Farewell Toni Kroos: The Conductor of Real Madrid’s Orchestra 

In a game where time and space on the ball are at a premium, Toni Kroos was the ultimate luxury.

Picture the Santiago Bernabeu, a cauldron of noise and tension. Real Madrid, facing an onslaught from their opponents, are desperate for a moment of respite. The defenders and midfielders, their nerves frayed and their passing options limited, search frantically for a way out. Panic seems to grip the team as they struggle to maintain possession under the relentless pressure.

Then, like a beacon of calm amidst the chaos, a familiar blonde figure emerges. Toni Kroos, his expression serene and his movements measured, strolls into space. His teammates, their relief palpable, waste no time in finding him. The ball arrives at Kroos’ feet, and in that instant, time seems to freeze.

Kroos, sending his marker’s body in the wrong direction with a quick hesitation, receives the ball with a deft touch. The opposition marker(s), caught off guard by his angle of approach, are nowhere near him. With a quick turn and a drop of the shoulder, Kroos effortlessly evades the pressure, leaving his marker grasping at shadows.

As the milliseconds tick by, Kroos, who seemingly has hours to make his choice like an ascended Himalayan master while we observers and his fellow teammates are stuck observing as mere humans – surveys the field, his eyes scanning for options. His teammates, their confidence restored by his presence, begin to make runs, knowing that Kroos will find them. And find them he does. With a casual flick of his boot, Kroos plays a perfectly weighted pass to an open man, or, if the situation demands it, pings a long ball to the other side of the pitch with laser-like precision.

In an instant, the complexion of the game changes. Real Madrid, no longer under pressure, surge forward with renewed purpose. The opposition, their momentum stolen by Kroos’ intervention, struggle to regain their footing.

This scene, literally replayed tens of thousands of times over the past decade, encapsulates the essence of Toni Kroos. His ability to bring calm to chaos, to find solutions where others see only problems, has been the foundation upon which Real Madrid’s success has been built. In the face of pressure, Kroos stands tall, a maestro conducting the orchestra of the game, bending it to his will with a touch, a turn, and a pass.

Champions League group stage night. A remontada in the league. The CL final. The occasion was never of concern. Kroos was the engine that powered Real Madrid’s buildup, the metronome that set the tempo for their play. Coaches sought his counsel on how to construct attacks. As Toni Kroos announced his retirement this week, a palpable sense of loss permeated the air among Madridistas. It was the realization that they were losing one of the greatest cheat codes in the club’s illustrious history. The understanding that they would no longer enter every game with such an automatic advantage, with a singular ability to wear down the opposition and control possession at will. I personally have had the nagging thought that, without Kroos, being on the verge of winning 5 Champions League titles in a 9-year span might have been a mere dream.

This is a retrospective on the legacy of the greatest controller in the history of football, a player who redefined what it means to dictate the rhythm of a game. Toni Kroos, the maestro of the Bernabeu, leaves behind a void that will be impossible to fill. His impact on Real Madrid will reverberate through the annals of football history, forever etched in the memories of those who bore witness to his artistry.


  1. The Tiki Taka Religion
  2. Das Boot
  3. World Cup Hero
  4. From 10 to 8 to 6
  5. The Threepeat Years
  6. Carrying During Zidane’s 2nd Spell
  7. The Ancelotti Renaissance: Re-optimizing Toni Kroos
  8. Legacy: The Relationist Controller
  9. Closing Thoughts

The Tiki Taka Religion

In the early 2010s, a new religion swept across the footballing world. Its deities were Lionel Messi, Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez, and Andres Iniesta, and its temple was the Camp Nou. Barcelona’s 2011 team became the epitome of footballing perfection, a side that didn’t just win, but won with a style and grace that left the world in awe. Their possession-based football, a mesmerizing blur of short passes and fluid movement, became the 21st century gospel that everyone wanted to hear. Barcelona was the vinyl record of football – a classic standard that revolutionized the game, its tiki-taka tunes captivating fans across the world and setting a new benchmark for beautiful play.

Fans and pundits alike became obsessed with this new brand of football. They dissected every pass, every movement, trying to uncover the secrets of Barcelona’s success. The Catalan club’s ability to control and dominate games was unparalleled. They suffocated their opponents, starving them of the ball and forcing them to chase shadows for 90 minutes. It was a style that not only brought success but also captured the hearts and minds of football fans around the globe.

As Barcelona’s star ascended, they shaped the entire footballing narrative. Possession became the buzzword, the key to unlocking true footballing greatness. Teams across the world tried to emulate the Barcelona way, hoping to capture even a fraction of their magic. The likes of Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta became the gold standard, the players that every young footballer aspired to be.

Coaches across the globe began to preach the gospel of Xavi and Iniesta. They would spend hours teaching their players to turn and scan the field like the Barcelona maestros, always looking for the next pass, the next move. They would drill their midfielders on the art of receiving the ball, of using their first touch to create space and time. The Barcelona way became the only way, the path to footballing enlightenment.

On playgrounds and in parks, kids would mimic the movements of Xavi and Iniesta. They would try to pass the ball with the same precision, the same grace. They would imagine themselves in the colors of Barcelona, weaving through defenses and controlling the game like their heroes. A generation of youngsters grew up idolizing the Barcelona midfield, dreaming of one day being able to play like them.

Football tactics blogs and YouTube channels dissected every aspect of their play, trying to understand the secrets behind their success. Fans would argue for hours about the merits of possession football, about whether it was the most beautiful way to play the game. The Barcelona way had become more than just a style of play; it had become a philosophy, a belief system that transcended the boundaries of the pitch. Not only did you have to win, but you had to win playing the best style, or you’d eventually lose to this cultural phenomenon.

In stark contrast to Barcelona’s artistry stood Real Madrid under Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese manager had crafted a team in his own image, one that was physical, tough, and uncompromising. While Barcelona danced, Madrid fought. They were the yin to Barcelona’s yang, a team that relied on power, pace, and a never-say-die attitude. To many, they were the villains, the thugs who sought to destroy football’s beautiful game.

But even as Madrid racked up wins and trophies, they couldn’t escape Barcelona’s shadow. The Catalan club had become the measuring stick, the team against which all others were judged. And in the eyes of the footballing world, Madrid always seemed to fall short. They were the brutes, the team that won, but didn’t win pretty.

It was against this backdrop that Toni Kroos emerged, a player who would not only help redefine Madrid, but also challenge the very notion of what it meant to control a game, and how to do it.

