Rodri is often the busiest man on the pitch; yet he has the calmest pair of eyes. He is always dispensing instructions, exhorting his men to keep the shape and order, urging them to keep calm and ride the storm, sniffing out a potentially dangerous move, filling up the space left behind by those deputed to attack or spotting an unspotted path to attack But his eyes remain quiet, serenely scanning the field, processing the next move, and the next, comprehending the thrust of the narrative and seizing it before the adversaries do.

His manager Pep Guardiola appraised him as the best midfielder in the world. “He’s able to do everything. The tempo he has, his character when the situation is going wrong, to step forward, go backwards, the ability to play short and long,” the master tactician detailed. He scores important goals too, often stoppage-time winners and equalizers, a Champions League final winner, often long-range screamers. But most of all, he gives midfield control, the territory where big games are often won and lost.

Against Georgia, a game Spain trailed and seemed to panic in the first quarter, he demonstrated the traits that make him the fulcrum of Guardiola’s City empire. In the game, he touched the ball 129 times, more than anyone else on the pitch, threaded 117 passes with an accuracy rate of 93 percent, won all six duels, made three crucial tackles, and hit the important equalizer, his only shot on target. “A complete performance, but I was more impressed with his calmness as a leader, how he weathered the storm and helped gather our team,” observed coach Luis de la Fuente. In the last Premier League season, he made the most passes and touches of any player, with an accuracy rate of 93 percent. With him gliding at the heart of the midfield, City have lost just two of their last 89 games.

Toni Kroos Soccer Football – Euro 2024 – Round of 16 – Spain v Georgia – Cologne Stadium, Cologne, Germany – June 30, 2024 Spain’s Rodri celebrates scoring their first goal REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

The key to unlocking an unbeaten Spain, thus, is to lock Rodri, which few teams, club and country have succeeded in the last two years. Germany, in the quarterfinals, would be aware of the threat, and look towards their own midfield commander, Toni Kroos, for inspiration.

Positionally, they are different. Rodri is a hybrid holding midfielder, a defender converted to a defensive midfielder; Kroos was a playmaker rewired to an orthodox box-to-box operator, although both are not strictly position-bound. Rodri ventures forth with the ball, Kroos sometimes drops deeper.

Festive offer

The quest, though, is the same. To boss the midfield, and let others around them sparkle. The youngsters would turn up the thrill watts—Jamal Musiala and Lamine Yamal searing past defenders, Florian Wirtz and Nico Williams flicking on the afterburners—fill the highlight reels, steal the thunder and limelight, but the stability and vision of Rodri and Kroos let the flashier players flash brighter. They could maraud on the wings, unencumbered by the fear of losing the ball and inviting a quick counterattack owing to the invisible labor of their midfield enforcers.

With Rodri you could sense the danger coming, though unstoppable. With Kroos you don’t. Despite the strapping build, the prominent features and the clean-cut hair of the archetypal German soldier, he lurks invisibly on the field, before exploding in the snap of your fingers and creating the right pass into the right space for the right player. He is clean in his positioning, is inventive without being audacious, breaks up play without looking frantic. He wastes no touch or pass, the timing, movement and shapeshifting so measured that he transforms midfield control into a kind of physical art form.

The respect is mutual. Kroos would wax eloquent on Rodri: “He’s one of the most decisive players for Spain and City. He never gets nervous, always remains calm, and in the last two years, he has scored crucial goals. He’s a top player.” Rodri reciprocates: “He’s not the same profile as me, but he dictates the tempo for his team, moves the game, and everything goes through his feet.” Swap these lines and it remains equally relevant. Like Rodri, he could cut the pattern and score long-rangers too.

Like the Spaniard, Kroos has dictated the mood of Germany too. When he shifts through his creative gears, Germany is a thrilling force to watch. The wingers spreading the canvas wide, the nifty forwards striding upfield, rotating their position, an electric marriage of pace and skills. When he endures rare off-days, so would Germany. This Euro, Kroos has made the most successful passes (416 of 435), commanded a completion rate of 95.75 percent and has conjured the second most chances in the tournament. He is, as the former Argentina midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme noted, “the closest thing football has to Roger Federer.” “He can go out, play, and go home again without even needing to bathe: he doesn’t sweat, doesn’t get dirty, doesn’t need to throw himself down.”

Toni Kroos Soccer Football – Euro 2024 – Round of 16 – Germany v Denmark – Dortmund BVB Stadion, Dortmund, Germany – June 29, 2024 Denmark’s Rasmus Hojlund in action with Germany’s Toni Kroos REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

But the contributions of Kroos and Rodri are often unquantifiable. There is no stat that could measure control of space or dictating the tempo of a game. There have been games when they had zero goals, assists or tackles to show, yet they have conducted the game.

They rarely soar the heart-rate, barely drive the masses to the stadium, hardly considered for player of the season or Ballon d’ors. But they win matches, they let others flutter around them, they make the others work. Kroos has already announced this would be his farewell tournament—he has already retired from club football. He was in a sporting mood when a reporter the other day asked whether the quarterfinal against Spain would be his last game. “I don’t expect this will be my final match and I assume we’ll all be seeing each other again,” he said, grinning.

But only one of Kroos and Rodri would have the last laugh on Friday night, after an intense and fascinating tussle for midfield superiority.