Neil Humphreys: Kroos controls for Germany
Midfielder sums up neat, but unspectacular start to Euros
(Shkodran Mustafi 19, Bastian Schweinsteiger 90+2)
Toni Kroos has the remarkable knack of defining an international tournament.
At the 2014 World Cup, the German midfielder was an unexpected, explosive presence, knitting the lines together like an overworked seamstress.
His youthful vitality summarised an event remembered for its kaleidoscope of counter-attacking colour.
Now he's an older, wiser footballer. The 26-year-old plays slower, but faster. There's an obvious economy of effort, which appears less dramatic, but more decisive.
At the Maracana two years ago, the German had the makings of Superman. Now he's a super metronome.
Kroos was quietly effective against the Ukraine yesterday morning (Singapore time). His tidy performance was unfussy; heavy on industry, if light on glamour, rather like Euro 2016 so far.
Once again, Kroos mirrors the style and tone of an international tournament.
Euro 2016 has yet to fully capture the imagination. Germany's 2-0 victory was the first with a two-goal margin as narrow, low-scoring affairs leave the event on a low simmer.
So far, the tournament's indelible image remains that of vein-throbbing thugs rampaging through the streets of Marseille.
But Kroos provides a welcome antidote to the off-screen violence and the on-screen drabness, a brand name demonstrating his obvious superiority to the tentative competitors around him.
According to Fifa's official index, the World Cup winner was considered the best player in Brazil. The feat may be repeated in France.
His 130 touches over 90 minutes impressed statisticians. But coach Joachim Loew, judging by that tight grey T-shirt, focuses more on quality rather than quantity.
For Kroos, passes are precious. The ball is there to be caressed, rather than bludgeoned. The Real Madrid midfielder's rare ability to direct play from a deeper position allows him to be both babysitter and barnstormer.
On first viewing, Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng caught the eye with their fingertip saves and sinew-shredding goal-line clearances, but repeat viewings revealed the extent of Kroos' sly dominance.
His importance cannot be overstated. Germany's hopes of winning Euro 2016 depend on Kroos carrying out Loew's explicit and difficult instructions.
He must mix the good with the great. Clean up after the odd defensive mess left in the penalty box - Boateng and Jonas Hector were both culpable parties in this regard - and serve the fantastic four up front.
Mario Goetze, Julian Draxler, Mesut Oezil and Thomas Mueller can win the tournament for Germany, but their unpredictable defence could lose it. Who prevails depends almost entirely on the unassuming man in midfield.
Against the Ukraine, Kroos carried out his considerable duties with the assured authority of an undercover operative, very much the Jason Bourne of Die Mannschaft. His no-frills moves are quick, intelligent and viciously effective.
The Bourne identity works because Kroos can appear to do very little during a game, only to leave a pile of confused, crumpled bodies on the pitch at the final whistle.
In La Liga last season, he came second in most passes made. More crucially, he had the highest pass accuracy rate (92 per cent). Kroos seldom favours the Hollywood ball, just the right one.
Long or short, he found Sami Khedira and the front four with unerring accuracy and consistency. His cross for Shkodran Mustafi was an open invitation for the centre back to score his first goal for Germany.
Kroos owned his environment when teammates struggled to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings.
Germany started against the Ukraine with six of the stars who kicked off in the World Cup final at the Maracana two years ago, so Kroos' bridges not only a generational divide, but also a cultural one.
His performance was a unique blend of old and new Germany, or a pre- and post-2014 Germany. He still retains the quick, counter-attacking instincts nurtured by Loew, via the Bundesliga youth development revolution at the turn of the century.
But Kroos also boasts that uniquely Germanic quality to retreat, receive, run and repeat; a Teutonic machine with the same, national mission.
In this respect, he presents himself as the ultimate post-modern midfielder. He works like an automaton and plays like an artist.
Hopefully, the flair will come to the fore in the next game against Poland on Friday morning (Singapore time).
Kroos, like Germany, like Euro 2016 for that matter, is winning without really wowing the crowds at this stage.