Despite Madrid’s domestic success, including a 100-point league title, and the presence of world-class talents like Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Mesut Özil, and Xabi Alonso, they remained an afterthought in the eyes of many. The reason? Their inability to match Barcelona’s success in the Champions League. While Madrid did taste European glory in 2013/14, it was Barcelona who had become the defining club of the modern era. With their treble win in 2014/15, the Catalan giants had amassed an astonishing four Champions League titles in just nine years. Madrid just had a single Champions League win at the time in over a decade.

With Barcelona’s shadow looming larger than ever, Toni Kroos arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu in the summer of 2014. The German midfielder, fresh from a World Cup triumph, had a daunting task ahead of him: to help Madrid not only match Barcelona’s success, but to redefine their style of play in the process. At the end of his first season in Madrid, Barcelona had won the treble, and his task had become even more daunting.

Little did anyone know at the time that Kroos would be one of the key catalysts for a new era of dominance in the Spanish capital.

Das Boot

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, German football found itself at a crossroads. The nation’s teams, once renowned for their tactical discipline and efficiency, had become enamored with a more frenetic, end-to-end style of play. The Bundesliga was a league of breathless action, where teams would surge forward with reckless abandon, leaving themselves exposed at the back. It was a style that prioritized physicality and directness over control and finesse.

But the cracks in this approach started annoying the higher ups in Germany. In 2009, Bayern Munich, the standard-bearers of German football, suffered a humiliating 4-1 defeat at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals. The Catalan side, with their mesmerizing possession-based football, made Bayern look utterly helpless. It was a wake-up call for the German giants, a stark reminder that their current style of play was no longer sufficient to compete with the best in Europe.

The loss – combined with Spain’s repeated international successes including a 1-0 win over a dominant Germany team in the 2010 World Cup semifinal, and Bayern’s loss to Inter in the 2010 Champions League Final – prompted a period of soul-searching within Bayern and German football. They began to realize that they needed to evolve, to find a way to exert greater control over matches. They looked to the likes of Barcelona and Spain, who were dominating world football with their patient, possession-based approach. Slowly but surely, a shift began to occur. German teams started to prioritize retention of the ball, to focus on building attacks through measured, calculated passing rather than simply playing helter skelter football.

Real Madrid, too, found themselves on the receiving end of this shift. In the 2011/12 Champions League semi-finals, they came up against a Bayern Munich side that had begun to embrace a more controlled style of play. Over two legs, the German side dominated proceedings in specific game states, starving Madrid of the ball and picking them apart with incisive passing, led by a certain Toni Kroos.

The defeat laid bare Madrid’s own shortcomings. They had relied for too long on individual brilliance and moments of magic in transition to win matches. Against teams who could control the game and dictate the tempo, and on occasion against teams that forced them to take the initiative themselves, they found themselves lost. It was a realization that prompted Madrid to act. In the summer of 2012, they signed Luka Modric from Tottenham Hotspur. The diminutive Croatian, as noted by Michael Cox, was brought in to help Real Madrid breathe more in bigger games, like Toni Kroos had for Bayern. This played out against Bayern in 2013/14:

The home side’s outstanding player, however, was Modric, thriving in precisely the sort of game Real recruited him for. Two seasons ago, Bayern outplayed Real at this stage partly thanks to a star performance from Kroos, who combined intelligent passing with mobility and the ability to evade challenges. At the time, Real lacked that type of player – Alonso was not mobile enough, Sami Khedira not technical enough, and Mesut Özil’s contributions too intermittent.

But Modric has solved that issue. There was one perfect example of his role, shortly after Real had gone ahead, where he effortlessly skipped around Schweinsteiger’s challenge before playing in Benzema on the left, who crossed for Ronaldo to blaze over.

This was not an obvious evening to marvel at passing statistics considering Bayern’s futile possession play but it is precisely the fact Real recorded only 28% of possession that makes Modric’s 97% pass completion rate so impressive. Anyone can complete passes when their side are dominating but Modric’s ability to find team-mates so consistently, when under pressure, proves he belongs at this level.

Modric’s arrival marked a turning point for Madrid. Alongside Xabi Alonso, he formed the nucleus of a midfield that could finally compete with the best in Europe in terms of controlling matches. It was a development that would pave the way for the arrival of Toni Kroos two years later, a player who would elevate Madrid’s midfield to even greater heights.

The shift within German football, and Madrid’s own realization of the need for greater control, set the stage for Kroos’ emergence as the defining midfielder of his generation. His unique blend of technical excellence, tactical intelligence, and supernatural ability to dictate the tempo of matches would prove instrumental in Madrid’s unprecedented period of European dominance. But before he could conquer Europe with Madrid, Kroos would first make his mark on the international stage with Germany.

World Cup Hero

As the 2014 World Cup in Brazil approached, the footballing world’s attention was firmly fixed on the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar. Few, if any, were talking about Toni Kroos. During the treble season, the German midfielder, despite his undeniable talent, had found himself slightly overshadowed due to injury at Bayern Munich in favor of a Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger double pivot. Kroos missed Bayern’s Champions League triumph over Borussia Dortmund at Wembley While Guardiola was known to be a fervent Kroos admirer and platformed him more in 2013/14, Kroos’ stock was not nearly as high as it is now. I mean, even after Kroos played a stellar tournament, in December 2014 Ancelotti called Marco Reus the best German player.

In comments made before that shortlist was announced, Ancelotti told a news conference that the injury to Reus — who is often mentioned as Madrid transfer target — had cleared the way for Ronaldo to win again this year.

“[Ronaldo] could be up against a German player,” Ancelotti said. “But the best German player, apart from [Madrid’s Toni] Kroos and [Sami] Khedira, did not play the World Cup, as that is Reus. Naturally, Neuer had a fantastic season as a goalkeeper. But it is not something which I am too concerned about.”

But those who had been paying attention knew that Kroos was special. His performances for Germany in the lead-up to the World Cup had been nothing short of remarkable. Guardiola had been full of praise for him all season. In a team packed with talent, Kroos had emerged as the key cog in Joachim Löw’s midfield machine that transferred over Guardiola’s controlling style to the national team. His ability to control the tempo of matches, to pick out passes without feeling pressure, was going to be crucial to Germany’s success.

