The usual plaudits for Cristiano Ronaldo, Isco and Zinedine Zidane filled the front pages in the Spanish capital after Real Madrid moved to within a point of securing a first La Liga title in five years with a 4-1 victory in Vigo on Wednesday night.
The Portuguese struck twice in Balaidos to beat Jimmy Greaves’ long-standing record for goals scored in Europe’s five highest-ranked leagues, and Zidane was lauded once again for his careful handling of his star player, who has bagged 13 times in Real’s past eight games after being left out for consecutive away fixtures at Leganes, Sporting Gijon, Deportivo La Coruna and Granada in recent weeks.
As is so often the case this season, one name barely warranted a footnote in the tsunami of headlines celebrating tangible Liga glory for the first time since 2011-12.
Toni Kroos is not underrated or underappreciated but quite the opposite. The fact that the Germany international has rarely occupied column inches this season is a compliment: it is easier to become inured to consistent brilliance in a stadium that descends on any mistake with the enthusiasm of hyenas handed the freedom of the savanna.
Kroos was rested for the same games as Ronaldo, remaining on the bench in Gijon and Granada just in case, but no Real Madrid player has arrived at the end of the season with more pitch time in his legs as the No. 8: 3,991 minutes across 44 starts. Only twice in 2016-17 has Kroos been summoned from the bench, and had he not missed Liga games against Atletico Madrid and Barcelona and a Champions League fixture in Lisbon, he would have broken the 4,000-minute mark handsomely.
Kroos covers a considerable amount of ground in each game, deployed deep or in a more advanced role depending on the opposition and the personnel Zidane has at his disposal. Of his 13 assists in all competitions this season, two have come from defensive midfield, and only Luis Suarez has more in La Liga with 13 to Kroos’ 12. The next nearest midfielders domestically are Isco and Sevilla’s Pablo Sarabia, who both have eight to their names and operate much further forward.
Zidane said in November 2015, weeks before he took over from Rafa Benitez at the Bernabeu, that Kroos was the element Real Madrid had been lacking in search of the perfect formula. “We signed Toni because we want him to mark an era. We absolutely love him. Toni is the type of player we were missing before, the missing link. He is perfect for Madrid.”
The Frenchman has certainly put Florentino Perez’s money where his mouth was after taking over the reins. And his faith in Kroos has been rewarded. This season, with Real two games away from a potential Liga and Champions League double, Zidane has used Kroos in a way that suggests an exorcism of the Frenchman’s demons after his compatriot Claude Makelele was unceremoniously shown the door in 2003.
Casemiro may be the natural heir to Makelele in a position Madrid have never adequately filled since then, but there is no doubt as to who the engine of this Zidane side is.
Kroos is more than a water carrier or a ball winner tasked with laying it off “to someone who can play.” In La Liga the German ranks in the top 10 in 2016-17 for accurate passes, corners and crosses. Including the Champions League, Kroos’ pass success rate stands at 93 percent, with an average of 71 completed in every match. Real’s Vorsprung durch is based firmly on the technique of Zidane’s run-around.
It is Kroos who has afforded others a rest as an almost ever-present in midfield, covering for injuries to Luka Modric, who has missed 15 games in all competitions in 2016-17, and Casemiro, who was out for 13 with a fractured leg. That he is still going for 90 minutes at this stage of the season and has scored two and assisted one against Sevilla and Celta Vigo as Real close in on the title is testament to the incredible resilience of a player who was pivotal in Germany’s 2014 World Cup victory. He has barely had a breather since.
Player-specific songs are rare in Spain, but the Bernabeu should dream one up for a servant who has stated his intention to see out his career at Real Madrid. Bayern Munich’s travelling support showed their affection for an unsung hero and his son even in defeat after the Champions League semifinal. Ronaldo, Zidane and Isco will be front and centre if Real win the title in Malaga.
Kroos, it is easy to imagine, will be happy enough playing a supporting role in any celebrations. He’s been doing the same all season quietly and consistently.