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Can Kevin Strootman Still Live Up to His Potential?

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Strootman was healthy this past season, but how close is he to Europe’s truly elite midfielders?

Pescara Calcio v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

When Kevin Strootman signed for Roma in the summer of 2013, many believed he possessed the tools necessary to become a world-class central midfielder. In retrospect it is easy to see why, for the imposing, left-footed Dutchman had an all-around game befitting such lofty expectations. Generally speaking, elite central midfielders are expected to excel at defending, dictate the tempo and produce goal-scoring opportunities when in possession, and offer a genuine goal threat.

The Ridderkerk native had the attributes to meet these criteria. His work rate, tenaciousness, and upper body strength made him a formidable ball-winner. He was a reliable and intelligent passer capable of bossing the game from the center of the park as well as contributing to effective attacking actions in the final third. Additionally, his ability to unleash powerful left-footed strikes from distance made it reasonable to believe he could hit the back of the net regularly enough under the proper guidance.

Burdened by debt and beholden to FFP regulations, Roma have been keen to sell their most prized assets throughout Strootman’s tenure as a giallorosso. Thus, if persistent knee ligament issues had not limited him to a total of eleven league appearances during the 2014-15/2015-16 seasons, he may have been yet another addition to the list of promising players who were sold on before their talents could help propel Roma to a trophy. Instead, the club’s hierarchy were forced to hold out hope that he could one day return to full fitness and be something more than a mere shadow of his former self.

That said, the Dutchman’s impressive 2016-17 campaign came as a pleasant surprise for management and fans alike. Strootman started 31 games in the Serie A this past season, performing the tasks required of a box-to-box midfielder to good effect. From a defensive standpoint he proved he was still the tough-tackling, aggressive force he had been earlier in his career. He also positively affected the transition and attacking phases; functioning as a release valve when his teammates came under pressure as well as making forays into the attacking third wherein he would participate in incisive passing sequences and discompose defences with splendid chipped balls over the top. Scoring four goals, although unremarkable, merits some praise as well given the circumstances.

Despite offering the football world an inspiring comeback story, as Roma fans we want our players to provide us with more than the fleeting gratification brought about by a feel good tale. Consequently, it is in our interest to know just how good Strootman was last season, and whether it is still reasonable to expect him to achieve world-class status. In order to gain some clarity on the matter, I decided to compare his stats to the last season’s 10 most highly rated box-to-box midfielders from Europe’s top five leagues. According to my research, that list would look something like this:

1. Benjamin André (Rennes, Ligue 1)

2. Cheikh N'Doye (Angers, Ligue 1)

3. Jean Seri (Nice, Ligue 1)

4. Marek Hamšík (Napoli, Serie A)

5. Marco Verratti (PSG, Ligue 1)

6. N'Golo Kanté (Chelsea, EPL)

7. Paul Pogba (Manchester United, EPL)

8. Sergej Milinković-Savić (Lazio, Serie A)

9. Toni Kroos (Real Madrid, La Liga)

10. William Vainqueur (Marseille, Ligue 1)

If Strootman was better than or equal to the average relative to these players in the relevant statistical categories and ranks among the top 10 within each data set, it is fair to say he performed at a world-class level last season. Additionally, he ought to be considered one of the elite players in his position provided he is able to satisfy each of these criteria in forthcoming seasons. If not, the upshot here is we will come away with a pretty good idea of the areas he would need to improve in next year and beyond to fulfill his potential.

I began by contrasting Strootman’s total duels % (or TD %) with that of his peers. For those of you who are unaware, TD% is calculated by dividing player’s successful tackles, take-ons, aerial duels, and fouls suffered by the total number of duels they engaged in during a specific time frame. As such, this metric serves as a good starting point in that it provides insight into player’s effectiveness in a broad sense as well some of their strengths and weaknesses when broken down into its composite elements. At first glance the results were far from encouraging, since his TD% was ten percentage points below the average (41%-to-51%) and he shared 10th place with Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté:

Predictably, Er Lavatrice’s unflattering numbers are not due to a lack of tackling proficiency. He registered 2.16 tackles per 90 (5th overall), completing 66% of his attempts (3rd). His comparatively low TD% is mainly attributable to inadequate success rates in take-ons and aerial duels. Regarding the former, he was only able to beat his man 62.5 % percent of the time, putting him in ninth place and 11% below average. Concerning the latter, the Dutchman won 45% of his aerial battles (7th), 5% lower than the mean.

There are reasons for optimism, however. Firstly, the Dutch international has shown improvement as a dribbler. In his first year in Serie A, he won a meagre 33% of his 18 take-ons, nearly tripling that number last season despite a slight uptick in attempts. So, even though he will never possess the pace and nimble feet required to be an especially effective dribbler, last year’s performance indicates he has gained an enhanced understanding of when to take opponents on with age. Secondly, he might be better in the air than suggested by the previous campaign. The 27-year-old emerged victorious in 50.4% p90 of his aerial battles in 34 appearances in the league over the preceding three seasons. Given his physique and mentality it is plausible he will improve over time as he becomes more comfortable on the pitch. Lastly, TD% does not offer a comprehensive view of player’s effectiveness defensively in that interceptions are unaccounted for by definition. As it so happens, Strootman’s 1.78 interceptions p90 exceed the mean and were good enough for fourth spot. Taking this in conjunction with his tackling stats, it could certainly be argued he defended at an elite level.

Of course, defensive prowess alone is insufficient if a box-to-box midfielder is to become world-class. Precision, ingenuity, and efficacy when playing the ball to teammates are also among the traits exhibited by the best of the best in this position. Naturally, I ranked players according to their passes completed percentage to measure accuracy. The former PSV man equaled the mean and came in 5th overall, connecting with his intended target 85% of the time. Chances created p90 (key passes p90 + assists p90) proved most useful in gauging Strootman’s vision and effectiveness. He surpassed the average of 1.61, finishing fifth in this category as well by producing 1.71 chances every 90 minutes.

Goals are the final requirement of an elite box-to-box midfielder. The players were evaluated according to total goals with goals per 90 serving as a tie-breaker if necessary. I also took shot accuracy into account, since a player who takes ill-advised shots or typically fails to test the goalkeeper hurts their team by unnecessarily ceding possession to the opponent. Roma loanee William Vainqueur was a prime example of this. The 28-year-old Frenchman did not score a single goal, hitting the target 26% of the time on a total of 29 shots with all but eight of his efforts coming from outside the 18-yard box. On the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of efficiency lies Marco Verratti. While the diminutive Italian only managed 3 goals in Ligue 1, 63% of his shots forced a save, and he beat the keeper on two-of-six attempts from outside the penalty area. Kevin Strootman represented a midpoint between these two extremes. He placed 5th in each category, scoring on four occasions (> 3 Avg.) at a rate of 0.13 p90 (≈ 0.13 Avg.) with a shot accuracy of 44% (> 42% Avg.). It is also worth noting that although none of his goals came from long range, he only took ten shots from distance. All of that being said, Strootman scored at a satisfactory rate without being wasteful in doing so.

In sum, Roma’s number 6 still has a chance to develop into one of the world’s premier box-to-box midfielders. The 27-year-old fell just shy of a world-class performance this past season due to his comparatively low success rates in take-ons and aerial duels, however, it is worth bearing in mind that improvements in each area are not beyond the realm of possibility. Therefore, if Strootman continues to showcase show his strengths while ironing out the kinks in his game, he should be considered among the elite box-to-box midfielders in the near future.