Toni Kroos’ sublime return suggests Nagelsmann’s decision might be a masterstroke


A first international appearance for VfB Stuttgart left-back Maximilian Mittelstadt.

A first international goal for Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz — choreographed by set-piece coach Mads Buttgereit — and the fastest-ever for Germany, coming just eight seconds in.

And a first win while keeping a clean sheet against a top football nation in seven years. France v Germany on Saturday night was packed with novelty as far as the visiting team were concerned. But the unexpectedly pleasant evening in Lyon was most memorable for the return of a very familiar sight.

Nearly three years since retiring from the national team, Toni Kroos controlled the midfield with class, poise and calmness to bring long-lost cohesion back to the team.

“Rudi Voller always says: ‘He’s been peeing ice cubes since he’s 18,’” Julian Nagelsmann said afterwards, praising Kroos’s archetypical coolness on the ball (he had 143 touches during the match). “He was incredible. He worked hard, he set the tempo, and he gives others confidence, because they know the ball is safe with him,” the Germany head coach added.

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While re-calling the 34-year-old Real Madrid midfielder — and re-arranging half of Germany’s team as a consequence — is a huge gamble just three months before Euro 2024, Saturday night suggested it could turn out to be a masterstroke.

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Kroos in action against France (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

Kroos, ably supported by Bayer Leverkusen’s destructive specialist Robert Andrich on his first start for Germany, wasn’t just influential in possession. He also won three quarters of his challenges against strong opponents such as club team-mates Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni, providing cover for the Nationalmannschaft’s creative quartet of Wirtz, Jamal Musiala, Ilkay Gundogan and Kai Havertz to magic up moves further up the pitch. “We want to play football,” Nagelsmann had told his players before the game. Kroos perfectly encapsulated that statement.

An important caveat: Germany met a France side that had one of their “just vibes” games under Didier Deschamps. Their lack of organised defending in the opposition half allowed Kroos to dictate play with a metaphorical cigar in his mouth, unperturbed by any opposition interference.

The French improved a little bit after 30 minutes or so but they couldn’t maintain consistent pressure on Germany’s build-up play. There always seemed be an out-ball available and, in Kroos, Germany had just the player to find it.

Better coordinated and more aggressive work “against the ball” will provide a sterner test of Kroos’ ability to escape pressure, and more defensive sides will also show the drawbacks of Nagelsmann’s new, narrow setup without a natural winger.

Starting Kroos in the centre means Gundogan getting pushed further up and Wirtz and Musiala being deployed in the half-spaces behind Havertz. If Germany, say, struggle to break down Hungary in the second group game at Euro 2024, one can imagine the clamour for Bayern Munich’s Leroy Sane to start, and the rejig that will have to go with that.

But these potential problems are clearly preferable to the very real sense of instability that has clung to the team like a particularly unpleasant smell for much of the post-2018 World Cup era.

A look into the history books revealed that Germany had last beaten one of the game’s best teams without conceding a goal in March 2017 — a 1-0 win over Gareth Southgate’s work-in-progress England in the unofficial testimonial of Lukas Podolski. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Saturday’s game felt like a flashback to much happier times.

For Nagelsmann, the most impressive performance of his short tenure couldn’t have come at a much better time. He took a big risk bringing Kroos back so close to the start of the European Championship in June but the manner of Germany’s composed victory has won him plenty of trust in his decision-making.

Nobody questioned the omission Leon Goretzka after the final whistle, nor did anyone wonder whether Joshua Kimmich is really best-used as a right-back.

Another similar outing against the Netherlands on Tuesday will put pressure on the German FA to offer the 36-year-old an extension of his contract beyond July.

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Kroos and Nagelsmann during the victory over France (Markus Gilliar – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

Nagelsmann said this week that he would like his future sorted before the tournament. In the absence of any suitable club offers, he might just stick with Germany a little longer; provided the FA don’t have the 2026 World Cup earmarked for departing Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, that is.

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While the managerial question will continue to be intriguing over the coming weeks, Nagelsmann’s big decision to recall Kroos has already accomplished part of its purpose and this 2-0 victory over France has set off small waves of optimism after countless disappointments.

In German, we would call pulling off such a risky stunt a Punktlandung — a precision landing in difficult territory, but perhaps a different image would be more fitting. Thanks to first officer Kroos in the cockpit, Germany are flying again.

(Top photo by Markus Gilliar/GES Sportfoto via Getty Images)





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