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For 94 minutes, he was the scapegoat. Perhaps even the villain. Toni Kroos was the reason Germany – reigning champion Germany – was heading out of the World Cup.
Tick by tick, stoppage time was trickling away, and Germany, tied 1-1 with Sweden, was tumbling toward a second consecutive disappointing result in Russia. Its World Cup fate was slipping away, into the hands of the Swedes and Mexico.
And Kroos was at fault. Six days earlier, marked out of the opener by Mexico. Rendered ineffective. Exposed. Saturday, sloppy. The Swedish goal, the one that sent shockwaves throughout the soccer world, was his. It was his giveaway. His slack marking. His inability to atone for his own error.
Kroos’ World Cup, through 180-plus minutes, had been as backward as Lionel Messi’s, as baffling as those of other faltering stars. He is one of the best midfielders in the world, and undoubtedly the most technically skilled. He was a reason the Germans were reigning champs in the first place, and a reason they were favorites to repeat.
Yet suddenly, he was malfunctioning. He was detrimental. At best, he was ordinary.
But with one last-gasp stroke of his magical right foot, he swept all of that to the side. He dragged Germany back from the brink, and likely into the knockout rounds. He reminded us why doubting Germans is one of soccer’s cardinal sins.
Kroos, however, through two games, has also reminded us of something else. He’s emblematic of both Germany’s excellence and its defects. He’s why a repeat is far from out of the question. He’s also why Germany’s first week in Russia has been such an ordeal.
Winner and loser: Toni Kroos
Every international soccer team has an origin story, and this one begins with Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller streaming down South African fields in 2010. It begins eight years ago with eight goals and two generation-birthing knockout-round drubbings of England and Argentina. Ozil, Muller, Sami Khedira and others sparkled, and foretold of success to come.
Kroos was a reserve on that team. Four years later, he was an integral piece. He had arrived, and Germany had evolved. It had learned comprehensive control. It coupled that with quick-strike potential, plus defensive smarts and solidity, and conquered the world.
But in a sporting sector that runs on four-year cycles, nothing ever lasts. Shelf lives are short.
Germany has had to evolve again, and this time, the evolution was the next step of the natural progression from 2010 to 2014, and now to 2018. Overflowing with technical ability, it has gone all in on control. On death by immutable possession and persistent attack.
Kroos played every game of the 2014 tournament with two of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Christoph Kramer alongside him in midfield. In 2018, he has receded into a deeper role, with just one partner, and none of the quality or intelligence of Lahm or Schweinsteiger. The idea is to boss the ball, and therefore games as well. Over the past four years, Germany’s center of gravity has inched further and further forward.
And in Russia, the team has tipped.
Kroos, for the most part, has not been up to the task. He is not an elite athlete; not a physical specimen. He is the opposite of a destroyer. And without one next to him, there is a gaping hole at the base of Germany’s midfield. That crucial line of Germany’s counterpress – its attempts to win the ball back immediately after losing it – is porous.
The problem was evident against Mexico, and again against Sweden. Kroos’ invisibleness defensively was apparent, and even more troubling against what should have been an overmatched Swedish attack. Instead, it was a potent one. Kroos’ giveaway was the lowlight, but not the only worrying example. Saturday’s first half was the Mexico game all over again. Germany looked nothing like a World Cup contender.
But Kroos’ on-ball perfection was a pivotal part of the second-half turnaround. And his goal completed it.
It didn’t obscure the problems. Or at least it shouldn’t. And Kroos is still a major piece of them. Without ample midfield protection, he has been miscast, not as a deep-lying playmaker but as a proper defensive midfielder – or rather as a playmaker asked to perform traditional defensive midfielder tasks. He can’t carry them out. And his technical ability alone can’t carry Germany to the semifinals or beyond.
But lest we forget there were holes four years ago during the group stage as well. Manager Joachim Low had time to find the right balance then, and he might just have enough time readjust this team’s center of gravite. Because he has players like Kroos. Players who, lest we forget, remain world champions, not yet dethroned.
Loser: Joachim Low
Low has gotten his tactics wrong two games in a row now. He made four changes for the Sweden match, but didn’t address the problem. He apparently ceded to pressure from players, among others, and dropped Mesut Ozil instead of Julian Draxler, which didn’t make much sense against Sweden’s low block. None of the other alterations – not even Sebastian Rudy in for Sami Khedira – made Germany less vulnerable to counterattacks.
Low is one of the best managers in the world, so reliable and proven that the German soccer federation extended his contract through 2022 before the 2018 tournament even began. But he’s been poor so far. Now’s the time to earn that money.
The good news: An imperfect but impressive and businesslike win over South Korea kept El Tri perfect, and has it on top of Group F with six points.
The bad news …
Winner: Potential Group F confusion
Whereas other teams on six points have more or less locked up top spot in their respective groups, Mexico hasn’t even secured qualification. In fact, FiveThirtyEight gives the Group F leaders just a 72 percent chance to advance. Because if they lose to Sweden, and if Germany beats South Korea, we get chaos.
In that scenario, all three teams would be level on six points. Son Heung-min’s late goal for South Korea minimized Mexico’s goal differential, putting it on shaky ground. Let’s say Wednesday’s two simultaneous deciders end 1-0 to Germany and Sweden … all three teams would be level on goal differential (+1) and goals scored (3). The third tiebreaker is head to head, which cancels itself out in a three-way tie. The fourth is goal differential in matches among tied teams, which also comes out to zero for all three. The fifth is goals scored in those matches among tied teams, and it would be decisive. Sweden would have two, Germany two, and Mexico one. Mexico would be out.
So despite its fantastic start, Mexico still has reason to fret.
Winner: Romelu Lukaku’s movement
Lukaku, if you were to reset odds right now, would be the 2018 World Cup Golden Boot favorite. He’s bagged back-to-back braces, first against Panama, then again on Saturday against Tunisia.
His third and fourth goals of the tournament, which put him level with Cristiano Ronaldo, were all about his movement. On Saturday’s first, he darted across the last defender then faded toward the far corner flag to create space for himself:
His second of the day featured a zig-zag run that mirrored the first. He exploded back against the grain, and finished neatly with his right foot:
Exercise caution of jumping on the Belgium bandwagon. Its two wins have come against two of the World Cup’s worst teams. The real tests are to come. But Lukaku is on fire, and that’s a great sign for the Red Devils.
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More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• Kroos’ dramatic late winner rescues Germany
• FIFA knew of Russian doping, did nothing – report
• Why Swiss goals, celebrations were both political, provocatic