A Look at Toni Kroos’ Ability to Dominate from Deep at Euro 2016

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At Euro 2016, a lot of teams have come into games with a defence-first mentality. They’ve tried to sit back, eliminate the pockets in front of their goalkeeper and, when the opportunity has presented itself, attack largely in transition. Some of the more favoured teams, when tasked with breaking down such deep defensive structures, have struggled, while others have succeeded. Not many, however, have handled the bus-parkers better than Joachim Low’s Germany.

Low’s men demonstrated this in their recent round of 16 encounter with Slovakia. They controlled most of the contest, enjoying over 61% of possession in the process, and eventually won the game 3-0. In order to do that, they needed to find a way through, and the three men often tasked with hitting the ball into the final third were Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Toni Kroos. The trio almost formed a back three as Germany constructed their possession play from deeper positions, and perhaps because of that, they were the most prolific passers for the game. They all had their moments, too, but none more so than Kroos.

A deep-lying playmaker in the truest sense, Kroos commandeered the central midfield zone. He hit an unrivalled 96 passes for the match, and for a player who hit 16 long balls on the day, to go with three key passes, his ability to find the target 90.6% of the time was remarkable. He usually did this by floating into deep left-of-centre positions, as a means through which to take up the spaces left vacant by Jonas Hector, Germany’s onrushing left-back. This allowed him to get away any sort of Slovakian pressure through the centre of the pitch, and given that the team captained by Martin Skrtel were dropping deep anyway, Kroos now had plenty of space in which to operate.

From there, he went to work with precision. He pinged long diagonals over towards the right-hand side, where fullback Joshua Kimmich was advancing along the touchline. He also hit sharp vertical passes to those ahead of him on the left, usually Hector and dribbling machine Julian Draxler, and in less adventurous moments, he simply kept possession ticking over. But regardless of the style of pass he was playing, Kroos always seemed to have something in mind.

As Michael Cox noted recently, the Real Madrid man “conducts play, gesturing for his team-mates to move into place.” By doing so, Kroos allows his colleagues to be prepared for what needs to happen next in Germany’s possession game, and in this way, his work in deeper positions dictates much of what later transpires higher up.

In the lead-up to Germany’s second goal against Slovakia, scored in the 43rd minute by Mario Gomez, for example, Kroos picked up possession in a deep left-sided location. He then hit a forward ball into the feet of Hector, who was soon closed down by Slovakian right-back Peter Pekarik. That left a space in behind Pekarik, and Draxler noticed it. The Wolfsburg winger quickly nipped into that zone, received a pass and, once he shifted closer to the byline, found himself confronted with Juraj Kucka. Draxler beat his man with a quick stepover and spotted the hulking presence of striker Mario Gomez at the near post. He teed up the big man with a neat pass off the outside of his right boot, and Gomez happily lifted it into the back of the net.

Of course, Kroos had no involvement at the business end of the move, but that’s not what he’s responsible for. He’s there to instigate, to create the initial openings and to direct the flow of Germany’s possession. In another instance, he fizzed a long diagonal into the path of Kimmich on the right, almost inviting the fullback to get up along the touchline. Kimmich then took control, and two passes and a foul later Mesut Ozil had the chance to convert from the penalty spot. The Arsenal star may have missed, but Kroos’ contribution to generating the play was crucial. With one sweeping motion of his left boot, he took Germany from behind halfway to a promising position in attack.

He creates the environment for those higher up the pitch to thrive, and with players like Ozil, Draxler and Thomas Muller in the side, there’s a fair chance of them doing exactly that. Low’s men dominated against Slovakia with three unanswered goals, and now, as they move through to the quarter-finals at Euro 2016, they’ll be tasked with doing something similar against Antonio Conte’s Italy.

Kroos will also have to perform in that game, and after watching Graziano Pelle and Eder combine to blanket Sergio Busquets, especially in the first half, during Italy’s recent win over reigning European champions Spain, it’s probably fair to suggest that he’ll have tougher time of it than he did against Slovakia. It will no doubt be a challenge, but for a player as good as Kroos, and especially one who currently finds himself in form, there’s no reason why he can’t rise to it.

After all, he’s been the best deep-lying distributor in a tournament where his peers in that position, such as Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka, have also performed well. Throw in the fact that he’s coming off a fresh triumph at club level, where he helped Real Madrid to the UEFA Champions League title, and with another high-profile trophy now on the line in France, he’ll be looking to add that honour to his ever expanding collection as well.

The stage is set, now it’s down to Kroos to keep on picking off the opposition that await him.