Toni Kroos is a prime example of an outstanding player who, due to a certain preferred system of play, has largely found himself left out of his national team. Although his talent is undeniably extraordinary, the Bayern Munich midfielder has rarely started for Germany; with few exceptions, he has only been used in Bastian Schweinsteiger's stead when the vice-captain has been injured.
But the 23-year-old Kroos has been in outstanding form in recent weeks and, with a slew of Germany stars sidelined with injury last Friday, was given a rare start in a lineup that also featured Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil. And he delivered a masterful performance that merited reconsideration for a starting role in Joachim Loew's team.
Until recently, there was no place in a fully-fit Germay squad for Kroos to start. Although his short- and long-ranged passing ability makes him ideal for the role of regista, the ex-Hansa Rostock man's physical weakness and overall lack of defensive refinement makes him a poor choice as one of a pair of holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1. And he certainly has never been an option to start as the playmaker, a position that since 2009 has belonged to Mesut Ozil.
Kroos is best suited for the role of a No. 8, a central midfielder who plays between the purely attacking and purely defensive midfield roles. Among classic formations, he fits best in a 4-3-3 or behind the playmaker in a 4-3-1-2. But Loew found a new way for him to play on Friday as Germany employed a 4-2-1-3 formation with Ozil as the center-forward.
It was something out of a Pep Guardiola dream, and it worked brilliantly: Germany dominated Ireland, taking 27 shots and hitting the woodwork once as they scored three goals.
At first glance, the use of Ozil as the center-forward might seem completely illogical. The Arsenal man is by no means known for his finishing and is not remarkably strong or quick. But he was closely flanked by a right-footed left-winger in Andre Schuerrle, who was excellent, and Thomas Mueller also drifted into the box from the right.
Critical to Ozil's success was the steady support he had from Kroos, who could play in advanced midfield while having the reliable Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger as cover behind him. And with three players working rather narrowly ahead of him, Kroos was well-shielded and had plenty of options to pick in passing. Surely enough, it was he who assisted Schuerrle and Ozil's goals.
For one that did not include a natural striker, Loew's formation was deceptively direct. With some room for fluidity and positional interchange, all four attacking players positioned themselves rather narrowly in attack; width was generally provided by fullbacks Philipp Lahm and Marcell Jansen. Although it included Loew's classic emphasis on quick transitions, the system Germany employed against Ireland conjured memories of Guardiola's Barcelona.
It remains highly uncertain whether Kroos will in the long term win Loew's favor. The talented midfielder faces direct competition from Ilkay Gundogan, who last season cemented his role as Schweinsteiger's first backup. When fit, the Dortmund man offers less quality in shooting than Kroos but is a better defender and dribbler and can create play like a natural No. 10. Based on skill set, he is competition for Kroos in the system used on Friday.
Other competition for Kroos is less direct but equally threatening. Loew's tactical setup on Friday may have worked brilliantly, but it was only an experiment. Whether or not the trainer opts to use a "false" striker in the long term, it would require more than one good performance for him to consider scrapping the 4-2-3-1 he's consistently used since 2008.
Germany were without Mario Goetze, who has been used as the false striker and due to his athletic qualities is ostensibly more suited to the role than Ozil. Marco Reus is similarly an option in the striker role, in which case Ozil would take Kroos' place in attacking midfield. Even Julian Draxler is an option, provided he continues his meteoric rise.
What is known is that Kroos finally has found a role in the Germany team that suits his qualities. And Loew has found an alternative to 4-2-3-1 that offers some tactical advantages. Exactly how he intends to use this new option going forward remains uncertain, but Kroos now has every chance to convince the trainer to give it more and more consideration.