Ahead of Toni Kroos’ final match in club football in this weekend’s Champions League final, we look back on the German’s storied career.

Ottmar Hitzfeld managed to sum up Toni Kroos perfectly just a month after he’d made his Bayern Munich debut as a 17-year-old in 2007.

“He always makes the right decision on the pitch and you don’t have to tell him what to do,” Hitzfeld was quoted as saying by UEFA after introducing the teenager late on in an October 2007 UEFA Cup game at Crvena Zvezda in which Kroos inspired a 3-2 comeback win.

Nearly 17 years later, with retirement in sight, you’ll do well to find a more apt and succinct summary of what the understated yet brilliantly dependable Kroos has represented during his illustrious career.

Truly one of the most-polished and successful players of his generation, Kroos will hang up his boots after Euro 2024 having pretty much achieved everything he could have possibly dreamt of, enjoying success at international and club level – though “success” probably doesn’t quite do his trophy cabinet justice.

There could even be more on the way before those boots are shoved to the back of the closet to gather dust, and what a satisfying – and fitting – sense of completion it could provide him personally were Real Madrid to win this Saturday’s Champions League final in his last club game.

You see, 11 years ago at Bayern, Kroos won the first of his five (so far) Champions League winners’ medals but was injured and played no part in the final. This time, against the same opponents – Borussia Dortmund – and at the very same venue – Wembley Stadium – Kroos can bookend his club career at the pinnacle of the game.

The end of an era, yes. But what an era it’s been.

Guardiola Points the Way

Given everything we now know about the player Kroos has gone on to become and the success he’s achieved at the Santiago Bernabéu, it seems scarcely believable that Madrid managed to pry him away from Bayern for a fee as little as €25 million. Sure, it can be difficult to accurately compare values across lengthy spans, but even back in 2014 that seemed low.

Kroos’ career probably would’ve turned out rather differently had Pep Guardiola’s time in charge of Bayern not always been seen to have a pretty rigid expiry date. The Catalan coach arrived in 2013 and signed a three-year contract, with the noise around him throughout his time in Bavaria rarely suggesting there was much likelihood of him staying beyond 2016. Even Kroos had that understanding.

“I loved playing for [Guardiola],” Kroos told The Athletic in 2020. “Of course, I could’ve renewed my contract at Bayern, but I didn’t believe it would be a good idea to sign an agreement just for the coach. He wanted me to renew my contract, but what sense did it make to sign a five-year contract if he was going to leave before that?”

Guardiola and Kroos didn’t always see eye to eye, with the midfielder finding himself out of the Bayern team for a few games in his final season after he threw a bit of a tantrum – and his gloves – when substituted in a game.

But looking back on their season together in that same interview, Kroos described Guardiola as “the key figure for German football and for me personally.” While many a player has said similar about the current Manchester City boss, it’s only really when the legends, the true and undisputed greats of the modern era speak of their high regard for him that you really begin to appreciate the influence he’s had on the game.

Make no mistake, Kroos is one of those greats and he clearly felt as though being coached by Guardiola was something of a game changer in his career, adding: “Midfield was always his main concern. Because of the brilliance of his team’s football, the perception changed. People began to see football and midfielders in a completely different light. He was a trailblazer, for coaches and supporters alike.”

It’s easy to forget Kroos was more of a number 10 during his early years at Bayern, with the heatmap below highlighting this from the 2012-13 campaign – the one before Guardiola took over. He averaged 59.2 passes per 90 minutes that season in the Bundesliga, and while not an insignificant number, it’s hardly the figure of a player who dictates the tempo for a generally dominant team like Bayern.

Toni Kroos heat map 2012-13

However, the next heatmap indicates a significant alteration in Kroos’ role after Guardiola’s arrival. In 2013-14, Kroos recorded 96.2 passes and 111.7 touches per 90 in the league, figures he never reached again until 2022-23, with Guardiola deploying him in a deeper position to maximise his time and influence on the ball.

Toni Kroos heat map 2013-14

Arguably his most notable outing of that season came in a 2-0 Champions League last-16 win at Arsenal. Kroos ran the show that night as he attempted 152 passes, 59 more than the Gunners’ four starting midfielders combined, and among those passes were some beauties, like the disguised chip to pick out the run of Arjen Robben who was then tripped to win a penalty. He also scored a gorgeous goal, essentially a pass – how appropriate – into the top-right corner and laid on three chances for teammates.

Toni Kroos passes vs Arsenal 2014

Since that February 2014 evening, only Rodri has recorded more passes in a Champions League knockout match (156 vs Real Madrid in April 2024), though his 91% completion rate paled in comparison to Kroos’ 96.7%.

Who’s to say what would’ve happened if Kroos and Guardiola had continued together for more than just 2013-14, but a single season provided a glimpse of the German’s long-term future regardless.

Carving Out a Legacy at Real Madrid

Upon joining Real Madrid, Kroos had to adapt again. He was instantly playing even deeper than under Guardiola, essentially as the deepest-lying midfielder. From there, he was tasked with providing connectivity, balance and positional discipline for a team that could be accused of being too top-heavy with the likes of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodríguez all fighting for places.

