Skip to Content

Real Madrid Goes Where Toni Kroos Leads

Toni Kroos of Real Madrid gestures during the UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg match between FC Bayern München and Real Madrid at Allianz Arena on April 30, 2024 in Munich, Germany.
Photo by Silas Schueller/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Tuesday's Champions League semifinal between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid was a barnstormer, as well-played and exciting as any matchup between Europe's twin ogres ought to be, and ended in a 2-2 draw that should have all soccer lovers squirming in gleeful anticipation as we await next week's second leg. At the match's center, both literally and figuratively, stood Toni Kroos, who, as is his wont, bossed the game. At the center of Kroos's performance was this ingenious pass, which changed everything:

If only for its splendor, it's worth luxuriating in the play itself, which landed like a thunderbolt from a cloudless sky and definitively cleaved the match in two, separating the rampant Bayern assault of the first 20 or so minutes from the much more even contest of the final hour of play. Kroos's pass was astounding—a 40-yard through ball struck straight down the throat of Bayern's setup, which squeezed between four opponents, shattered two lines, and arrived at the precise place and time for Vinícius to reach it before goalkeeper Manuel Neuer could, the curiously smooth roll of its otherwise devastating trajectory gifting the Brazilian a simple first-time finish to put the visitors ahead on the scoreboard. Vinícius's run too was brilliant, in its deceptiveness ("Here I come—oop! there I go!") and timing, but it's Kroos's pass that's truly remarkable. And even the run itself was to an extent dictated by Kroos. In the replays, right before Vini stops dropping towards the ball and takes off in the opposite direction, you can see Kroos's finger pointing Vini in the direction where the space and the goal and the glory lays.

The thing about Toni Kroos though is that it's impossible for any one moment, even one as shining as the above assist, to in any real way capture the magnitude of his best performances. Kroos can create goals, but so can tons of players. What separates Kroos from other eagle-eyed, technically gifted passers is his ability to create entire contexts in which a match is played. And the way he does that is with lots of smaller, less visually arresting interventions that alone might not amount to much but on the whole serve as reins with which Kroos steers everything that happens on the field.

So while the assist itself might not instantiate what exactly made Kroos the protagonist of Tuesday's semifinal, the context around the goal does a better job. I count 18 passes from the 52 seconds between when the broadcast camera picked back up with play following a Bayern foul on Kroos to when Vinícius puts the ball into the net. Five of those passes come from Kroos, more than any other Madrid player in the sequence. Most of his touches come deep, just ahead of or beside his team's central defenders. The pattern of play is methodical—Real attempts a probing forward pass, the harried receiver returns a pass backwards, Real's deep players slide around, the forward ones reshuffle and make new runs to offer options ahead, Real attempts another probe, the ball returns, repeat. It's Kroos who provides the structure, guiding when and where Real attempts its forward probes with his feet and his fingers. The low tempo is Kroos's, and it's deceptive. Bayern thinks it has Real's possession tightly bottled up, right until the moment Kroos notices the advantage, strides forward, points Vinícius in the right direction, and you know the rest. In an age of ornate buildup routines and mechanical, siege-like attacks that look to install the entire team in the final third and execute a limited number of pre-worked moves, here we have a wholly improvised buildup largely conducted by one man, which creates a killer scoring opportunity without getting the ball anywhere near the opposing penalty area until Vini applies the fatal touch.

To quote the title of the video above, this is Real Madrid: a team that stands in the face of many of today's orthodoxies about how the game should or even must be played, that is driven by the synergies and creative faculties of all the great players it amasses and empowers, that goes where its players choose and more specifically where Kroos chooses, since he almost always leads them to the right place. Bayern Munich came out on fire in Tuesday's match, and it was Toni Kroos's feet that stamped theirs down and set Real ablaze. He did so by wandering around the depths of Madrid's formation, passing the ball sideways and backwards and sometimes forwards, relieving pressure and then extinguishing it (Bayern more or less abandoned its commitment to pressing whenever Kroos had the ball) and then, when his deceptively sedate influence had lulled the opposition into a false sense of security, heaped on pressure of his own.

All the little passes, the finger points, the switches of play, and the trotting around the center circle in search of the ball created the context in which he and Vinícius could combine for the moment of magic that established the terms of this semifinal tie. It wasn't the sharpest we've seen this Madrid be, and a sharper Bayern probably comes away from Tuesday's match with a win. But Kroos is the rare player who can whet his whole team's blades all by himself, all while keeping his own sharp enough to slice through anything when the time is right.

Already a user?Log in

Welcome to Defector!

Sign up to read another couple free blogs.

Or, click here to subscribe!

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter