Toni Kroos, welcome back. We've missed you.
Since Zinedine Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez as Real Madrid manager in early January, 28 days and four games have now passed, and in that time, few of the changes witnessed have been more notable than the rediscovery of Kroos.
It's not as if those changes have been small in number, either.
In Zidane's short tenure thus far, Madrid's collective mood has performed a Fabian Delph-esque U-turn; their energy is suddenly infectious; Isco and James Rodriguez are playing again, and with smiles; the front three is functional once more; the sense of clarity is striking. Still, though, the turnaround seen in Kroos might be the biggest individual story of all.
On Sunday night, as Real Madrid tore apart Espanyol 6-0 at the Bernabeu, the German looked like himself again. Essentially parked on the halfway line, the former Bayern Munich star endlessly flashed the ball with grace and precision from side to side, almost as if it was attached to a bungee cord and he was in the middle of the Bernabeu all by himself.
On its own, your eye told you that this was it, that this was peak Kroos. The stat sheet confirmed it.
On the night, Madrid's deepest midfielder made 51 passes, according to WhoScored.com. Fifty of them found the mark. On 10 occasions, he opted for distance; all 10 times, he was on point.
He's been like this for a few weeks now, too.
Even before Zidane had taken over in Chamartin, he'd openly expressed his admiration for the German. "Toni is perfect for Real Madrid," said Zidane to Sport Bild in November (h/t Marca). "He's the piece of the puzzle that we were missing for a long time and he fits the Real Madrid philosophy perfectly."
Yet Zidane's view didn't appear to be entirely universal; even if that was his view, the man above him, Benitez, didn't appear to share it.
When the Madrileno arrived last summer, there were a number of players in Madrid's squad that struck you as ill-fitting in a Benitez team. Isco was one. James was another. Kroos another. Benitez, after all, had come in with the intention of addressing the team's questionable balance, wanting to give it added bite and a degree of physicality or, perhaps more accurately, durability.
As a one-paced technician, Kroos was anything but a natural fit.
In the opening weeks of the season, the German was trialled in the deep-lying role he'd made his own under Carlo Ancelotti, but he soon found himself displaced by Casemiro—an archetypal "Benitez" player who brought grunt, rugged tackling and a feisty demeanour to the position. It was the beginning for a Kroos merry-go-round.
In the space of only a few months, Kroos played every midfield position there is. Occasionally, he played his preferred role; at times, he had a partner in a holding "two"; at others, he played on the left and right of a midfield three. Against Paris Saint-Germain, he even operated as a roaming No. 10. "Unsure what to do with Kroos," said Marca.
By the time a trip to El Madrigal to face Villarreal arrived, the World Cup winner had a new position: the bench.
In nearly every respect, Kroos looked lost. But not anymore.
Football Funnys @FootballFunnys
The moment when Isco couldn't believe his eyes that Kroos was on the bench v Villareal https://t.co/R8MGMBApXf12/16/2015, 4:16:49 PM
Now, much of Benitez's work has been ripped up and discarded, Madrid under Zidane essentially having reverted to the Ancelotti incarnation: Kroos in the middle, Luka Modric and Isco either side, three star forwards up front.
In that shift, Kroos has looked the happiest of anyone, a suddenly regained clarity of purpose seeing him return to the Kroos of late 2014—the silky-passing, smooth-moving, totally-assured Kroos who seemed to become a new-wave Xabi Alonso in a matter of weeks after arriving.
It doesn't mean all concerns are now void, though. Indeed, the midfielder's capacity to act as his side's only holding player against heavyweight opposition remains questionable, as does his ability to assert himself and dictate games that grow frenetic.
Excellence in four games under Zidane hasn't changed that.
But what those four games have done is bring back Toni Kroos, the one we know. And that's a pretty good place to start.
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