As the tournament progressed, Schweinsteiger looked more washed, and Kroos’ influence became increasingly apparent. In the historic 7-1 semifinal demolition of Brazil, Kroos was at the heart of everything, scoring twice and dictating play with an authority that belied his 24 years of age. By the time Germany reached the final against Argentina, to the astute observer there was no longer any doubt: Toni Kroos was as important as anyone to this German side. Kroos was the metronome that kept Germany ticking, the conductor who orchestrated their World Cup triumph. He, Mesut Ozil and Phillip Lahm were central to Germany’s more control-oriented, conservative style that gave them the platform to win the World Cup.

From 10 to 8 to 6

Toni Kroos’ journey from an attacking midfielder to one of the world’s premier deep-lying playmakers is a fascinating story of evolution and adaptation. Kroos first was loaned out to Bayer Leverkusen from Bayern Munich in the 2008-09 season. At the time, Kroos was thought to need further development and playing time at Bayern.

Under the guidance of Jupp Heynckes – who coached Leverkusen at the time – Kroos thrived in an advanced midfield role, scoring nine goals and providing eight assists in the Bundesliga at 0.65 G+A p90 minutes in the 2009/10 season. His performances were so impressive that Bayern Munich insisted on bringing him back no matter what even though Leverkusen wanted to keep him.

Kroos didn’t have the best opening season under Van Gaal. He played around 2200 minutes in all competitions, scored 1 goal and got 3 assists, and his ‘usage rate’ was still that of an advanced player, like he was used at Leverkusen but without any of the end product. Bayern finished 3rd in the Bundesliga, behind Jupp Heynckes’ Leverkusen and Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund.

Then Heynckes came over from Leverkusen, gave Kroos a box to box role with a higher usage rate than his last couple seasons (including the Leverkusen one), and Kroos profited. He played 3400 minutes in all competitions and had 6 goals and 15 assists while also running play well from central midfield – sometimes higher up, sometimes deeper depending on the lineup. In 2011/12 he finished with 0.55 G+A p90.

The following season, he was still playing a good amount and got 2500 minutes in all competitions, but got injured in April. Bayern had become a gegenpressing team and stolen some of Klopp’s tactics, but Kroos was still part of the preferred front 4 with Robben, Ribery and Mandzukic. However, Robben was hurt a lot early in the season and Kroos was hurt at the end, so Muller ended up playing a lot that season over one or the other. In 2012/13 Kroos ended with 9 goals and 8 assists at 0.61 G+A p90, but per WhoScored completed slightly fewer passes than the 2011/12 season as Javi Martinez was newly deployed behind him in a double pivot so he found himself playing slightly higher up.

But it was under Pep Guardiola at Bayern that Kroos truly began to realize his full potential. Guardiola, who had taken over as Bayern coach in 2013, saw in Kroos the potential to become the heartbeat of his midfield. He began to deploy Kroos in a deeper role, asking him to dictate the tempo of matches from the base of midfield. It was a role that required a different set of skills: the ability to receive the ball under pressure, to pick out passes from deep, to control the game with a more measured approach, to take less risks. But Kroos took to it like a duck to water. Kroos improved by 20-25 passes p90 that season, a larger leap than his first one from Leverkusen/Van Gaal to Heynckes’ Bayern. He completed more passes than the entire Arsenal midfield at the Emirates in February 2014. He was insanely dominant in a small sample in the 2014 Champions League per WhoScored, as well as the 2014 World Cup.

Under Guardiola’s tutelage, Kroos honed his skills as a deep-lying playmaker. He learned to drop between the center-backs to receive the ball, to draw opposition players out of position with his movement, to launch attacks with pinpoint passes from deep. The perfectly placed long shots were replaced by perfectly placed long balls.

In the summer of 2014, Real Madrid came calling. Needing a replacement for Xabi Alonso sooner than later, they saw in Kroos the key to unlocking a new level of control in their midfield. They knew that to compete with the likes of Barcelona and Bayern, they needed a player who could dictate the tempo of matches, who could provide a platform for their attacking talents to flourish and get the ball to Ronaldo more often.

Kroos’ arrival at the Bernabéu marked a turning point for Real Madrid. Alongside Luka Modric, he formed the nucleus of a midfield that could finally compete with the best in Europe in terms of controlling matches. Alonso was good, but Kroos brought with him a superior sense of calm, a metronomic passing ability that allowed Madrid to dominate possession in a way they had never done before. As phenomenal as Ozil was (he, too, rarely made a bad decision in possession), he played higher up the pitch and never contributed to controlling games this much for Real Madrid. For Germany, perhaps, he would end up dropping even deeper, but at club level Ozil was a bit more of a classic 10. Kroos’ partnership with Luka Modric in midfield was a thing of beauty, a tantalizing glimpse of what a possession-based Madrid could look like.

In Kroos’ first season under Carlo Ancelotti, Real Madrid played some of the most scintillating attacking football in the club’s history. With Kroos and Modric pulling the strings, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale ran riot. Madrid scored goals for fun, playing with a verve and panache that had the Santiago Bernabéu in raptures. Kroos played deeper than ever, as a pure 6 or ‘regista’ or some would say, and dominated.

From Michael Cox’s piece:

Since Pep Guardiola took charge of Barcelona in 2008 and emphasised the importance of passing like never before, there’s been no question about possession dominance in the Clasico.

It was simple: Barcelona played intricate tiki-taka, swarming the centre of the pitch with multiple midfielders, while Real Madrid generally defended deep before counter-attacking. This weekend, the situation could be different…..

Real have been using a midfield combination of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric for much of the campaign. Neither is anything like a natural holding midfielder – it could be argued, in fact, that both are natural No.10s.

But with Xabi Alonso gone and Sami Khedira no longer a first-team regular, they’ve been forced to sort out defensive responsibilities between them.

After a nervous first couple of outings together, Kroos and Modric have developed a good positional understanding, although it remains to be seen how they will cope against Messi.

Still, what that combination unquestionably provides is tremendous passing quality – and, for the first time in years, perhaps they rival Barcelona’s ability in that zone.

For all their attacking brilliance, there was a fragility to this Madrid side. Without a dedicated holding midfielder to provide defensive balance, they were often left exposed on the counter-attack. Teams began to figure out that if you could bypass Madrid’s initial press, you could create chances against a midfield that was more focused on creating than destroying.

It was a weakness that would ultimately cost Real Madrid, as all their running saw Modric get injured, and James and Isco burn out a bit physically. Despite their attacking prowess, they fell short in the league, finishing second to Barcelona. In the Champions League, they were unceremoniously dumped out in the semifinals by Juventus, a team that had the defensive discipline and midfield balance that Real Madrid lacked. Real Madrid resorted to playing Sergio Ramos in midfield and paid during that tie.

