Can You Read the Game Like Toni Kroos?

You have three seconds to figure out what Kroos would do.

There are many things that make Toni Kroos great — his technique, ball progression, press resistance, and ice-cool temperament — but it is the term “vision” that is often used to elevate him above his peers.

Many excellent central midfielders can pull off a pass — but can they see it? Even if they can, how do they know that it’s the right one? Are there more penetrative options or would playing it “safe” better increase the probability of scoring a goal later down the possession chain?

These are questions one might ask a particular statistical model to answer, such as American Soccer Analysis’ G+ or a Possession Value metric.

However, footballers aren’t lifeless statistical models at the mercy of nerds and their code. They’re human beings who have to process relevant information from the environment around them, make complex, subconscious calculations on their best options based on what they collect, and then execute within the space of mere seconds.

While some players are superb at this but lack the technical or physical prowess to optimally act upon what they can understand and vice-versa, Kroos makes no compromises. He’s special because he can leverage his all-time decision-making with all-time skill.

Now, we know you don’t quite have Kroos’ ball-playing technique, but surely you can read the game as well as him from the comfort of your own home? No? What if I gave you a time advantage?

The Game:

Each clip will freeze for three seconds at the rough point where I believe Kroos has made his decision on what to do. There is no guarantee on what the following action will be: pass, shoot, dribble, carry, etc.

You have that span of time to decide what the best option is before you see Kroos back in motion.

Below each clip will be some commentary on what Kroos just did, so don’t scroll down and read without watching first!

Be honest: only you’ll know if you correctly predicted what happened next.

We start off with vintage Kroos: a deceptive first touch that flows into a crossfield switch to a fullback on the overlap. What’s incredible to me is how deep Dani Carvajal is once Kroos decides to hit him. It’s not that obvious in the below still that Madrid’s right back is a great option to go to.

But there is clearly acres of space in-behind and, as soon — and I mean as soon — as Carvajal bolts forward, Kroos is cocking back an inch-perfect ball that falls right onto the Spaniard’s right foot.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Kroos was going for the lofted delivery to the wings based on what you saw in the first video.

So would the defense.

Kroos’ body shape is basically at a ninety-degree angle as he gets ready to release the ball, enabling him to freeze the guy circled in blue and keep that narrow passing window open long enough for Gareth Bale to run into it.

It is a very subtle form of disguise that makes all the difference in creating a 1v1 for the Welsh Dragon.

If you charted the run James Rodríguez was going to make with the benefit of a three-second pause in the action, congrats! You’re a movement-reading savant!

Once again, check out how Kroos has opened up his body, completely fooling every Napoli player and allowing him to hide the reverse pass until the very last second.

This one is truly wild to me. There are no obvious passing options here:

And it seems almost impossible for Kroos to be able to react to James’ sudden movement and make the pass before the Colombian is offside. It’s almost like Kroos is more interested in identifying the best spaces rather than the most open teammates, which could explain how he is able to immediately puncture the gap right when he spots Rodríguez’s run off-the-shoulder.

Oh, you thought Kroos would go over the top or play some cheeky vertical pass, didn’t you? Not everything is about going for the home run, young padawan.

Atlético Madrid are well set up in the selected freeze frame; all nearby options are either directly marked or blocked off. Kroos could try to squeeze a pass through to Karim Benzema, but it wouldn’t be too hard for Saúl Ñíguez to jump that lane and intercept. It’s risky, and Madrid only have Kroos and Casemiro behind the ball (in addition to the two center-backs) if possession is lost. Meanwhile, Los Colchoneros have both João Félix and Diego Costa in positions that would immediately allow them to go 2v2 with the defense.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to hit that far side option that Atléti are happy to concede. Sure, it can shift the opposition’s shape as they readjust, creating potential holes, but it also allows you to safely retain possession in advanced areas and reorganize, thereby permitting sustained offensive pressure.

You probably knew that Kroos was going to feed it to Luka Modrić (or maybe you big-brained it and thought that he’d somehow backheel it to Marcelo), but did you figure out the optimal way to get the ball to the Croatian?

Toni did, all while having exactly zero time to think and with Sergio Busquets bearing down on him. In a literal microsecond, Madrid’s cyborg has decided to pull off a chipped pass so that he can dodge Busquet’s incoming tackle and set Modrić off with forward momentum. That wasn’t even a thought process — it was a reflexive action.

A normal person probably tries to awkwardly tap it back towards Modrić’s initial standing position, where it would be much easier for a certain Lionel Messi to apply pressure.

(The result of Kroos’ pass decision was a Marco Asensio breakaway down the left, in case you were interested)

Don’t lie — you didn’t see that coming. Basically every player in the world is taking the touch into the open space in front of them for a carry, followed by a shot or cross. Benzema’s rather poorly aimed pass did help dissuade Kroos from doing that, sure, but it’s only more impressive to me that the German was able to instantly adapt to a forced change in body position before slipping Carvajal through for the 1v1.

Dear god. Completely surrounded; two defenders theoretically in the passing lane — and Kroos calmly scoops a pass to #23 and suddenly Germany are in all sorts of space.

That isn’t fair.

This one is probably the easiest for someone with a three-second grace period to predict.

So, think about what it’s like to execute in live time. A lot of footballers are going for that wide pass — not just because it’s open and easy, but because it’s a pretty good decision!

Feeding a wing player in lots of space as three others attack the box is great offense. It’s just that Toni Kroos found better offense.

I want you to know that I am laughing at you and feeling very good about myself if you fell for it and thought Kroos was going to pass.

There’s nothing really on in this situation. There could be a ball to Benzema, but there are essentially three defenders on the Frenchman. How much worse is it from a goal probability perspective if a skilled long-distance shooter has a go? Probably still slightly suboptimal but it’s perfectly fine to keep defenses on their toes and have a pop every now and then (as long as you’re not turning down incredibly valuable options in the process).

Similar thing here. Though he could try to force it to the two in the box on his left, Kroos is arriving at speed to an area where he is especially good at shooting from. Solid decision from a pass-first player.

At this point, you are most definitely trying not to get tricked and realized that there wouldn’t be three Toni Kroos shots in a row. So, it had to be something else — probably a pass? But did you know who would be the recipient and how he would get the ball?

Don’t lie.

I am convinced that everyone but Kroos and maybe two to three other players in the world go for the shot or turn to circulate to the far side. There simply isn’t a fantastic pass available once he receives the ball.

That he keeps his body shape faced towards the direction of the initial pass is the giveaway that he intends to find Asensio (knowing in hindsight that Kroos is not going for goal), which means that Kroos has instantly predicted that his intended target will become free as Sevilla’s defense shifts over and/or Casemiro drags someone with him.

Of all the plays we’ve seen thus far, this one is the most impressive to me. Something about how Kroos takes the time to allow things to develop in an area of the pitch where urgency and speed are paramount utterly wins me over.

The genius in this clip is that Kroos does nothing until the pass — he lets the opposition (and Casemiro) do the work for him.

And that’s it! I hope you had fun! As always, feedback and constructive criticism are appreciated. Also, don't forget to let me know which ones you got right and wrong in the comments and on Twitter!