There was no return to his previous number 10 role and Kroos was now essentially playing a position that was completely new to him in an environment that was as well. That season remains something of an outlier for Kroos in terms of his output, with his 15.2 passes ending in the opposition’s final third per 90 minutes still the lowest on record for him since 2008-09, the first of two seasons on loan at Bayer Leverkusen.

It’s indicative of how the scope of his influence changed, but also a sign of his maturity being appreciated, and this wasn’t an issue for Kroos, who knew what he was getting himself into.

Toni Kroos touch zones 2014-15

“[Carlo Ancelotti, the coach] was one of the reasons I came here,” Kroos told UEFA in early 2015. “I think it’s normal to talk with the coach before taking that step. He gave me a positive impression and told me Madrid would be even stronger with me. He trusted me from the beginning in a position where I hadn’t played that much, which was nonetheless in midfield. I enjoy playing in this position.”

It helped bring an even greater roundedness to Kroos’ game, meaning that, once Casemiro established himself as a regular in that deepest position under Zinedine Zidane during 2015-16 after only playing a bit-part role for Rafa Benítez, Madrid’s midfield was set up to conquer all in the long term.

That central trio of Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric essentially became one of the most enviable midfields Europe has seen in the past 40 years, though it speaks to the German’s clarity of mind and decisiveness that he’s the only one of the three still at the top of his game and yet is the first to retire.

Nevertheless, while the famed ‘BBC’ took most of the plaudits, it was the midfield three who formed the backbone of a Madrid side that went on to win the Champions League an unprecedented three seasons in a row, and then again in 2022.

Before they came along, no team had ever won the Champions League even twice in a row. Kroos’ legacy is secure whatever happens at the weekend, but glory would add another layer to his legend with a sixth European crown, a haul no player in football history can better.

Going Out at the Top

Kroos has always been classy, one of those rare few players for whom time appears to be under their spell rather than them being at the mercy of those split seconds; never flashy but able to change the direction of a match in a flash with a single pass.

In many ways, it feels utterly baffling that such a player is already calling it quits, so good he continues to be at the age of 34. Of course, players can’t continue indefinitely. There comes a time when the end is inevitable and Kroos knows this, having struggled individually and as part of the collective in 2018-19, and having seen himself become the last man standing (in terms of being a key player) from that iconic Madrid trio of himself, Casemiro – now struggling somewhat at Manchester United – and Modric, who made just 18 La Liga starts this season.

In fact, some might argue Kroos has never been better. There’s certainly a case to be made that he’s never been more influential in possession.

The 2023-24 season was the first as a professional in which Kroos has averaged 100 passes on a per-90-minute basis (100.1), while he’s averaged a career-high 115.6 touches per game as well. This also extends to his 1.5 open-play chances created per 90 in La Liga, which is the most he’s ever recorded over a full season in Spain.

Passing isn’t the only area of Kroos’ game where his numbers have stood out this season; his 22.3 carries (instances of running with the ball for 5+ metres) every 90 minutes is the most he’s managed since Opta began recording this data (since 2010-11), while only in 2022-23 did he tally more progressive carries (11.0 per 90) than his 10.6 in 2023-24.

Toni Kroos progressive carries 2023-24 La Liga

While his fitness was managed more than ever this season, finding himself substituted a career-high 14 times in La Liga alone and rested ahead of key encounters, it’s clearly helped him maintain a certain level of performance. You need only look back to those two displays against Bayern in the Champions League semi-finals.

In the 2-2 first leg draw in Munich, he had more touches (92) than anyone else on the pitch and tallied equal-best figures for chances created (three, two from open play), passes attempted (82) and completed passes (79) despite only playing for 76 minutes. He also delivered that assist for Vinícius Júnior’s opener, spotting a gap and conducting the Brazilian’s run before effortlessly carving the Bayern defence open with a sensational throughball.

Toni Kroos assist vs Bayern

It was a similar story of controlled dominance in the second leg. His 112 touches, 101 passes, 94 accurate passes and four chances created (three in open play) were all unmatched as Kroos once again produced an exhibition in tempo-setting on the grandest stage.

A player with less than a month left of professional club football? He looked anything but.

Toni Kroos passes vs Bayern 2024

That’s the point, though. Announcing his imminent retirement earlier this month, he said: “My ambition was always to finish my career at the peak of my performance level. I am happy and proud that in my mind I found the right timing for my decision and that I could choose it on my own.”

While the thought of such a supreme player calling time on his career early might be disappointing to some, honestly, who can begrudge him signing off on his own terms? In this day and age of players chasing a final pay day – as is their right – in Saudi Arabia or MLS, there’s actually something quite romantic, unique even, about a bona-fide modern great calling it a day at the peak of his powers.

The man who called Gabri Veiga’s move to the Saudi Pro League “embarrassing” was never likely to go that route, though, and as such, Kroos can bring the curtain down on a sparkling club career in the biggest match of them all.

Success at Wembley on Saturday would ensure he also equals the record for most European Cup/Champions League title wins by a player, drawing level on six with another Madrid great in Paco Gento, an achievement in keeping with his status.

Many will be sad to see him go, but as Ottmar Hitzfeld said all those years ago, Toni Kroos “always makes the right decision”.

Enjoy this? Subscribe to our football newsletter to receive exclusive weekly content. You should also follow our social accounts over on XInstagramTikTok and Facebook.