Maybe it’s the fact that time during coronavirus quarantine seems to have absolutely no meaning anymore, or maybe it’s the fact that Roma’s squad has had massive turnover year after year, but it’s still hard for me to believe that Kevin Strootman first joined up with A.S. Roma nearly seven years ago. It was a remarkably big deal at the time. The €19 million fee was still considered a large sum for a club like Roma, but the real indicator that something special was happening was the un-retirement of Aldair’s #6.
Football clubs don’t typically retire numbers, and even though Roma has one of the most obvious reasons to retire a number in all of football right now (hint: the guy’s name is in the title of this website), it’s unlikely that the #10 is sent to the rafters any time soon. Given that, the fact that the #6 was retired and then un-retired for a 23-year-old from Ridderkerk was a statement of intent, by the club and by the new signing.
Before coming to Rome, Strootman was thought of as an intriguing prospect, but he hadn’t set the world on fire just yet. Sure, he’d racked up just shy of 150 appearances in the Eredivisie, but that’s simply not the same as plying your wares in one of the big leagues of Europe. Plenty of Dutch prospects fall flat on their faces when they leave the Netherlands, and Strootman could’ve been just another almost star.
Then he came to Rome.
Seven years on, it’s hard to explain the euphoria that surrounded the Giallorossi during the opening matches of the 2013-2014 season. Expectations weren’t exactly high for Roma that season; the 2012-2013 season had ended in a disappointing sixth place finish and an embarrassing 1-0 loss to Lazio in the Coppa Italia final. To go from the misery of that season to setting an all-time record for the winningest start to a Serie A season was incredible, especially considering Rudi Garcia was viewed with cautious optimism at best before that run of wins. Looking back, a huge amount of the credit for that unimaginable start must go to Kevin Strootman.
Strootman’s stats for the season are reasonably impressive: 25 appearances, five goals, six assists. Those surface-level stats don’t tell the whole story of how the Dutchman became the most important cog in the Roma midfield, though. Here’s how we described him as the 2013-2014 season drew to a close:
Kevin possessed a tough, no compromise attitude that complemented perfectly his genuine poise on the ball and a footballing brain second to none. His presence gave Roma a genuine box-to-box midfielder that could assist with DDR’s defensive duties but also bomb forward on runs or arrive late into the area in time to blast a cut back into the net.
Strootman took next to no time to adapt into his Italian surroundings and soon became one of the dominant hard men on the Italian peninsular. His industry was the perfect foil for Pjanic’s creativity and was a key component in Rudi’s ability to stiffen the resolve of the team as a whole.
Grunt and guts on its own is simply not enough, (Scottish Premier League, MSL and A-League has it in spades). But when those qualities are found in a world-class ball winner your midfield and team as a whole has that firmer edge to it. Strootman was a vital cog in ensuring Roma did not ‘happen’ for most of the season.
One of the largest worries for Romanisti coming out of that season was simple: can we keep Strootman away from Louis Van Gaal and Manchester United? Yet even at that point, the injury issues that have plagued Strootman had begun to rear their head. During a March 2014 1-0 loss to Napoli, Strootman tore ligaments in his knee, and simply put, he wasn’t ever really the same. For the next two years, Strootman had surgery after surgery to try to get that knee back to what it was before; none of those operations were successful enough to allow him to get back to the world class level he had clearly reached during his first season at Roma.
By tearing those ligaments, Strootman missed out on the rest of the 2013-2014 season with Roma, at a moment where having a healthy, world-class, and hungry box-to-box midfielder might have been able to shrink the seventeen-point gap between Scudetto-winners Juventus and second-place Roma.
By tearing those ligaments, Strootman missed out on an almost definitely-secured place with the Netherlands for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. That Dutch team lost to Argentina in the semi-finals of the World Cup; could the addition of a healthy Strootman eager to prove he deserved a permanent place in the Oranje squad have pushed them into the Final and past eventual winners Germany?
It’s tough to say what impact Strootman would have had for club and country in 2014, of course, just as it’s tough to definitively say what kind of peak he could have had if that knee tear hadn’t become the first of many injuries. That’s why I’m writing about Strootman for Chiesa di Totti’s What If Week. In my mind, the potential of an ironman Strootman is the biggest what-if of the 2010s for the Giallorossi.
Maybe a healthier Strootman would have been able to convince Miralem Pjanić that the Giallorossi could compete with Juventus, if he only kept the faith. Maybe he could have helped Roma add one more title to the cabinet, helping Francesco Totti get another accolade in the twilight of his career. A healthy Kevin Strootman was world-class, and yet we never truly got a healthy Kevin Strootman for very long. That injury is why, despite my optimistic nature, I worry about what Nicolò Zaniolo will be like once he recovers from his season-ending injury. It’s one of the many, many reasons why Romanisti think the modern era of the club has been cursed with a ridiculous number of injuries (and they happen to be correct).
We can take solace in the fact that at his best, Er Lavatrice bled for Roma and had the quality to deserve that #6 kit. He became Roman within a year of moving to Rome; by the time he left for Marseille, rejoining Rudi Garcia to much less success, it’s fair to say that we all knew he would be a Roman for life.
What if, though, huh?