But a relatively easy victory was all that mattered, allowing Germany to maintain their extraordinary record of never losing an opening game in a major championship.
The serial winners are faintly fizzing. The fireworks can come later, as long as their pivotal midfielder sustains his smart, unhurried form.
Germany are understandably still in cruise control. To win the trophy, Kroos must take control of the tournament.
- GERMANY: Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Hoewedes, Jerome Boateng, Shkodran Mustafi, Jonas Hector, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Thomas Mueller, Mesut Oezil, Julian Draxler (Andre Schuerrle 78), Mario Goetze (Bastian Schweinsteiger 90)
- UKRAINE: Andriy Pyatov, Artem Fedetskiy, Yevhen Khacheridi, Yaroslav Rakitskiy, Vyacheslav Shevchuk, Serhiy Sydorchuk, Taras Stepanenko, Andriy Yarmolenko, Viktor Kovalenko (Olexandr Zinchenko 73), Yevhen Konoplyanka, Roman Zozulya (Yevhen Seleznyov 66)
Fix and tweak
1. Go with Gomez, not Goetze
Two years ago, Mario Goetze was the hero of the Maracana, the great white hope German football.
Two years later, he still is, having failed to fulfil his remarkable potential.
He's looking a little like a rich man's Theo Walcott, with twice the talent but just as much frustration. Against the Ukraine, Goetze rarely troubled their much taller centre backs in a false No. 9 role.
Loew, like Pep Guardiola when he was at Bayern Munich, always makes room for a false No. 9 in the squad, but both managers often leave Goetze (left) on the bench.
At 24, he's a jack of all trades and master of none. He can play up front, just behind or in a roving role, but hasn't nailed down any of those positions for club or country.
His impact was negligible and he's likely to be the fall guy against Poland.
Mario Gomez has patiently laboured in the shadows for years and form is finally on his side. He's also a natural No. 9. Germany's intricate midfield play deserves a more incisive end product.
2. Find set-piece solidity
Poland's Robert Lewandowski treats a set-piece with the deft touch of a bull hunting a bargain in a china shop.
Against Ukraine, Germany looked vulnerable to crosses towards the six-yard line, one of which led to Manuel Neuer's stunning reflex save.
In fact, a fragile back four kept Neuer far too busy throughout.
Interestingly, goal-scorer Shkodran Mustafi and goal-denier Jerome Boateng were fine individually, but their fledgling partnership remains a work in progress.
A telepathic understanding between centre backs at set-pieces is usually forged over many months, even years. Mustafi and Boateng have got four days.
3. The hunt for the World Cup Mueller
TANGLE: Thomas Mueller (in white) tussling with Ukraine’s Vyacheslav Shevchuk.
When Loew opts for a false No. 9, the role of Thomas Mueller becomes pivotal.
His startling ability to cut inside and join Germany's counter-attacking dots allowed him to chalk up 10 World Cup goals by the age of 24.
But he was strangely subdued against Ukraine and largely isolated on the right flank.
Goetze's listlessness didn't help, with Mueller struggling without a fixed link man.
Gomez might offer a more obvious outlet for one-twos and a quicker route to goal, but whatever the selection, Germany need the return of their talisman against Poland.
- Ex-Germany captain Oliver Kahn: Good start for the @DFB_team_en! Manuel #neuer with a perfect performance. Congratulations! #GERUKR.
- Ex-England defender Rio Ferdinand: Ozil just put that on a plate for Bastian!!!
- British sports presenter Des Kelly: Possibility that Bastian Schweinsteiger was trying a sideways pass, but miss-hit it and it flew in #GERUKR #EURO2016!
- Ex-England captain Gary Lineker: Mustafi is the 34th different player to score for Germany in the european Championships. two more than any other nation. Show offs.
ON INSTAGRAMUNSUNG HERO: Germany defender Jerome Boateng posted a photo of himself making a goal-line clearance off Ukraine midfielder Yevhen Konoplyanka’s effort in the 37th minute. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM.COM/JEROMEBOATENG