Toni Kroos - Analysing Manchester United's potential midfield signings
As Manchester United’s season draws to a close, the 16-point gap with champions Manchester City understates their struggles. In his second year, Jose Mourinho brought in Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic, and Victor Lindelof. While Lukaku’s 27 goals and seven assists look great for a debut season, Sanchez has yet to show his true colours, save for one outing. Lindelof has shown glimpses of how good the former Benfica defender can be but is yet to cement his place in the starting lineup.
Matic was the only midfielder signed in 2017. The Serbian was brought in to provide composure and balance in the middle of the pitch. Paul Pogba’s inconsistency, especially defensively, has often left him exposed and overworked.
Nevertheless, United have improved from last season. Although unwatchable at times, their play is stronger, more effective. They hold a higher league position and bettered their game against clubs outside the top six, the ones from whom they should regularly take three points. Bettered does not mean perfected. They still dropped valuable points against West Brom, Stoke, Huddersfield, Leicester, Burnley, and Southampton.
In December, United dropped six points. The earlier loss to Huddersfield and draw with Stoke cost them five more. Had the Red Devils kept the 11 points from those matches, as they should have, the gap with City would only be five. Fans would have a Premier League title race threatening to go down to the wire.
A core reason for those missed opportunities was a misfiring midfield. United failed to connect their defence to the attack. This summer, they will seek reinforcements in the market. They need leaders in the middle of the pitch.
Skills and capabilities
Kroos is the most iconic German midfielder in the current era. The former Bayern Munich man is a master of the simple pass. He works with machine-like efficiency. Since the 2013-14 season, the 28-year-old midfielder has consistently delivered a 90%+ passing accuracy in each season. He performs consistently at an elite level.
Kroos reads the game intelligently. His strengths have made him an automatic for the teamsheet for every manager. Since 2013/14, he has made at least 30 appearances every campaign. Whether playing against a high press or low block, his positioning is excellent.
He does have the odd off game. The defeat to Tottenham in the Champions League, for example. In pretty much every other match, the German has a keen eye for spotting runs and plays long balls and crosses extremely well. He is the binding that holds Zinedine Zidane's squad together.
In 30 games, Kroos scored four goals and created seven for his teammates. He plays at the top of a midfield diamond, connecting defence with attack. His averages 2.4 key passes per game and is dispossessed only 0.4. The German pass master does not overcomplicate things with excessive dribbles, yet he can escape tight situations seamlessly. Real Madrid’s successive Champion League glory was built on a foundation comprising Kroos and Casemiro.
Kroos specialises in breaking down the high press. Ask Atletico Madrid. Additionally, Kroos’s ability to bypass the opposition midfield with pinpoint long balls (5.9/game) and crosses (1.8) helps his team jump straight from defence to attack before opponents can recover.
How he fits at United?
Media rumours mentioned that Jose Mourinho would like to have Kroos at Old Trafford. Putting aside the claims' authenticity, does Kroos have what it takes to succeed at United?
Kroos prefers an attacking midfield position. If bought, he would be playing in Paul Pogba's position. He would be tasked to act as the gel and provide dynamism from the midfield. Fortunately, that is something Kroos does too well.
However, like Pogba, Kroos does not enjoy defensive duties. He is often found too slow when tracking back after an attack breaks down. He too would leave Matic exposed Something similar happened when Tottenham overloaded Madrid’s midfield. Casemiro, Varane, and Ramos were outnumbered and failed to stop Spurs.
Mourinho likes his midfielders to shuttle between the boxes. In fact, he wants each player to shoulder some defensive responsibility. Kroos might not be the best man for that. He can move, create space, provide leadership to the team, create opportunities, but won't be descending from behind like LeBron James getting back on a fast break when opponents counterattack. He is essentially a more clinical Bastian Schweinsteiger. Do I need to remind you how Mourinho treated Schweini when he was at Old Trafford?
His class cannot be doubted but the Real star might not suit Mourinho's style. The Portuguese coach likes his players to have the immense tenacity and provide support at both ends of the field. Toni Kroos won't bring that urgency to United.