clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Imagining a Midfield of Kevin Strootman, Radja Nainggolan and Daniele De Rossi

New, comments

With the return of Kevin Strootman, Roma suddenly has an enviable problem on their hands, a clogged and talented midfield. Is there a way Rudi Garcia can play Strootman, Daniele De Rossi and Radja Nainggolan at the same time?

Paolo Bruno

With the return of Kevin Strootman, Rudi Garcia suddenly has a wonderful, albeit vexing, problem on his hands; how to rotate the midfield quintet of Daniele De Rossi, Miralem Pjanic, Radja Nainggolan, Seydou Keita and now Strootman. Supremely talented players each, but, due to the immutable laws of math and FIFA (*cough* *cough*), two will be subjugated to lesser roles. Of those five, Pjanic stands out as the most unique, simply because he is the only one among the set we can consider a strictly offensive player, though he is not without defensive merit, so we'll set him aside during this discussion.

Pjanic is a fantastic player, no doubt, but even with his ascendency, he is not without his bouts of inconsistency, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Garcia leaves his finest offensive midfielder on the pine. Besides which, certain situations scream for deviations, and there is an intriguing mix lying within Roma's midfield roster, one to which Jonas alluded earlier in the week, the lockdown crew of Strootman, De Rossi and Nainggolan. While this trio certainly isn't bereft of offensive talent, they're collectively renown as defensive and/or holding players, though of the three, Strootman possesses the best all-around offensive game.

Despite that defensive hue, this lineup might actually give Roma an advantage in certain situations and against certain opponents; particularly if the order of the day is maintaining possession against an overwhelming offensive threat, but against which opponents and during which situations would this trio be useful?

First things first, however, which role would each man assume in this imaginary midfield and what affects would this have on Garcia's broader tactical game plan, particularly in terms of offensive momentum and creativity?

Before we continue, let's get one thing out of the way. Jamming this midfield into the middle of Garcia's 4-3-3 is an exercise in frustration, if not outright futility. Walter Sabatini schemed to give Garcia the proper horses to run his version of the 4-3-3, so while it's conceivable that Nainggolan, De Rossi and Strootman could co-exist in a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-1-2-1-2, the squad as currently constituted isn't really constructed to fit that mold. The former is somewhat plausible, but it wouldn't make the most of Gervinho, Juan Iturbe and Alesandro Florenzi's skills on the wing, while the former would force Francesco Totti into a pure striker role (assuming Pjanic slots into the hole), which would be a waste of his own playmaking, not to mention increasing the physical toll on his aging legs and back. With a summer or two to maneuver, surely Sabatini could outfit Roma for either of those formations using Nainggolan, De Rossi and Strootman simultaneously, but at this point in time, it's just not realistic.

Now, then, is there a way or an occasion in which those three can serve as the central pillar in Garcia's 4-3-3 phalanx?

Although each of DDR, Nainggolan and Strootman are strong, agile and adept defenders and readers of the game, based on reputation and ability alone, De Rossi would most likely assume the most defensive role; it's one he knows intimately and one in which he shines for both club and country. Furthermore, DDR does excel at the offensive components of this position, as he averaged 20 meters per pass last season, while completing 89% of all his passes, both high marks on the clubs last season among outfield players who logged at least 1,000 minutes, suggesting that he is actually adept at distributing from the back. He's not Andrea Pirlo, mind you, but nor is he dead weight.

So, now that we've decided who is the most defensive among this ostensible set of defensive midfielders, what of Strootman and Nainggolan, who holds and who attacks?

At the outset of 2014, this was a no brainer. Sure, Nainggolan was quick, pretty clever and strong on the ball, but he didn't have Strootman's playmaking ability, nor could he match Strootman's shot accuracy and scoring efficiency, but if you've stuck with us through the season's first three months, you've no doubt noticed that Nainggolan has arguably been Roma's finest player this season.

Through 11 league appearances, Nainggolan has shown dramatic improvements in playmaking (14 chances created already compared to 20 all of last year with Roma), shot accuracy (31% to 23%) and dribbling success (79% to 53%). Whatever he did over the offseason seemed to have worked; Nainggolan has the looks of a player who has finally figured "it" out, and at only 26-years-old, we're only now entering his prime years, so there may yet be room for further improvement, so this decision could get tougher still.

Point being, in Strootman's absence, Nainggolan has filled the void as the box-to-box everyman, so Strootman or no Strootman, relegating Nainggolan to the bench is no given. However, despite Nainggolan's extremely impressive strides, we'd still have to give Strootman the slight nod as the attacking component of this midfield due to his superior play making abilities.

Okay, so DDR does his usual cover-the-defense's-ass routine, Strootman pushes up and Nainggolan hangs in between, not bad, right?

Solid as they might be, none of these three is a purely attacking player, a factor which would naturally impact Roma's forward third and quite possibly their bottom line. Without a true threat to move up the pitch, Roma's offense would be missing a crucial component; the final link to Francesco Totti.

Remove that linking play, and Totti suddenly has to drop deeper to find the ball, which not only exposes him to further harassment from the opposition, but removes him from the areas of the pitch in which he's most effective, which in turn cuts off the supply lines to the wings.

But, were this wrecking crew of a midfield to come to fruition, it would not be done with offense in mind, of that we can have little doubt, so when might this trio actually be useful?

If we assume that Garcia will seldom stray from the 4-3-3, what better combination than Nainggolan, De Rossi and Strootman to choke an opposing attack? If any combination of Roman midfielders stands the chance of quelling a 3-5-2 (for example), surely it's them. They each have the requisite speed, tenacity, mental acuity and commitment to the cause to deal with the numerical disadvantage in the midfield that occurs when a 4-3-3 meets a 3-5-2.

What's more, with DDR's deep passing, Nainggolan's speed and Strootman's playmaking, Roma wouldn't be that worse for the wear offensively. Besides, between De Rossi's beard, Nainggolan's Mohawk and Strootman's diamond crushing jaw, there may not be a more intimidating midfield in the game.

Either way, with Strootman's return, Seydou Keita's surprising form and Pjanic's continued growth, something has got to give, someone will be left on the outside looking in. Despite Keita's impressive form this season, he's a short term rental, so he won't really factor into the long term midfield discussions, but with Pjanic, Nainggolan, De Rossi and even Strootman locked into Roma for several more seasons, this is a maze Garcia must work his way through.

There are advantages to any of these permutations, of course, but between Strootman, De Rossi and Nainggolan, we're dealing with three incredibly dynamic midfielders, each of whom is blessed with stature, technique and stamina that enables them to succeed in a variety of setups, but with Roma's grand aims, clubs from around the world will hone in on Garcia's tactics to an even finer degree, putting the onus on the Frenchman to experiment with wrinkles to his normal 4-3-3.

As we witnessed with Munich, the more moneyed sides will always outweigh Roma in terms of depth and talent in the starting XI. In such occasions, Roma's best bet might just be strangling the flow of the match by tightening the belt in the midfield, and there might not be a better option on the planet than the combination of Kevin Strootman, Daniele De Rossi and Radja Nainggolan.