Some say it's a myth. Others are sceptical. A few believe—perhaps at Real Madrid in particular.
Indeed, in the Spanish capital, something of a second-season syndrome seems to exist at present. After a strong debut campaign at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2013-14, Gareth Bale saw his form vanish in a troublesome 2014-15 season. Now, this term, situations with parallels to that of Bale have become evident for James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos in their second year at the club.
Admittedly, the drop-off witnessed in the Colombian has been more severe than for the German, but only in small patches this season have we seen the elegant, composed, incisive and secure Kroos who became an instant hit in Chamartin after his move from Bayern Munich in the summer of 2014.
In the opening half of the current campaign, the 26-year-old's rhythm and continuity was broken as former manager Rafa Benitez looked to craft a midfield of a different essence or dynamic. Amid the shift, Kroos was used everywhere: in the anchor role, in a roaming No. 10 position, as part of a holding "two" and on the left and right of a central trio.
Though some benefited from the reshuffle—Casemiro in particular—Kroos didn't. And though a more familiar midfield has been restored since Zinedine Zidane replaced Benitez, Kroos still hasn't been the same.
Not quite, anyway. A little off.
Here we look at three areas in which adjustments could see the German recapture form.
One example doesn't always prove a rule, but this one felt symbolic.
Fifty-two minutes were up on the clock at the Bernabeu, and Antoine Griezmann spun away from Luka Modric just beyond the halfway line in a tense and pivotal Madrid derby in late February.
As the Frenchman did so, turning to attack Real Madrid's defence, Kroos was just two yards away. Instantly, Griezmann ran. Kroos jogged. The Atletico Madrid forward then fed Filipe Luis, who played it right back to Griezmann. Kroos watched it unfold, still jogging.
Griezmann then caressed his shot past Keylor Navas, Kroos standing a few yards away, exposed. Even hitting third gear would have been enough for him to impact the move.
It was the defining moment of the derby and one that was emblematic of Madrid's issues.
When fielding a central trio of Kroos, Modric and Isco, Madrid have an abundance of technical quality in midfield but little else. There's no power, physicality. Ball-winning ability. Of course, such a dynamic is not the fault of those who populate the midfield—it's the fault of the man who puts this squad together, president Florentino Perez—but there's still a personal responsibility on the likes of Kroos to do everything in their power to minimise their own weaknesses.
Indeed, while the German will never be a defensive powerhouse, he can impact the game in other ways. Though he won't consistently win physical duels, he can track back with intensity, close space and put a body in the way—things that aren't seen enough.
Doing so would have stopped Griezmann. Doing so from this point forward will help to take Kroos to a higher level.
One of the significant things that strikes you when watching Real Madrid is how often the opposition are running at Madrid's defence in two-on-two or two-on-three situations.
This, of course, is a symptom of many factors, but Kroos' positioning is often one of them.
Without the ball, the German regularly moves forward from his deep position in an attempt to press the opposition. In isolation, this is an admirable quality, but it becomes problematic at times because Madrid don't press as a unit.
Up front, the forwards in Cristiano Ronaldo, Bale and Karim Benzema rarely apply defensive pressure; behind them, Modric, Isco or James aren't overly inclined to do so either. Thus, Madrid don't place enough pressure on the ball for Kroos and the defence to consistently push high up—one of the principles of nearly all ball sports—meaning the hole left between the midfield and defensive line is often easy to play into for opponents with time to pick their pass.
Essentially, for Kroos to press from his position, he needs the other members of the midfield and attack to do so systematically as well. But because that's rarely the case, his positioning without the ball primarily needs to be conservative.
|Toni Kroos' Passing Stats in La Liga (per game)|
|Passing Accuracy||92.2 %||93.8%|
The two areas listed above are probably those in which improvement is the easiest to achieve, but this is harder. This is about mentality, confidence. Assertiveness.
Surrounding Kroos all season has been a sense that he's lacked the creative spark he exhibited from his deep role in his first season at Real Madrid. This term, he's felt less incisive. Less destructive. More a cog than a weapon.
And the statistics back up such a sense.
As outlined in the table above, the German's number of key passes has fallen this season despite a significant increase in total passes. In other words, he's having more of the ball but doing less with it: More passes are going short and sideways; fewer are piercing through the opposition's lines.
The increase in assists is also somewhat misleading, given that four of the eight have come from set pieces are therefore not reflective of Kroos' distribution in open play.
Finding a way to recapture his incisiveness will be central to recapturing his form overall.
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