Kroos’ first season at Madrid, for all its promise, had ended in disappointment. The German midfielder had shown his quality, but without the right support system around him, his impact had been limited. It was a harsh lesson for a Madrid side that had put all their eggs in the attacking basket.

Florentino Perez, the architect of Real Madrid’s Galactico era, had always been a man with a singular vision: to assemble the greatest collection of attacking talent in the world. But as the 2014-15 season unfolded, it became increasingly clear that his vision was flawed. Madrid, for all their attacking brilliance, were a side with a soft underbelly. They could score goals for fun, but they could also concede them just as easily.

The nadir came in February 2015, when Madrid were thrashed 4-0 by Atletico Madrid in the Madrid derby. It was a result that laid bare the shortcomings of Perez’s approach. For all their attacking talent, Madrid were a side that lacked balance, a team that could be easily exposed by opponents with a more pragmatic approach. They also had no squad depth, and their backups in Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Coentrao looked woefully inept.

Perez, to his credit, recognized that something needed to change. In the summer of 2015, he signed Casemiro, a defensive midfielder who could provide the steel and grit that Madrid had been lacking. He also brought in depth players like Mateo Kovacic, Lucas Vazquez and Danilo, hoping to add some much-needed balance to the squad.

But Perez’s changes didn’t stop there. He appointed Rafael Benitez as the club’s new manager. Benitez, a coach with a reputation for defensive organization, was seen as the perfect man to bring some much-needed discipline to Madrid’s free-flowing attack. But Benitez failed miserably and needed replacing by January.

Behind closed doors, Perez and his right-hand man, Jose Angel Sanchez, debated their next move. They knew that sacking Benitez was not enough; they needed a coach who could bring the best out of this new-look Madrid side. The name that kept coming up was Zinedine Zidane. The French legend, who had been working as an assistant coach at Madrid, was seen as the perfect man to unite the dressing room and bring some much-needed stability to the club.

But even as they discussed Zidane’s appointment, there was a sense of trepidation in the air. Perez and Sanchez knew that if things didn’t work out, they would have to sack Zidane, a man who was revered by Madrid fans around the world. It was a decision that could make or break their legacies, and they didn’t even have the most belief – they were debating who would be the one to sack him and take the hit even as they appointed him.

In the end, Perez took the plunge. In January 2016, he appointed Zidane as Madrid’s new manager. It was a decision that would prove to be a masterstroke. Zidane, with his calm demeanor and unrivaled knowledge of the game, brought a sense of unity and purpose to a Madrid side that had been languishing in uncertainty.

The Threepeat Years

Under Zidane’s guidance, Madrid’s fortunes were transformed. With Casemiro providing the defensive steel, Kroos and Modric were able to control games like never before. The attacking talents of Ronaldo, Bale, and Benzema were given the freedom to express themselves, and Madrid began to play with a verve and swagger that had been missing under Benitez.

Zidane’s tactical approach during his first spell wasn’t the most sophisticated, but he made a few crucial changes that had a profound impact on the team’s performance:

  1. Everyone, including the attackers, began tracking back and contributing defensively.
  2. Kroos and Modric were given the license to circulate possession for long stretches of the game, even in defensive situations, as Madrid’s default state shifted from constant attacking to efficient circulation, taking advantage of spaces that opened up inadvertently.
  3. Casemiro was chalked in as the starting 6, Kroos and Modric would start as 8s with Casemiro’s protection though they would often interchange roles

This emphasis on possession-based play was not born out of necessity, but rather a recognition that it offered a different approach to the game, one that made Madrid more dangerous when chasing matches and gave them a better ability to control matches. In the early 2010s, Madrid had primarily relied on a transition-based style, which, while effective against teams that played a high line, often struggled against deep-lying defenses. By incorporating a more balanced approach that combined their devastating counter-attacking prowess with the ability to control games through possession, Madrid became a more complete side.

The importance of this balance cannot be overstated. Transition-based styles alone can be one-dimensional, as they rely heavily on the opposition’s willingness to commit players forward. Against teams that sit deep and deny space in behind, a purely counter-attacking approach can be stifled. By having the ability to control games through possession, Madrid could draw opponents out and create openings that their attacking talents could exploit.

Of course, this versatility had started under Ancelotti originally in 2013/14 and then developed further in 2014/15, as pointed out by Michael Cox again,

There has been a merging of the two strands, which is inevitable given the globalised nature of the game, although the cross-pollination has tended to match the above divides. So, for example, Real Madrid purchasing German counterattacking players like Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira makes sense, and Bayern’s pursuit of Javi Martinez, Xabi Alonso and Thiago Alcantara fits with their possession play. It would be more peculiar to see a German outfielder playing for Barcelona, or a Spanish midfielder at Dortmund.

The most complete teams, however, are capable of mixing both styles. That was particularly noticeable throughout Bayern Munich’s 2012-13 European Cup campaign — they played possession football throughout the season, but then hit Barcelona with speed on the break and set-piece dominance. They were most comfortable playing possession football, but counterattacking football became their area of competitive advantage against Barca, and they were successfully able to switch to that style.

Real Madrid have taken that mantle, and, in turn, their destruction of Bayern (which were then more possession-based under Guardiola) last season wasn’t simply evidence of counterattacking brilliance against possession play, but evidence of the fact that Real could switch styles. They were equally capable of outpassing opponents, and broadened their attacking game after Jose Mourinho’s exit.

Real are now quite astonishingly complete. For their Saturday evening fixture away at Malaga, a 2-1 victory, they started with the most technical, possession-based midfield triangle imaginable.

But this new versatility got supercharged with the addition of Casemiro as a specialist holding midfielder. The Brazilian improved Real Madrid’s transition defense and settled defending at the same time, and seemed to ‘free up’ Kroos and Modric to truly be themselves. Casemiro literally unlocked them.

As Madrid increasingly became protagonists in settled possession, Kroos’ role became invaluable. His metronomic passing and ability to dictate the tempo of games allowed Madrid to assert their dominance, especially against teams that sought to frustrate them with deep blocks. Instead of one hero ball, Real Madrid began delivering ‘death by a thousand cuts’ by increasing the tempo of passes in the final third before space would open up. The signature move became Kroos or Modric playing the ball to the full-backs back and forth in rapid succession until they created a gap in space or time, when a full back would receive the ball and deliver a deadly cross into the box. This combination of possession and penetration made Madrid a formidable force.

