Despite a spectacular collapse against the Netherlands, Joachim Löw's revamp is showing signs of life. Toni Kroos proved he has a future in the team after a first-half masterclass had fans purring, says Janek Speight.
Many of Germany's old guard have come in for fierce criticism over the past 12 months and rightly so. Coach Joachim Löw has to take ultimate responsibility for playing favorites, but performances have not been good enough from several stars of the 2014 World Cup win.
Sami Khedira has been left out of Löw's plans, Jerome Boateng was missing from the latest squad, Thomas Müller has finally been given a bit-part role and Mats Hummels looks likely to go the same way.
Toni Kroos, however, has often been the only experienced head to have impressed, even if just in patches. His performances have suffered in 2018 but a new formation could prove his savior.
Germany's 2-2 draw against the Netherlands ended in bitter disappointment, but there were enough positive signs to suggest the horrors of 2018 will not reappear in 2019.
Löw's new 3-4-3 formation looked irresistible in the first 45 minutes with Toni Kroos taking center stage in a double pivot alongside Joshua Kimmich.
Germany's Special Ks shine
Kimmich's introduction in central midfield has been an undoubted success, allowing Kroos more freedom as the two interchange duties between defence and attack.
Kroos has struggled to exert influence on matches as a sole 'number 6' this year, the need for him to constantly drop deep in a 4-3-3 formation often shackling him and his deficiencies in the art of defending leaving Germany exposed.
With three central defenders negating his need to drop into the backline, and a midfield partner assisting him with defensive duties, Kroos had more time to dictate play against the Netherlands. Germany dominated the midfield battle as Kimmich and Kroos controlled the game and took advantage of the movement and space created from a fluid front three.
For the opening goal, Kimmich stayed deep and central, allowing Kroos to drift to the left of midfield. He threaded a ball into Serge Gnabry, who's instinctive first-time flick released Timo Werner to thunder in a long-range strike. It was a thing of beauty, the type of goal that has been missing from Germany's repertoire for too long.
For the second, this time from a deeper position, Kroos lifted an inch-perfect ball over the top of the Netherlands defence for an onrushing Leroy Sane. Simple, clinical, effective.
Kroos was left found wanting in the second half, however, highlighting his weakness without the ball. He collected a yellow card after Memphis Depay streamed past him, was bamboozled by the trickery of Matthijs de Ligt, and was slow to close down Tonny Vilhena for the Netherlands' equalizer.
But when he's spraying balls around like he did in the first half, it's clear that with more game time and a deepened understanding with Kimmich, Kroos is very much still relevant.
New year, new Kroos?
When Germany won the World Cup in 2014, Kroos played further up the pitch. He had Bastian Schweinsteiger and Khedira or Christoph Kramer behind him to take care of the defensive duties. For Real Madrid he's had Casemiro to rely on. Clearly, playing as a traditional 6 is not Kroos' forte and Löw's inability to find a different solution hamstrung the midfielder's performances. His struggles are as much a product of Löw's tactical ineptitude as any drop of in form for the national team.
The introduction of a new formation and a new midfield partner in Kimmich, however, could well get the best out of Kroos. His influence in midfield will be just as crucial as the much-needed injection of youth and pace that has so excited Germany's fans over the past week. With his range of passing and vision it would be folly to write him off.
Yet he'll have to prove quickly that he can become a force once again in this new formation. Löw will have to find a way to accommodate the extremely talented Kai Havertz eventually and Kroos could well be the fall guy if Kimmich is able to handle defensive duties on his own.
The future is here for Germany and it's young and vibrant. Whether there is still room for an ageing but still talented Kroos will be truly answered in the new year. But the signs are good.