7,675 minutes. 128 days. Over one third of a year.
That’s the equivalent of how much time on the pitch in competitive club football Kevin Strootman missed during his two years of injury troubles (not even counting added time). It seems too easy to dwell on that torrid time in his career, but it will be put to use here, to bring into clarity just how impressive the Dutchman was in his first full season back at the top of professional football.
When Kevin Strootman was taken off with injury in March 2014 against Napoli, it came at a costly time. Diagnosed with damaged knee ligaments, it meant that he would miss the 2014 World Cup, after impressing in qualification for the tournament. It would have been a competition to put Strootman’s name among the very best; he was already attracting serious interest from Manchester United at the time, and a good World Cup for the country who finished in third place would have elevated his name even higher. But that chance to shine was taken from him, and he was confined to eight months on the sidelines. His national team coach at the time, Louis Van Gaal, acknowledged, “This is the worst thing for Kevin,” as he praised his midfielder’s contribution before his injury.
With the disappointment of missing the tournament in Brazil put behind him, Strootman returned to action in November of that year, only for disaster to strike again just two months later. After being replaced in the league game against Sampdoria, it was discovered that he had suffered damage to his ligaments once again, and would be required to go under the knife. It would be his last appearance under French coach Rudi Garcia. Seven months on, and just four days into the new Serie A season, it was found that he still needed further surgery. This was a massive setback for Strootman, who consequently missed the majority of that season.
His return to first team affairs was understandably slow. Making his return as a substitute against Palermo in February 2016, it took time for Strootman to get back into the swing of things on the pitch. Appearances were limited, as he was carefully managed by Luciano Spalletti, who would have understood that rushing the player back into regular first team action could have had detrimental effects for him. Thus, he was limited to five appearances for Roma in the 2015/16 season.
Fast forward to the present day, and it would be easy to look at Kevin Strootman and completely forget all that he went through between that initial injury in 2014 and the early summer of 2016. Finally being able to return to consistent playing time, for the team that supported him through the hardest times of his career, he became one of Roma’s best players of last season. Many players who have gone through tough times with injury call an early end to their career, as Marco van Basten did aged 31, or at the very least look apprehensive when returning to the intensity of top flight football. That was not the case for Strootman, who came back with the hunger and desire that sets him apart from his peers. He wore the captain’s armband in the first Serie A game of the new season, a symbol that represented his strong attitude and resilient mentality after overcoming adversity, and battling again on the other side.
Filled with this determination to succeed once again, Strootman gave no hint that he wanted to gently ease himself back into action for his first full season returning to professional football. In that first league game, he made 71 passes, completing 98.6% of them, and created two chances for his teammates, as Roma triumphed 4-0 against Udinese. He completed the full 90 minutes, for the first of many times that season.
Strootman’s promising performance was a sign of great things to come in the season ahead; his levels of performance did not drop for three months (and when that drop came, it was just an anomaly). After the winter break especially, he proved to consistently be one of Roma’s best players. He added goals against Cagliari in August, Astra Giurgiu in the Europa League in September, and Lazio in December’s Derby Della Capitale. In the New Year, he scored against Napoli and Lyon in March – in Serie A and the Europa League respectively – and against Pescara in April, meaning he finished the season with six goals in all competitions. Of course an excellent provider for his teammates as well, he racked up seven assists, with a pass completion rate of 86% in the league. That’s higher than football’s most expensive player of all time, fellow midfielder Paul Pogba, recorded in the Premier League in the same season.
Strootman’s form over the campaign was highly consistent. His rating on WhoScored.com only dipped below 6/10 on one occasion (in November’s 2-1 loss to Atalanta). Consequently, he finished with an average rating of 7.29 on the stats website. On countless occasions, he was a reliable figure in the team, due to his well-rounded skillset in the middle of the park, both breaking up play with key tackles, and inciting attacking passages of play with intelligent passes. He won an average of 2.03 tackles per game in Serie A, and made 1.67 interceptions. In the air, he won 45% of his duels, and on the attack, he created over three chances in every two league games he played. Few players worldwide could deliver such impressive stats across all departments, and although statistics don’t always serve as an accurate basis for judging players, this is one case where they do represent the ability and performances of the player in question.
By the end of the season, Strootman had appeared for a total of 2,789 minutes, the second best return of his career (he managed 2,820 with PSV in 2012/13, the year before he joined Roma). This went to show exactly how far behind him Strootman had put his historical injury problems, as he finally re-established himself as a regular starter both at club and international level. This gift of continued playing time allowed him to achieve the high standards of form that he is more than capable of producing. He was a player not just returning to the pitch, but to the very top of world football.
And, all being well, Kevin Strootman will continue in the same direction next season.