Zidane wasn’t a fully positional, slow the game down coach at the time, but under him we began to see positional elements in-possession. The full backs would constantly offer themselves high and wide as options, settled possession was prioritized and so we got a unique Madrid style of play: high volume switching that would end in an aerial cross to Ronaldo, Benzema, or when he was healthy Gareth Bale. The marriage of athleticism and technique was hard to defend – with Bale hurt often and increasingly replaced by Isco, Benzema and Ronaldo alone would often occupy 3-4 defenders and still find the gaps to score at the same time. They were true ‘target men’ like no other. Enrique and especially Guardiola’s Barcelona would switch too, but they often had more centrality to their play. Madrid would lean into passing to the flanks back and forth even more instead of using central rotations. The speed with which the ball would go from flank to flank itself would be the main tool to disorganize the opposition.

The results spoke for themselves. In Zidane’s first season in charge, Madrid won the Champions League, beating Atletico Madrid in the final. They would go on to win the tournament again in 2017 and 2018, becoming the first team in the modern era to win both back to back and three consecutive Champions Leagues in that specific format, a record that will never be broken with the format changing after this season.

At the apex of their powers, Zidane’s threepeat team achieved a level of dominance that was both awe-inspiring and unique. In the first leg of the 2017 Champions League semifinals, they dismantled a typically resilient Atletico Madrid side 3-0, showcasing their ability to control games through possession and precision. The 2017 final against Juventus was another masterclass, as Madrid’s midfield, led by Kroos and Modric, suffocated the Italian champions, dictating the tempo and flow of the game. Even in moments of adversity, such as the comeback against Wolfsburg in the 2015-16 quarterfinals, Madrid’s ability to manage games and find solutions was evident.

However, their success was not without its oddities. During the 2016-17 season, there were stretches when the second-string team, featuring the likes of James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata, appeared smoother and more cohesive than the first-choice eleven. Madrid’s reliance on their full-backs for creativity was exposed when Marcelo missed time due to injury, resulting in a run of four consecutive draws in the fall. In the spring, they went down 2-0 in La Liga thrice in the space of a week with a fit squad. There were also times when their approach could look one-dimensional, with an overreliance on crossing that could be both predictable and embarrassing when it failed to yield results.

Zidane’s lack of defensive organization meant Madrid would chase games more often than a team of that caliber should have. They didn’t always convince as much as one would expect, even though the results were incredible. These two tweets illustrate that well:

Of course, all this was not Kroos’ fault. While he was hardly some hard worker out of possession, it wasn’t his job to make the team defend at an elite level. And of course, despite these inconsistencies on a team level, the enduring quality of Madrid’s players, and Kroos (and Modric and Marcelo) in particular, ensured that they always had a foundation to build upon in settled possession. Even in their less impressive performances, Kroos’ ability to control the game and provide a platform for the team’s attacking talents was evident. But it did mean that initially, there were some that would never give him his due alongside Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta.

It’s also worth pointing out that Casemiro was not a very technically gifted player at the 6 position throughout his Real Madrid career, and that Real Madrid’s buildup often had to work around him. Casemiro struggled against any press. Teams would target him and try to funnel the ball in his direction. The tradeoff was worth it, as his defending unlocked the stars, but this was a huge difference between Zidane’s Real Madrid and Guardiola’s Barcelona. Pep had the press-resistant Busquets a the 6. Apart from when he played Fernandinho at the 6, Pep has always had a very press resistant 6. Kroos, Modric, Marcelo, Benzema, Ramos and others (like Alaba later) made up for Casemiro’s deficiencies on the ball. And Kroos’ high usage role often right next to Casemiro was arguably the most important of it all.

Madrid only won 1 out of 4 leagues in Kroos’ first 5 seasons at the club. Despite losing 2 of those leagues by tight margins, people ridiculed Madrid’s league record. Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale took a lot of the big game Champions League headlines. Modric made the 2018 World Cup Final, and Kroos, while he scored that epic goal. The loss to Ajax and Frenkie De Jong after Ronaldo left only added to the stereotypes and memes.

But as Zidane’s second spell began, a shift occurred. Zizou, having had time to reflect on his first tenure, began to implement a more positional approach in possession to make up for the loss of Marcelo and Ronaldo, and organized the defense a lot better. This evolution in Zidane’s tactics brought Kroos’ role into sharper focus. No longer was he merely a facilitator for the attacking talents; he was now the primary heartbeat of the team, the conductor who orchestrated Madrid’s play, the engine around which the core offensive and defensive strategy was built. Modric was in and out of the lineup at points – most notably displaced by Fede Valverde in 2020 – but Kroos was ever present.

So as Zidane 2.0’s positional ideas came to fruition, Kroos’ influence grew even further. His ability to control games, to dictate the tempo and rhythm of matches, became more evident than ever. The stereotypes and memes that had previously surrounded him began to fade, replaced by a widespread recognition of his unique talents.

Carrying During Zidane’s 2nd Spell

Zidane’s second spell was characterized by the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo, but also the decline of Marcelo and his subsequent benching for Ferland Mendy. Before the pandemic during the 2019/20 season, Luka Modric also suffered from a dip in overall form and physical decline, and was displaced by Federico Valverde.

At the time, all those positions were giant downgrades. Real Madrid were not able to deploy names who generated as many shots or advantages for those positions as the pieces they were replacing, so simply outscoring the opposition became a less feasible tactic. Therefore, Zidane leaned all the way into his inner control freak, bringing Real Madrid control and defense, applying principles he had learned from Guardiola.

Possession became a tactic to deny the opposition chances and control the game. Breaking down teams in settled possession was a chore, but Madrid would have the privilege of keeping the ball for most of the game, and therefore being the only ones who got the opportunity to score in most games. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was effective and possession-dominant, and in 2019/20 we got Real Madrid’s best defensive record in club history.

The season was a masterclass in Kroos’ ability to control games, even when the odds seemed stacked against Real Madrid. In matches where the team struggled to create clear-cut chances, Kroos was the invisible hand guiding them towards eventual breakthroughs.

Then, during the following season when the team suffered from a record 60+ injuries, Kroos was another everpresent constant. Rarely injured, with pieces coming in and out of the lineup around him, Madrid labored through a difficult season, but still got 84 points in La Liga and came within minutes of potentially winning thanks to the giant two-way floor provided by Kroos’ press resistance. Kroos was the glue that held the team together.

In the Champions League round of 16 against Atalanta, Kroos put on a masterclass in how to beat a high press. Atalanta, known for their aggressive, man-oriented pressing system, sought to disrupt Real Madrid’s build-up play and force turnovers in dangerous areas.

