“For me, Kroos is the axle in the Madrid team. I see a lot of myself in him. He’s like my successor on the field.”
When you’re likened to FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship-winning midfielder Xavi, by the man himself no less, you know you’re doing something right.
Former Bayern Munich midfielder Toni Kroos is undoubtedly one of the best midfielders in the world. He has been dubbed by Spanish publication Marca as “a one-man orchestra”, while Germany coach Joachim Löw lauds the “symmetry and balance” he brings to a side and Zinedine Zidane has called him the “perfect” player for Real Madrid.
Watch: Toni Kroos - World-class and Bundesliga-bred
All high praise indeed of Kroos’ outstanding ability, but the case can be made that had his talent not been recognised and allowed to flourish in the Bundesliga so early, then his development into the archetypal modern midfielder may not have been quite so seamless.
Kroos is still young and it is a scary thought indeed that he may not have yet hit his peak, but a true evaluation of his progress requires one to go back to when he was a teenager, on the cusp of making a name for himself.
He was considered a Jahrhunderttalent – “a talent of the century” – when Bayern Munich plucked him from the youth ranks of Hansa Rostock in summer 2006. Just over a year later, he had already made his Bundesliga debut under Ottmar Hitzfeld as a 17-year-old, making the leap almost a year before Thomas Müller, despite being four months his junior.
In terms of his ability and mental strength, Kroos was evidently ready for top-flight football in Germany, and having given him a first taste, Hitzfeld made sure not to overwhelm the youngster. Instead, he was drip-fed a steady stream of appearances – 12 in the league in his first season (2007/08).
Training on a daily basis with the likes of Mark van Bommel and Bastian Schweinsteiger improved Kroos further, but it was another midfielder that would arguably have the greatest impact on Kroos’ career, and not in the way you might expect.
Germany international Tim Borowski joined Bayern on a free transfer from Werder Bremen in summer 2008, pushing Kroos further down the pecking order. Yet the Bavarians were keen not to stifle the youngster’s encouraging development and, as they had done with Philipp Lahm at Stuttgart six years previously, they sent Kroos on loan to Bayer Leverkusen in January 2009.
It was a transfer that as good as confirmed Kroos was destined for the top. Under the tutelage of Jupp Heynckes, who would later also coach him at Bayern and recently made a successful return to Bavaria as Carlo Ancelotti's successor, the Greifswald native developed into one of the Bundesliga’s standout midfielders. One particularly fruitful five-game spell in 2009/10 brought five goals, four assists and consecutive Player of the Month awards from German football magazine kicker.
Kroos ended that campaign with a hugely impressive nine goals and 12 assists in total, and a place in Die Mannschaft’s final squad for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where he appeared in four of his team’s seven matches.
He will likely never forget how important that spell at Leverkusen was, nor the impression Heynckes made on him as a coach. “I look at my career in stages,” Kroos said in an interview with the German Football Federation (DFB). “Jupp Heynckes was the most important coach I had in the early stage of my career, both at Leverkusen and then in Munich too. It’s fair to say that it was after he arrived in Munich in 2011 that I started to be able to play at a high level consistently.”
After a bucket load of trophies under Heynckes, Kroos then worked under Pep Guardiola, and though their co-operation lasted only a year before the former’s transfer to present club Real Madrid, Kroos values the lessons he learned under the Spaniard to this day.
“You could say that Heynckes’ arrival was one of the catalysts for my development, but I wouldn’t underestimate that year under Guardiola,” he says. “I think my career took another step forward in that time. Guardiola saw me as a central player in his system, which fitted my style of play perfectly.”
Playing regularly for season after season under some of the best coaches in the world had helped Kroos mature into the complete midfielder in his final season at Bayern, and by the time Germany travelled to the 2014 World Cup, both he and the rest of Germany’s golden generation – Schweinsteiger, Müller, Mesut Özil et al. – were ready to become world champions.
Since swapping Munich for Madrid, Kroos has continued to mature, winning La Liga in 2016/17 and three successive UEFA Champions League titles. As the trophies and the appreciation continue to rack up, Kroos looks more and more the German equivalent of Xavi, and perhaps may even surpass him.
It is not inaccurate to assert that very soon – perhaps already – we will be saying the Bundesliga made one of the greatest midfielders of all time.