seat. He’s won four Champions League trophies and five league titles with two different clubs but he still plays the game at exactly his own tempo and not a beat quicker. 

It’s perhaps fitting that FourFourTwo Twitter followers overlooked him for the man of the match (opens in new tab)

This serial winner - the German player of the year when Die Mannschaft won the World Cup for the first time since 1990 - may well end his career as underrated. It’s a strange twist of fate. Watch the game last night and you may have missed Kroos; watch Kroos and you’d have seen the whole game. 

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Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. Over his time on the brand, he has interviewed the likes of Aaron Ramsdale and Jack Wilshere, written pieces ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career, and has been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals, working for FFT