But Kroos, with his exquisite first touch and spatial awareness, consistently evaded Atalanta’s press. Time and time again, he would receive the ball under pressure, only to turn away from his marker and find a teammate in space. His ability to play out of tight situations, to find angles for passes that seemed impossible, was a key factor in Real Madrid’s 3-1 win.

Zidane left on a sad note after such an injury-ridden season. But he left behind a team with solid positional principles, principles that had been upheld and embodied by Toni Kroos through thick and thin. As Real Madrid looked to the future, they did so knowing that they had a foundation to build upon, a foundation of control and resilience that Kroos had helped to establish.

The Ancelotti Renaissance: Re-optimizing Toni Kroos

Ancelotti came back in and abandoned a lot of Zidane’s principles on both sides of the ball. Madrid became more chaotic again. They didn’t control games as well in settled possession and instead sought to attack in transition more, and they didn’t defend as well either. But this new offensive approach helped unlock Vinicius Jr, so it was all worth it.

Toni Kroos started that season (which began in August) with a pubalgia injury. Kroos had just retired from Germany in July 2021, and didn’t play his first game until the end of September. He had probably had his first thoughts about retiring at club level sooner than later during that injury as well. Real Madrid’s ability to win some games big early on without Kroos under Ancelotti was a sign that the team was onto something special. I felt the same and said so at the epic Managing Madrid live podcast in LA. Ironically, Madrid had drawn that day and would lose their next 2 matches to Shakhtar and Espanyol. Kroos’ first two games back. This would fit the theme of the season – arguably one of Real Madrid’s less effective season’s with Kroos on the pitch, as Casemiro and especially Modric were aging and couldn’t cover as much ground as before.

From a midfield perspective, Real Madrid’s starting lineup struggled more than ever in the big Champions League knockout games that season. The once-dominant trio of Casemiro, Kroos, and Modric could no longer cover enough ground together to give the team a meaningful foothold over the game for sufficient stretches. Real Madrid were often dominated or beaten during their minutes on the pitch. The same midfield that had led the team to three consecutive Champions League titles was now in trouble. There were deficiencies elsewhere too, notably with Alaba and Militao struggling to defend the box as effectively as their predecessors, Ramos and Varane, but the midfield issue stood out.

The team was saved by the emergence of Eduardo Camavinga, who dominated off the bench in midfield by winning duels, dribbling, and progressing the ball like a superstar. Federico Valverde also rediscovered his form after largely struggling since the pandemic, providing the team with two additional athletic midfielders to pair with the old guard. Dani Ceballos also contributed useful minutes off the bench, but it was Camavinga and Valverde who were playing at elite levels. Valverde often started on the right wing in the big games after his dominant performance during the comeback against PSG, while Camavinga consistently made an impact as a substitute against every opponent.

With the aging midfield trio no longer able to control games as they once had, the integration of young, dynamic talents like Camavinga and Valverde became crucial. Kroos, with his exceptional vision and passing ability, was tasked with providing the link between defense and attack, while the younger midfielders injected energy and physicality into the team’s play and helped cover up Kroos’ defensive weaknesses. This was the ‘re-optimization’ of Toni Kroos.

While he was on the bench at times, Kroos (and Modric) was still crucial to the comebacks because he would attract the opposition’s press and wear them down during his minutes, leaving them more fatigued when the youngsters would come off the bench.

Even as Kroos entered the twilight of his career, his ability to dictate the tempo of the game and unlock defenses with his precise passing remained invaluable. The partnership between Kroos and the emerging young midfielders was a testament to his enduring quality. Kiyan suggested in his piece that Kroos has improved at tracking during his career. While I agree, I feel the last couple seasons were largely fuelled by having so much raw athleticism around him. Having 2 of Tchouameni, Fede and Camavinga at all times as well as even Bellingham protecting him this season made his job a lot simpler. As a result, out of gratitude and juiced up by their youthful energy, he was even more switched on.

The 2022/23 season started with promise but the World Cup disrupted everyone’s fitness, and so Real Madrid never fully moved on from the Kroos-Modric duo in midfield, which made both of them look bad at points as they couldn’t cover enough ground. Madrid finished 2nd in the league and struggled in the Champions League against Manchester City. Fortunately, with a full summer and all the young players fully fit, and Jude Bellingham available to shield Kroos even more, this last season was one of Kroos’ best. He has increased his pass volume and Real Madrid have improved their buildup these last 2 seasons ever since swapping Casemiro with the more press-resistant Tchouameni, ending on his personal best passing season in the football reference database (which starts in 2017/18):

This last season was shocking because Kroos’ dominance led to a 95 point La Liga season after many wrote Real Madrid off due to injuries and the lack of a conventional Benzema replacement other than Joselu. Others got hurt, looked more tired some games, or just had inconsistent form all season. But Kroos’ form never dipped or changed all season. This is the benefit of Kroos not sprinting too often – his physical and cognitive level stays the same almost every game all season.

He was phenomenal in both legs against Manchester City until the whole team got too tired to hit their outlets. He was phenomenal against Bayern in both legs. He ran the show against small La Liga teams. Chasing games without Kroos won’t be easy, he gave the team the technical thrust needed by placing pass after pass to attackers during comebacks. The young players would help progress and mop up duels. Kroos would run the show until an attacker broke through.

Kroos surpassed his own exceptional standards these last two seasons – increasing his pass volume – and elevated the performances of Madrid’s young midfielders around him. His intelligence, technical mastery, and leadership shone through until the very end, as he continued to be the heartbeat of the team in their most crucial matches.

Legacy: The Relationist Controller

Kroos came into an environment that was … oddly rigid by being completely opposed to some forms of structure in possession, that was anemic in a sense, and gave it oxygen. He was a huge huge part of Zinedine Zidane’s success during both his spells, and ends with a unique legacy.

He was a highly cerebral player. So much more was calculated than you’d realize on the surface. Kroos played like a true statistician/mathematician, optimizing probabilities and angles with surgical precision. Kiyan’s analogy of cyborg is fitting in that sense – he plays like he has silicon processors in his head. He has said before (I can’t find the quote but I swear he’s said it) that he would only do a limited number of sprints per game so that he could stay fresh. Smart! Not something every single player on the pitch can afford to do for a football team to succeed, but definitely something a deep lying midfield general can afford to do.

