Over the next three months, SI.com will profile two valuable, but perhaps undervalued, under-the-radar players on each of the U.S. men's national team's Group G opponents at this summer's World Cup. As a result, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Asamoah Gyan will make way for their lesser-heralded teammates in this space. The first in the Know Your Enemy series is Germany midfielder Toni Kroos.
Born in Greifswald in East Germany nine months before reunification, Kroos joined Bayern Munich from Hansa Rostock in 2006 having won the top-scorer and best player awards at that year's European Under-17 championship. His talent had been obvious from extremely early.
"He was so good that they made him play without boots to give the opponents a chance," his former school teacher Sieglinde Heimann said in an interview with Welt.
Kroos became Bayern's youngest ever player (a record since surpassed by David Alaba) when making his debut against Energie Cottbus in September 2007, setting up two goals for Miroslav Klose in an 18-minute substitute appearance. He spent a season and a half on loan at Bayern Leverkusen, winning back-to-back player of the month awards from the prestigious magazine Kicker in December 2009 and January 2010.
That was enough to ensure that he returned to Bayern at the end of the season and he soon became a regular, his versatility allowing him to slot in almost anywhere in midfield. There were some who would never have let him leave in the first place, most notably Werner Kwern, Bayern's head of youth development.
"Toni Kroos is the most naturally gifted player I have ever seen since Karl-Heinz Rummenigge," he said.
It was in 2011-12, under Jupp Heynckes, that Kroos became an obvious first choice at Bayern, forming a formidable partnership with Bastian Schweinsteiger, his international teammate, and he was a key part of the side that won the treble last season, although a serious knee injury suffered in the Champions League quarterfinal victory over Juventus meant he missed the last couple of months of the season.
Numerous observers, Matthias Sammer and Joachim Low among them, have wondered whether Kroos, for all his talent, has the necessary edge or hunger really to push himself, but the periods of games when he seemed almost to be admiring a pass he had made or a goal he had scoffed a few minutes earlier have become less frequent under Pep Guardiola, the competition for places at Bayern forcing him to keep pushing.
Delays in signing a new contract have raised doubts as to whether he will stay at Bayern beyond the end of this season, with Manchester United making it clear it would be keen to sign him.
HOW HE FITS IN
For most of the qualifiers, Low selected two of Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Kroos to play at the back of midfield, using all three of them only in the 3-0 home victory over Ireland, when Kroos operated behind Mesut Ozil, who, slightly surprisingly, was deployed as a false No. 9.
That's the advantage Kroos offers: he is technically adept and can finish but he is a highly intelligent and versatile footballer, more than capable of dropping deeper if required. The loss of Khedira to knee ligament damage would logically mean he would operate alongside Schweinsteiger in a holding role at the World Cup, were it not for the reinvention of Philipp Lahm, a majestic fullback who has been converted into a deep-lying midfielder at Bayern by Guardiola.
In the March friendly against Chile, Lahm played alongside Schweinsteiger, with Kroos playing off Klose. And that is the great advantage of Kroos: he can perform either function and, whichever he takes up, he will do so with the knowledge of the other, adding to the intelligence of his play.
WHY HE POSES SUCH A DANGER
Kroos is the model of the modern attacking midfielder. At his best, when fully focused, he is always involved, always looking for the ball, always looking to unsettle the opposition, always seeking ways to regain possession. If he is used at the front of midfield he offers not only a goal threat but will constantly harass the back of the U.S. midfield, hounding opponents as somebody brought up in the best traditions of the pressing game should.
If he's used deeper, that energy will still be evident, but he also poses a risk making runs from deep, arriving late in the box. As Arsenal has discovered over the past two seasons in the Champions League, he is more than capable of scoring goals from outside the box. He is an old-fashioned, box-to-box midfielder who has adapted his style to the modern game, and it says much for his effectiveness for Bayern that, as of this week, he had completed more than 10 percent more passes in the final third than any other player in the Bundesliga.