It is a testament to Robbie Kruse’s improvement this season that Bayer Leverkusen have pinpointed him as a potential replacement for the Chelsea-bound Andre Schurrle, who is undoubtedly the club’s star talent.
It caps off a remarkable rise to prominence for the Brisbane-born Socceroo whose career has grown exponentially ever since he burst onto the scene in October 2007, scoring the winning goal on debut for the Brisbane Roar. His pace was undoubtedly his key attribute – he simply blazed past defenders from a wide forward position, striking up a clever relationship with close friend Michael Zullo.
An altercation in a Brisbane night club offered a timely reminder of Kruse’s youthfulness. He was, after all, still only 20 years old, and it seemed a move to Melbourne Victory was what it took to get his career back on track, as the player himself testifies.
“I was trying to resurrect my career,” he said to FourFourTwo. “I hadn’t had a good second season at Brisbane and things went a bit pear-shaped.”
Deployed in a more central role by Ernie Merrick, he combined natural speed with clever finishing, and was a worthy winner of the club’s Young Player of the Year award in 2010. The potential he showed was enough for then 2.Bundesliga side Fortuna Dusseldorf to sign the Australian on a three year deal, although the club was wary not to over-hype their new young talent.
“Robbie Kruse is a player with great development potential, but he is not yet the finished article,” said Fortuna coach Norbert Meier at the time.
Indeed, Meier took his time to ease Kruse into the starting line-up, something the youngster took in his stride. Speaking to a local newspaper, he said “it’s been tough getting into the starting line-up but I’ve been the first or second sub every match.
“I’m definitely not complaining. I will wait for my turn and hopefully I will take it when it comes. The aim was always to come here and train harder, improve my fitness, work on my technique and sharpness and just get used to the different demands of the game in Germany.”
Now, Kruse is one of Fortuna’s most reliable players, and is their third most used player this season. That consistency in selection reflects Kruse’s improved personal consistency, thriving in the competitive environment of Germany’s top division.
This is in spite of the club overseeing one of the more remarkable periods of transition in recent football history – despite promotion, Fortuna added 21 players in the summer, with 18 leaving the club. Meier’s ambition was to build a flexible, multi-faceted squad that could cope with the various challenges of the Bundesliga, and central to that vision was Kruse, whose adaptability means he can play in any position across the front third.
“Normally, for me, I like to play in the ‘number 10’ position when we play with a main centre-forward,” said Kruse, speaking exclusively to A Football Report.
Generally this season he has been used in a wide role – very similar to how he was used in the A-League. The Fortuna system is geared around counter-attacking, as Kruse attested in the aftermath of a historic 1-1 draw with Borussia Dortmund back in November.
“The game plan was to try and spring some counter-attacks in behind using my pace. We had three or four really good breaks – and managed to take one of them.”
Again, Kruse’s pace has been his greatest asset – he tracks back to form a second bank of four in Fortuna’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, and then runs directly into the space left exposed by the opposition. The aforementioned clash against the reigning champions was a fine illustration of these talents: for both goals, Kruse beat the offside trap, had time and space to send in crosses from the central strikers, and assisted the goal.
His slender build and reliance on his physical gifts means he can fade in games where there is little space in behind for him to exploit, as fans of the national side will have observed in recent qualifiers. Often, his technique when facing a defender one-on-one is to knock the ball beyond them, and then competing with them in a footrace.
A recent fixture against Borussia Dortmund illustrates how the team frequently attempted to play through balls into space for Kruse to chase, and how the attacker was comfortable taking on defenders in one-on-one situations close to the touchline.
He’s also been used on occasion in a lone striker role, as was the case in last Saturday’s defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt. Because he isn’t physically equipped to hold up long balls, he instead drifts towards the play, moving towards either flank in an attempt to evade the attention of his markers – the 3-0 defeat at Hoffenheim is another good example of this trend.
He’s far more effective in a wide role rather than the times when he’s been used centrally – in that position, he’s easily tracked by opposition central defenders. Kruse’s regular deployment on the right flank – the same position in which Holger Oseick prefers him for the national side – is the culmination of an intense learning process in Germany.
Kruse spoke candidly on this topic to FourFourTwo Australia. “I think in Australia I was only really attack-minded and probably shirked my defensive duties a lot. Moving here to Germany they’re massive on work rate and doing both sides of the game so I definitely worked on my defending and getting my body into good shape,” he said.
“They look at a lot of statistics – how far you run and all that stuff. In Australia I think I was maybe pushing 10km but here I’m over 12 easily every game. It’s a little thing but it’s definitely helped me a lot.”
His new club in-waiting, Bayer Leverkusen, will surely have examined these statistics (and they will have noted that Kruse, remarkably, is one of the most fouled players in the world) before their decision to sign the Australian.
Bayer Leverkusen are one of the purer counter-attacking sides in the Bundesliga. Their formation is probably most accurately described as something between 4-3-3 and 4-3-2-1, and strategy-wise, they’re happy to sit back, tempt the opposition to commit players forward, and then suddenly spring forward on the break, using pace and directness to good effect. In that regard, they’re very similar to Fortuna Dusseldorf.
Sam Kiessling is the top scorer, but Andre Schurrle is the more exciting talent. He made his name as a hard-working winger, but has become more of a second striker this season, playing high up the pitch on the left side of the attacking trio. His advanced positioning is compensated for by more diligent defensive work from Gonzalo Castro, a wing-back who has been pushed into the right-wing position of Leverkusen’s 4-3-3.
It is easy then to identify where Kruse can expect to play when he moves to Leverkusen for next season. He won’t necessarily be a starter – instead, Sidney Sam appears more likely to be given a more prominent role – but Kruse has learnt the value of patience from his early days in Dusseldorf. With Champions League qualification ensured for next season, the extra workload means Leverkusen will have to rotate accordingly, which is when Kruse must seize his chance.
Originally featured on OS Aussies