Football is a game where every player on the pitch is an elite athlete, capable of covering vast swathes of territory at blistering speeds. This athletic parity makes the creation of time and space an incredibly challenging task.

The sheer speed of the game at the professional level can also be deceiving when watched on television. What may seem like ample time on the ball is, in reality, a matter of fractions of a second. Attackers must make decisions and execute actions in the blink of an eye, all while under immense physical pressure from opponents. The margin for error is minuscule, and the consequences of a mistimed pass or a heavy touch can be severe.

In this context, Toni Kroos’ ability to consistently create time and space for himself and his teammates was truly extraordinary. Kroos had an uncanny knack for finding pockets of space, for creating a yard of separation when there seemed to be none. His first touch was impeccable, allowing him to control the ball and survey his options even as opponents closed in. With a subtle feint or a drop of the shoulder, he could send defenders lunging in the wrong direction, buying himself precious moments to pick out a pass.

Kroos was the maestro who made time stand still, the man who found space where there was none.

Comparing him to other great controlling midfielders is fascinating. Most of the great controllers only came onto the scene after Pep introduced his superlative form of control in the late 2010s: Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Kroos, Modric, Thiago, some would say Verratti, Rodri, etc.

Tactically, many of the other guys played under more positionist (i.e a football philosophy that primarily seeks to disorganize the opponent with one’s positioning and synchronized moves) head coaches who optimized for their play style easily and gave those guys lots of structure for their moves. Guardiola especially. Kroos, however, gave the team a lot of their buildup structure under Ancelotti and under Zidane’s first spell, and would consistently make up for the lack of press resistance of Casemiro, who struggled to consistently keep the ball. Real Madrid have always preferred to be relationist (free roam, come to the ball, play off eachother spontaneously); of recent years Zidane’s 2nd spell was the most positional by far. On other occasions, and during that spell, Kroos (and Modric) have been responsible for giving the team structure, control and dominance over opponents solely through their positioning, IQ and technique.

What truly sets Kroos apart as a controller is his ability to provide structure and control to relationist systems that inherently lack it. In a positional system, the movements and roles of each player are more rigidly defined, making it easier for a controller to dictate play within that framework. However, in a relationist system like Real Madrid’s, where players are given more freedom to roam and improvise, the controller’s job becomes infinitely more complex.

Kroos thrived in this chaos, using his intelligence, vision, and technique to bring order to the madness. He would constantly scan the field, anticipating the movements of his teammates and opponents, and adjusting his position accordingly. His ability to find pockets of space, even when the team’s structure was fluid, allowed him to consistently provide an outlet for his teammates and keep the ball moving.

When comparing Kroos to other elite controllers, it’s important to note their different roles and strengths. Sergio Busquets, for example, is often considered the gold standard for defensive midfielders. His positional discipline, tactical awareness, and ability to shield the defense are unparalleled. However, when it comes to passing volume among first-phase players, Kroos slightly surpasses him: since 2017/18, Kroos has completed 84.7 passes per game with a 90.1% completion rate, compared to Busquets’ 74.3 passes per game at an 89.5% completion rate. This difference can be attributed to their distinct roles. Busquets was crucial to his team but rarely acted as an aggressive primary option, instead opting to be an elite circulator who attempted to influence the game in a minimalistic manner. He could have increased his usage but chose subtlety to allow other players to shine. It’s worth noting that including the 2015/16 and 2014/15 seasons could have benefited Busquets by incorporating his age 27 and 28 seasons (the averages mentioned are from his age 29-33 seasons). However, Kroos’ age 25 and 26 seasons were also exceptional and might have boosted his own averages as well. The analysis may change with more data there, but for now based on my observations I feel Kroos did have higher overall pass volume for his career.

In terms of longevity, Kroos edges out Xavi. Xavi’s peak was likely higher, as he offered a similar volume of passes and control as Kroos while also getting 20-30 G+A per season in his prime, but Kroos has maintained his elite level for longer (10 world class peak seasons consecutively at Real Madrid). This is a testament to his fitness, professionalism, and adaptability, as he has thrived under different coaches and in different systems. Kroos was more stationary than the roaming Xavi, though ironically it was Kroos who was more capable of adapting his game to a variety of systems by the end. The peak of Xavi’s career is not in the football reference database so comparing pass volume is difficult.

Luka Modric, Kroos’ long-time midfield partner, is another interesting comparison. Modric’s role was slightly different – he was more of a second phase ‘accelerant’, someone who could take the ball from the defense and play within tempo, only to suddenly drive it forward, often bypassing the midfield with his dribbling and progressive passing. Kroos, on the other hand, was the engine room, the player who would control the game from deeper positions, spraying passes left and right and primarily dictating the tempo. Modric could certainly contribute to the first phase of build-up when needed, just like Kroos could add thrust, but this was the main difference. Modric’s prime (2014-2018) is mostly not in the database, but since the start of 2017/18 he averages 65.1 passes at 87.1% completion rate, lower marks than Kroos as expected because of the role difference.

Andrés Iniesta, another of Barcelona’s midfield maestros, is perhaps the most difficult to compare directly to Kroos. Iniesta was a genius in the second phase of play, often receiving the ball with his back to goal and then turning and driving forward. His dribbling, close control, and ability to play in tight spaces were unparalleled. However, he was less involved in the first phase of build-up than Kroos, and approached it in a more ‘back to goal’ fashion. Iniesta’s role was about breaking the press and destabilizing defenses in the final third. As such much like Kroos, his goals and assists numbers, while impressive, don’t fully capture his impact.

Thiago Alcântara, another of Kroos’ contemporaries, is renowned for his technical ability and his capacity to play in tight spaces. However, Kroos slightly edges him in terms of passing volume and accuracy. Thiago is also injured far too often to seriously factor into this comparison. But we’ll indulge him nevertheless. From 2017/18 onwards, Kroos has completed 84.7 passes at 90.1% completion rate, and Thiago was at 78.9 passes at 89.3% completion rate. At Bayern, Thiago was at 83.4 completions at 89.9% completion rate, and it’s worth noting Kroos’ last 2 seasons (92.7 and 94.7 completions at 91.0 and 91.5% pass completion rates respectively) were his highest volume and bumped up his averages. Which is to say. Thiago at Bayern per 90 was comparable to Kroos prior to the last 2 seasons. Kroos, for me, was slightly better at controlling the game still whereas Thiago for me was slightly more of the archetype that varied the tempo as required like Modric, perhaps in between the Real Madrid pair if they were two poles of a spectrum.

