Why German Midfielder Toni Kroos is the Unsung Hero of World Cup 2014
During the World Cup 2014 at Brazil, it has become more evident that Germany’s new maestro is Toni Kroos. Bastian Schweinsteiger is still a vital component in the team’s offensive configurations. Sami Khedira has proven that he is still Germany’s best defensive anchor in midfield, while Mesut Özil – despite a disappointing World Cup campaign – still has Joachim Löw’s confidence. But if Özil used to be the heartbeat, the very center of pulsation, of Germany’s attacking patterns, this role has now been taken by Toni Kroos who occupies a role in front of Khedira and behind Germany’s three front men – a typical number 8 able to both defend and (even more so) attack.
And yes, there are many things typical about Kroos. Historically, German soccer players have never been afraid of shooting from long range, and this is also the case with Kroos. His technique, power, and balance endow him with a very powerful, “pure”, and elegant long shot. The same can be said of his winning mentality: it is steeped in a German tradition of never giving up. As is the case with his own generation of “new” German soccer players (Özil, Götze, Reus, Schürrle, all trained within the German academy system that was reformed in the beginning of this century), Kroos is also technically gifted, and his passing ability is on the highest level of precision.
However, there are also things unusual about Kroos. With his recent performances for Germany and Bayern Munich, Kroos is about to earn himself a place in the same very exclusive category to which players like Andrea Pirlo, Xavi, Luka Modric, and Paul Scholes also belong. That is, the category of the great maestros of soccer. Like a conductor in front of an orchestra, the soccer maestro must be a master of his craft. He must possess an exemplary level of passing accuracy, technical ability, and tactical awareness. But the skill that more than anything else sets the maestro apart from his teammates is his ability to dictate the rhythm of a game.
We can (inspired by the French linguist Émile Benvéniste) define rhythm as a changing structure that realizes itself in time. That is, rhythm is a temporalized becoming-form. Rhythms thus constitute a certain inertia against formlessness and pure fluidity, mainly because of their dependency of repetitions. However, within this structure of repetition, and in order to prevent deadly monotony, rhythms are also dependent on movements and differences. In other words, rhythms are a finely tuned balance between continuity, identity, and repetition (in order for there to be form), on the one hand, and contrast, difference, and change (in order to avoid monotony) on the other.
In a soccer game, rhythm is dependent on several dimensions. Kroos, I would argue, is a champion of all these dimensions. The two most significant dimensions are time and space and within both of these we find different sub-dimensions, some of which are interconnected. In the spatial dimension there is a difference in rhythm between lateral and vertical passes. The vertical passes lead to a more direct form of soccer, and their ambition is often to be decisive and goal-seeking. Here we already see why the space and time dimensions and their different sub-dimensions are interconnected. Directness and decisiveness in the spatial dimension entail higher tempo and, potentially, a more punctual timeline respectively in the temporal dimension. In contrast, lateral passing entails a more indirect, some would say laborious, form of soccer, and the main objectives behind lateral passes are continuous (as opposed to punctual) ball possession and gradual exhaustion of the opponent team – and, eventually, bigger (that is, less risky in relation to continuous ball possession) opportunities for more decisive passes.
While almost every team employs both variants, some teams are defined by one of those variants. Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Munich are teams practicing a lateral form of soccer (although Lionel Messi, in Guardiola’s Barcelona side, often provided a more direct and vertical dimension through his dribbling and raids). In contrast, Jupp Heynckes’s FC Bayern Munich practiced a more direct form of soccer (the most blatant example of direct soccer was probably Egil “Drillo” Olsen’s Norway team in the 1990s in which lateral passing was regarded more or less as a crime, although it should be kept in mind that Drillo’s verticality – due to aspirations of absolute risk minimization – was mostly airborne). Kroos played for both Heynckes and Guardiola and has been able to adapt to both philosophies. Löw’s Germany, I would argue, comes closer to Heynckes’s style, and Kroos has thus been allowed to play the ball a bit more forward than he is used to from the current Bayern Munich side.
Within the spatial dimension we also come upon the difference between long and short passes. Now, if the basic objective of both is to find and exploit free space, the first (whether a vertical Pirlo pass to Mario Balotelli into the space behind the opponent team’s defensive line or a lateral Scholes pass from one side of the field to Antonio Valencia on the opposite side) is often employed by the great maestros to destabilize the entire defensive organization of the opponent team whereas the latter’s effect (whether a lateral Xavi pass to Alexis Sanchez or a vertical Modric pass to Ronaldo) is more local, although not necessarily less effective in terms of destabilization.
Whether we speak of long, short, lateral or vertical passes (and combinations of them), the rhythm of the game is dependent on the precision of those passes. As the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre remarked in relation to his own “rhythmanalysis”, we often don’t notice the fundamental rhythmic character of life until the basic rhythms are disturbed or break down (as when our heart starts to beat irregularly or, more fatal, stops to beat). The same is true with soccer. We only become aware of the rhythmic quality of soccer when rhythms are lacking or break down in matches.
When we speak of a game without rhythm, we often speak of a game with many imprecise passes or, alternatively, with many fouls. The Brazil-Colombia game at Brazil 2014 was a game without rhythm because of the many fouls, but also because both teams – especially Brazil – depend more on actions from individual players than from team “automatisms” when attacking. Dribbles and individual actions don’t depend on repetitions, on the contrary, they seem to be the opposite of repetitions (they are potential epiphanies, not of form, but of singular actions), and while such singular actions may be endowed with much beauty, they don’t provide the game with any rhythm (however, their arrhythmic nature are the opposite of fouls and bad passes, the other end of the scale of arrhythmia).
The epitome of rhythm and rhythmic soccer could be seen in the Brazil-Germany semifinal when the Germans scored their second, third, fourth and fifth goals. These goals did not materialize thanks to individual actions of genius but thanks to attacking patterns involving several players and several (short, long, lateral, and vertical) passes. The goals were culminations of “epiphanies of form” – form because a balance of repetition and variation were involved, epiphany because unexpected. In most cases, Toni Kroos played a leading role dictating the rhythm of these epiphanies of form.
He not only played this role in relation to Germany’s goals, though. During most of the match, and during most of Germany’s previous matches, Kroos has been setting and changing the tempo of games by shifting between short and long passes and between verticality and horizontality, always distributing his passes with the utmost precision and perfect timing.
It is interesting to speculate a little further about the value and existence of the great soccer maestro. If we look at the names I mentioned in the beginning of this article – Pirlo, Xavi, Modric, Scholes – they are all European players. The same with Kroos. I don’t think this is a coincidence. The maestro and pacesetter of games converges with a soccer philosophy in which team effort, masterplan, and collectivism are rated highly. On the contrary, teams and managers who build their strategy less on team automatisms and patterns and more on individual actions of genius (for example Argentina with Messi and Brazil with Neymar) are less likely to employ and develop maestros.
This is why Kroos for me is the unsung hero of the World Cup 2014. It may be that Argentina will be lifting the Jules Rimet trophy in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, and Messi thus finally will be able to step out of the shadow of Maradona 1986, but Germany has been the best team playing the best soccer during the tournament, and the main reason behind this fact is Toni Kroos and his mastery of rhythms.
Editor’s note: Søren Frank is author of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, which is available from all fine booksellers.