The year 2012 was a miserable one for Toni Kroos. Despite playing brilliantly with Bayern Munich for most of the 2011-12 season, the midfielder collapsed at season's end. He lacked confidence throughout the Champions League final, and when the time came to step up in the penalty shootout, he refused.
Weeks later, at Euro 2012, Kroos was benched, despite Bastian Schweinsteiger clearly lacking fitness due to a lingering ankle ailment. The ex-Hansa Rostock talent had a terrible attitude throughout the tournament, ignoring reporters after every match as he took a seat on the team bus 15 or more minutes before any of his teammates.
His constant sulking meant that when finally given a chance—and one in his natural position as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation—against Italy, he utterly failed to make an impression.
Perhaps too much was expected of Kroos who, at just 22 years of age, was the fourth-youngest player in the German squad. But the middle months of 2012 proved that at the time, the Bayern man was simply not "Mr. Dependable."
Once firmly established as Schweinsteiger's deputy in Joachim Loew's side, Kroos saw his stock drop as Ilkay Gundogan emerged as a world-class holding midfielder. An injury to the Bayern man saw his season cut short as he missed a critical Champions League semifinal tie with Barcelona, as well as the subsequent final.
Gundogan, meanwhile, took center stage for BVB in their triumph over Real Madrid. Although his side lost the Champions League final, the Gelsenkirchen native played brilliantly and with confidence—when the time came, it was he who had the nerve to take and score a penalty to level the score.
Thus, at season's start, things did not look too promising for Kroos' international future. Fortune came to his rescue this week, however, as both Schweinsteiger and Gundogan sustained injuries that kept them out of World Cup qualifiers with Austria and the Faroe Islands. Kroos was given the nod to start alongside Sami Khedira on Friday, and he took his chance brilliantly.
In a resounding man-of-the-match performance, Kroos completed more passes than any other player and served as the architect of the German attack, yet also made his impression in the final third. He scored a stunning goal from distance to make it 2-0, and his wonder strike was especially important as it came against the run of play. Late in the match, his run and well-weighted ball to Benedikt Hoewedes set up a third goal for Germany, and with the last touch of the game he barely missed bagging his brace.
Kroos' strong play in possession is no anomaly; he's always done well for the German attack when playing as Schweinsteiger's backup. It's his play without the ball that has been a problem.
Kroos' distribution was superb, and he scored an outstanding goal in a 2011 friendly against Ukraine, for example, but Germany were held to a 3-3 draw as the hosts exploited a weak German defensive midfield on the counterattack. And some poor defensive performances in a holding role for Louis van Gaal's Bayern prompted Jupp Heynckes to use Kroos exclusively as a central attacking midfielder from 2011 onward.
But against Austria, we did not see the fragility expected from Germany's side with Kroos playing in a holding role. To the contrary, Friday's match was Germany's first clean sheet in a competitive match against a team other than Kazakhstan or the Faroes since their Euro 2012 opener against Portugal.
The Germans were very rarely troubled in what was a comprehensively dominant display against Austria, and Kroos took the initiative like never before. His consummate confidence drove the team to its success.
There remain some serious questions about Kroos' international future, the most serious of which is how he can fit into a team of world-class attacking and defensive midfielders when he is naturally somewhat between the two positions.
Although his distribution in deep areas and shooting technique are superlative in the DFB team, he doesn't offer the agility and craft around the box that playmakers like Mesut Ozil, Mario Goetze and Julian Draxler have, and he lacks the physicality of holding midfielders like Schweinsteiger and Gundogan.
Unless Loew faces another injury crisis in defensive midfield, Kroos may well continue to be a substitute for Ozil as he was at Euro 2012, a conservative pick for the playmaker position if Germany are trying to hold on to a lead.
Still, positive performances can cause perceptions to shift. Kroos appears to have matured over the last year, to the point where he's willing to fight for a spot in the German team and justify his selection when given the opportunity.
He certainly did just that on Friday, as his cool distribution and outstanding goal lifted the DFB team to victory against bitter rivals Austria. And his inclusion in a team that earned a rare clean sheet will not go unnoticed by Loew.
After over a year of uncertainty, Kroos has taken a definitive step in the right direction. With nine full months to go before the 2014 World Cup, he has every chance of staking his claim for a significant role in Loew's team.
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