In the summer of 2014, Kevin Strootman was hailed by Louis Van Gaal as the Netherlands’ missing piece for their World Cup squad. Considering the unfancied Dutch side managed to pick up the bronze that year, it was a bold claim that obviously led to numerous “sources” claiming the midfielder was on his way to Van Gaal’s new side, Manchester United.
This summer, Strootman was tenuously linked with Everton, and proclaimed that he would not leave Roma for another Italian giant, despite the lack of transfer gossip. For any other player, this decline would have indicated the end of a promising career. For Strootman, who has taken part in just 13 games for club and country in the intervening period, this season could be the start of something special.
Thanks to three separate knee injuries since March 2014, the Dutch midfielder has been unable to put together a sustained run of matches. Even a return in November 2014 lasted only three months, as he was injured again after the Christmas period. Finally, towards the tail end of the last Serie A season, he was able to complete a full 90 minutes for AS Roma. With a full pre-season behind him, Strootman can finally see 2016/17 as the year where he can deliver on his immense talent.
His first test would be Roma’s Champions League play-off game against Porto in Portugal. Lining up on the left of a three man midfield, alongside Daniele De Rossi and Radja Nainggolan, Strootman was expected to help run the match against what should have been inferior opponents.
For the first half an hour, Roma did justice to their reputation as the Serie A’s top scorers from the previous season, as they reigned down attack after attack upon Iker Casillas’ goal. The front three of Mohammed Salah, Diego Perotti and Edin Dzeko combined well to create havoc, while De Rossi and Nainggolan strung together several forward passes that cut through Porto’s defences. Even the Roma full backs, Juan Jesus and Alessandro Florenzi, were able to pin back the Portuguese side’s wingers with their marauding runs.
The only non-contributing member of the front six was Kevin Strootman. While he covered his defensive duties well – tracking the occasional Porto attack, and making himself available in tight spaces for a quick pass out the back – he was struggling to participate in Roma’s high tempo forward forays. For a player who had barely played any football in years, including an idle summer where Netherlands failed to qualify for the Euros, this was an understandable early performance.
As the match progressed, he slowly started to getting used to his teammates, many of whom weren’t around back in March 2014. He started pushing forward and pressing the Porto midfield into making mistakes. He tried to capitalise on one such mistake, when he almost put Dzeko through on goal in the 27th minute. However, a combination of on-field rashness and off-field decision-making curtailed the midfielder’s progress.
Thomas Vermaelen, himself making a return to football after a large stretch out of the game, managed to pick up two yellow cards within 41 minutes. This put immense pressure on a Roma side that was already losing its grip on the match before his sending off. In response, Luciano Spalletti took off Perotti for Emerson Palmieri, instead of just reshuffling his team to see out the remaining time until the break.
Palmieri’s substitution would prove to be detrimental to Roma’s performance in two ways. First, his blundering attempts at defending the ball meant that he twice handled the ball in the box within 20 minutes of his arrival. While the first mistake went unseen, the second led to a penalty and equaliser for Porto. Throughout the second half, he looked like the player most likely to make a mistake leading to another goal for the hosts.
The second, and more important, mistake was the lack of tactical thinking behind the substitution, as well as Spalletti’s reluctance to change matters until the 76th minute. In removing Perotti, Spalletti reverted to an odd 4-3-2, with Dzeko and Salah expected to roam across the frontline, implicitly creating and finishing their own chances. The only times Roma looked threatening was when Nainggolan got involved, pushing forward to create some space for the forwards to run across.
In theory, Dzeko’s height and presence in the box could have provided a useful target, with Salah picking up loose balls around him. Instead, Roma did not play a single long ball after Vermaelen’s exit, instead choosing to play it to feet from the back. Spalletti finally tried to rectify the situation by taking off Salah for Federico Fazio, thereby creating a system where the wingbacks could bomb forward to help the Bosnian striker. However, by this point, the Italian side had been pinned back in their own half, and, in essence, Spalletti only invited more pressure by creating a five-man backline. This would only be rectified when the attack-minded Leandro Paredes was brought on for Alessandro Florenzi nearly ten minutes later.
While these changes did limit Strootman’s performance, he also failed to fully impose himself on the opposition. In addition to maintaining a deep position, he also failed to properly screen the Porto attacks. In the first half, De Rossi had almost played like a midfield sweeper, with Nainggolan and Strootman screening the Portuguese midfield runners. While Nainggolan continued to attempt that process, Strootman was bypassed far too easily. It’s no surprise that many of the deep crosses that threatened the Roma goal came from the left side of their defence.
Despite these problems, Strootman did not put in a bad performance. His positioning was near perfect at almost any moment in the match, his rare attacks did prove menacing, and, to the delight of the fans of Er Lavatrice (‘the washing machine’), his passing was still tidy and useful. He was also made to look worse than he actually was by the immense performances put in by midfield counterparts, De Rossi and Nainggolan.
However, this performance does prove that Strootman is still trying to become the player he used to be, and Roma don’t need that player at the moment. They have De Rossi who can be the defensive midfield playmaker for another couple of seasons, and Nainggolan who can be the box-to-box prober. They need Strootman to fill the hole created by the departure of another midfielder – Miralem Pjanic.
Pjanic, who had the equal highest number of assists in Serie A last season, left to join Juventus to replace Paul Pogba, his only statistical equal from last season. While Roma have seemingly reused that money well, Spalletti seems to have specifically ignored the midfield in order to provide Strootman with a chance to impress.
For a player who is not only returning from injury, but trying to adapt to new responsibilities, the Dutchman’s performance against Porto was more than adequate. However, he does face a tricky to start to the season, with home matches against Udinese and Porto in the next few days. If he can perform in those matches, there’s no reason he can pick up the majority of the creative burden left by Pjanic.