In recent times, Manchester City’s Rodri has emerged as a midfielder who could potentially reach Kroos’ level. In the past two seasons, Rodri has been shooting and passing more and has been a key figure for City. At Manchester City Rodri has 88.7 passes completed at 91.7% completion in the database – edging both of Kroos’ marks of 84.7 completions and 90.1%. However, it’s important to note that Rodri’s success is, in part, a product of the system he plays in. Guardiola’s teams are set up in a way that primarily maximizes the strengths of a player like Rodri. Moreover, while Rodri has been excellent, he is yet to prove that he can maintain this level over a decade, as Kroos has done. Adaptability is also a question mark – we haven’t seen Rodri thrive in as many different systems as Kroos has. Kroos dominated with someone who lacked press resistance like Casemiro! However, in terms of style as a first-phase, high-volume playmaker, Rodri is probably the closest we’ve seen to Kroos in a long time. Interestingly, Kroos’ last 2 seasons (and perhaps some of his earlier first seasons at Real Madrid that aren’t in the football reference database?) beat most of Rodri’s City seasons in terms of volume (as mentioned above he had almost 95 completions this season). However, Rodri’s 2023/24 season saw him finish with 105.4 completions at 91.9% accuracy, a ridiculous figure that boosted his total figures at City.

In the first phase of play, in terms of volume, accuracy, and crucially longevity, Kroos is truly unparalleled. His ability to control games from deep, to set the tempo and rhythm of a match, and to do so consistently over a decade, sets him apart from his peers. While others may have had higher peaks or more eye-catching moments, Kroos’ sustained excellence in a relationist environment is a testament to his unique blend of technical, mental, and physical qualities.

It’s worth noting that these comparisons are not meant to diminish the qualities of these other great midfielders. Each of them brought something unique and invaluable to their teams. However, Kroos’ specific blend of skills – his passing range and accuracy, his game intelligence, his consistency, and his adaptability – make him stand out even among this elite group. His ability to control games from deep, to dictate the tempo and flow of a match, and to maintain these standards over such a long period, is what sets him apart as one of the greatest controllers of his generation.

Closing Thoughts

As we bid farewell to Toni Kroos, it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe and gratitude. Here is a player who not only redefined his position but also helped shape an entire era of football. His retirement, coming on his own terms and at the peak of his powers, might just be the most perfect ending to a legendary career.

While casuals may miss out, all the greatest minds in football recognized his value. Pep Guardiola, the mastermind of Barcelona’s tiki-taka revolution, wanted Kroos at Manchester City for a few more years.

As Real Madrid look to the future, they will undoubtedly struggle to replace Kroos. Players of his caliber and importance come along once in a generation, if that. His ability to dictate the tempo of a game, to find pockets of space under immense pressure, and to deliver passes that could unlock even the tightest of defenses was unmatched.

However, Real Madrid are too wise to try and replace him directly. They recognize that Kroos’ unique skill set and influence cannot be replicated by any one player. Instead, they may look to bring in a combination of talents to fill the void. Enzo Fernandez, the Argentine midfielder currently plying his trade at Chelsea, could be one such target. His dynamic, box-to-box style and technical prowess could add a new dimension to Real Madrid’s midfield. However, prising him away from Chelsea may prove to be a challenge, given the English club’s reluctance to part with their star player.

Another option could be Florian Wirtz, the young German prodigy from Bayer Leverkusen. Wirtz, while not a like-for-like replacement for Kroos, has shown immense potential as a creative midfielder. Real Madrid could look to mold him into more of a 2nd phase creator, along with Turkish wonderkid Arda Guler.

Some have suggested Jude Bellingham could just move deeper and replace Kroos himself. I find the notion laughable. Jude has been phenomenal as a midfielder this season, but there were so many occasions on which he would receive the ball in a tight situation, be short on air, and just search for Kroos like he’s oxygen like so many have before him. The level of press resistance required to do what Kroos does is just different. However, Jude does have the qualities to take on greater responsibilities, it’s just that his primary strength is in 2nd and 3rd phase play:

What’s remarkable is that Kroos could have easily continued playing at this level for several more years. His game, built on technical excellence and tactical intelligence rather than raw physicality, was one that could have aged gracefully. With proper load management, Kroos could have remained the heartbeat of Real Madrid’s midfield well into his late-30s. But such was his commitment to leaving on his own terms, to ensuring that his legacy would remain untarnished, that he chose to step away while still at the top.

And what a legacy it is. When Kroos joined Real Madrid in 2014, Barcelona were the epitome of footballing excellence. Their tiki-taka style, personified by the likes of Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta, was the gold standard, the philosophy that every team aspired to emulate. Their 2015 Champions League triumph felt like a coronation, a confirmation that they were the definitive club of the modern era.

But Kroos’ arrival at Real Madrid marked a turning point. Under his influence, Madrid began to adopt elements of that possession-based style, but with a distinctly Real Madrid flavor. They became more controlled, more calculated, but still retained their devastating directness and ability to strike at pace. It was a hybrid style that proved unstoppable, leading to an unprecedented run of three consecutive Champions League titles.

In many ways, Kroos was the architect of this success. His ability to control games from deep, to dictate the rhythm and flow of matches, was the foundation upon which Real Madrid’s triumphs were built. Without him, it’s hard to imagine Madrid achieving such consistent excellence on the European stage.

As Kroos hangs up his boots, Real Madrid can look back on an era of unparalleled success. They have once again become the defining club of the era, the standard-bearers for excellence in the modern game. The parallels with Barcelona’s decline are striking – as the Catalan giants have faded, Real Madrid have risen, with Kroos as the symbol of their ascendancy. If Barcelona were the vinyl of the footballing world, classic and revolutionary, Real Madrid under Kroos have been the CD – sleeker, more efficient, and ultimately more successful.

Of course, Real Madrid still have one more season with Luka Modric, Kroos’ long-time partner in midfield. Modric, even at 37, remains a force of nature, a player capable of turning games with a moment of magic. His presence will undoubtedly soften the blow of Kroos’ departure. But there’s no escaping the fact that Real Madrid are losing something special, something that may never be replicated.

In the end, Toni Kroos leaves behind a legacy that will stand the test of time. He was a once-in-a-generation talent, a player who redefined what it meant to be a midfielder. His intelligence, his technical brilliance, and his unshakeable composure under pressure made him a true footballing icon. As he walks away from the game, he does so with his head held high, secure in the knowledge that his impact will be felt for years to come. Farewell, Toni Kroos. Football will miss you.