The Question: how is the playmaker role changing? / Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson

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Aug 1, 2010
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This week has shown why Wesley Sneijder is the past, Mesut Ozil is the present and Toni Kroos is the future
Perhaps no position is undergoing such evolution so rapidly as the playmaker – or, as it is probably more accurate to call him in his present guise, the creative midfielder. This week, the Champions League quarter-finals seemed almost to showcase the changing interpretations of the position – albeit in the most modern case in unfortunately truncated form.
After their thoroughly empathetic 2-0 win over Juventus this week, there can have been only two niggles for Bayern Munich: first that they only scored twice having dominated so utterly, and second that Toni Kroos's muscle tear will keep him out for six weeks. Kroos is a phenomenon, perhaps the archetype of the modern attacking midfielder, and while Bayern won't miss him for the rest of the Bundesliga season – a draw against Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday will secure the title with six games remaining – and should be able to cope comfortably enough without him in the second leg, it will be a major disadvantage to be without him for the Champions League semi-final.
Kroos is 23, just five years younger than Wesley Sneijder, but even in a week in which he was forced off after 16 minutes, the contrast between them was clear. Sneijder once seemed the future but at just the age he should be at his peak, he seemingly decided to reinvent himself as a classic playmaker. On Wednesdau, yet again, he looked an anachronism and was taken off at half-time having effectively allowed Xabi Alonso to dictate the first half. And that despite Fatih Terim, the Galatasaray coach, changing his system to create a role for a No10 over the past few weeks.
By contrast, Kroos is dynamic and hardworking. He can play at the back of midfield or at the front, in the centre or on the flank. He could almost certainly play as a box-to-box midfielder in a 4-4-2 if he ever were asked to do something so archaic. He is creative without being flash, breaks up play without being violent. He is physically robust without being a monster and astute in possession without over-reaching. He has an understated efficiency that means he probably isn't appreciated as much as he ought to be.
Kroos's statistics in the Bundesliga this season are extraordinary. He has a pass success rate of 89.7%, placing him fourth in the overall standings according to; the three players above him – Dante, Roel Brouwers and Luis Gustavo – are central defenders or defensive midfielders, many of whose passes will be simple short one to players who attempt riskier balls. That Kroos is playing passes that hurt the opposition is seen by his ratio of 2.8 key passes per game – third in the overall listings – eight of which have led directly to goals, placing him joint seventh in the overall chart. His ratio of 0.5 accurate through-balls per game places him joint second in the overall standings, behind only Diego of Wolfsburg.
Bayern's sporting director Matthias Sammer said after Saturday's 9-2 win over Hamburg – in which, without irony, he criticised his side for conceding twice for corners – that Bayern had to make themselves machines for winning football matches; Kroos is essentially a machine for passing, excelling both in pass selection and execution. Given his willingness to close down opponents, he is the perfect attacking midfielder for Bayern.
If Kroos is the future and Sneijder the past, the present is perhaps represented by the 24-year-old Mesut Ozil. He doesn't quite have the defensive capacities of Kroos, but he is far harder working than Sneijder. In La Liga he averages a tackle and 0.5 interceptions per game – respectable figures, particularly given how dominant Real Madrid often are – while his creative work was exceptional against Galatasaray, albeit with the benefit of a lax performance, in the first half at least, from Felipe Melo.
He averages three key passes per game, the highest rating in Spain, and has nine assists. The major difference from Kroos is his pass success rate – just 83.3%, the 40th best in la Liga – although the fact he averages 0.6 accurate through-balls per game suggests that is more because he is attempting more difficult passes than necessarily because he is incapable of the sort of ball retention of Kroos.
To an extent, of course, players are conditioned by the systems in which they play. Kroos works perfectly in the Bayern mechanics, while Ozil thrives in a looser system at Real, where he must always be mindful of where Cristiano Ronaldo is (both so he doesn't duplicate his runs and because Ronaldo inevitably draws defenders to him). Galatasaray seem not to have worked out how to play Sneijder – just as Inter struggled to accommodate him towards the end. His time has gone; the era of Ozil is here, while Kroos's is just beginning.
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