AS Roma have, in what could possibly be noted down as a mega-coup in history, secured the signature of PSV and Netherlands midfielder Kevin Strootman. What kind partnership is he expected to form with Daniele De Rossi who is easily one of the best in business in the modern day football? THT takes a detailed analytical look.
For last two seasons, AS Roma have grabbed much of the column space in Italian tabloids during the transfer windows. The managerial appointments of both Luis Enrique and Zdenek Zeman were received with equal degrees of excitement and apprehension and, as things turned out, both ended in premature termination. Things clearly did not go as per the plan and Roma finished the two seasons at seventh and sixth position in the league respectively. At the start of last season in particular, they were almost billed as the team to watch in Serie A as Zeman was returning to his familiar territories and some bittersweet memories were to be revisited. Roma’s squad was perhaps second only to Juventus if the individual player profiles are assessed in isolation, but that is precisely why football is more than a mere juxtaposition of talented individuals.
Despite being regarded as one of those elitist names in the league, AS Roma have done little to do any justice to that billing. One of the most glamorous clubs in Italy, Roma are at the same time the perennial underachievers in Serie A too. It has been twelve years since the last league title was secured under Fabio Capello and it will be fair to suggest, the club has clearly failed to win anything of note in this time. Often during the better part of the last decade, Roma have been flirting around with that elusive 4th spot that allowed them to play in Champions League from time to time, but the upcoming one will be their third straight season devoid of a chance to represent Italy at the biggest stage in Europe. And if their inconsistent record during these seasons and the refusal to address the pressing concerns are anything to go by, you can’t possibly be blamed for not sharing the optimism of the management and the ardent followers of the club.
Under Zeman, Roma often played with a system where defence was virtually non-existent as the manager urged as many as eight players to commit themselves in the opposition half right from the word go. This breathtakingly refreshing approach from Zeman was admittedly pleasing to the eye but suicidal against teams that could match Roma technically. And while sanity definitely was restored partially by Andreazzoli, it may be argued he was fighting an already lost cause. More than on the pitch, Roma had lost the mental battle with the tumultuous atmosphere created in the dressing room initially with Zeman’s perplexing selections and then with his eventual departure that was perhaps untimely but completely justifiable. Of the teams that finished above Roma in the final standings, only Fiorentina could possibly claim they played an equally attractive and yet more productive brand of football. Juventus, Napoli and Milan on the other hand were more pragmatic, often even insipid in comparison but as was evident on the table, their approach yielded results.
However, despite the disappointing run of results for three seasons, Roma have hardly showed any signs of slipping into oblivion and while they may not have signed a high-profile manager for the third straight time, they have been very busy rebuilding the squad, addressing its shortcomings very tactfully. Roma had been a wonderful passing side all through last season but it’s the discipline off the ball that they lacked. Part of it can be blamed to Zeman’s outrageous tactics and wrong choice of midfield combinations, but often Roma were left stifled for space by physically more imposing sides and once the Piris-Bradley-Lamela channel of attack was found out, even the endless swift passing among the midfield could not greatly trouble the opposite numbers. This is where a certain Kevin Strootman, signed from PSV for a handsome sum of cash, comes into picture.
The 23-year-old Dutch midfielder is one of the brightest prospects across Europe presently and that he made a choice to move to Roma despite the persistent interest from some of the supposedly bigger clubs suggests he’s determined enough to do well. Tactically intelligent midfielders have always succeeded in Serie A since pace or skill alone is never enough to unsettle the much more organized sides one faces in Italy. So far, Strootman has showed every sign of gelling perfectly into the Roma system and forming an enviable partnership alongside Daniele De Rossi – one of the best in the business in the world.
De Rossi himself was facing an unclear future and while Strootman was almost confused for being the Italian’s replacement for the long term, as of now the Roma icon-in-making and heir-to-Totti seems to be going nowhere. De Rossi’s form at the club level was relatively indifferent last season and his relationship with Zeman, which was far from healthy, might have played a huge role there. He has recently had a fantastic outing with Italy during the Confederations Cup held in Brazil where the Azzurri finished third, but De Rossi is one player who rarely disappoints at the International level – so it will be slightly optimistic to think he’ll continue to seamlessly flutter into Giallorossi colours too. De Rossi prefers to play in a deeper position and see more of the ball spraying passes and orchestrating the play while also screening the often vulnerable defence of Roma. In fact, De Rossi is good enough to play as a centre back on any given day and has delivered rock solid performances in the role. But make no mistake: there are few players in the league who can match his imaginative play and attacking instinct.
Finding the right balance between the two roles has been slightly challenging for De Rossi, and that has significantly hampered his overall game. For Italy, he plays with equally accomplished midfielders and therefore the system allows him to flourish to the levels he is not very often seen at playing for Roma. The addition of Strootman however provides Roma with that very composure, strength and a sense of reassurance that can bring much more clarity to the role of De Rossi. In fact, both the players are capable of assuming the responsibilities in tandem owing to the completeness in their game. Despite having done away with Zeman and understandably putting much more emphasis on organization, Roma should continue playing a very strongly founded system that operates on incisive passing and is put to the greatest effect by clever positional play.
Although Francesco Totti will continue playing in the front three alongside Lamela and one of Osvaldo and Destro, he should be much more involved in building the attacks and will relish the prospect of linking up with two midfielders of highest quality. The third and final component in the midfield can be given a much more mobile role running the length of the pitch, never being too far off the ball. In Pjanic, Bradley and Florenzi, Roma have three midfielders who are all tactically alert and sharp, and as a matter of fact a little too good to be playing in a role that rather restricts their game to a good extent but in what is going to be one long season, they should surely find their turn to operate in a more decisive position.
Considering the sheer quality of their standard first team midfield and that of the squad players, there’s little argument over Roma being one of the best, if not the best in this department in Serie A. Fiorentina and Juventus are the only two other clubs who boast of excellent midfield combinations, but Roma surely have an edge when the back-up options are put into the equation. As things stand, Roma find themselves at crossroads of sorts. Should they fail to take the right direction from this point in a season’s time, they’ll start losing out on the attraction factor and it will be no time before they fall too far behind to pick up again.
The competition levels for the third spot have considerably intensified this season – something that will be Roma’s primary target, but should the team explode to its potential, the expectations may very well be exceeded, as asserted by Strootman. But in order to stay in the hunt right from the very start, Roma cannot afford to waste any time to get into the groove. Even one of those typical Zeman-like results of dropping points after conceding a three-goal lead might prove to be fatal. From the looks of it, Roma appear to have changed for the better but whether this potential translates on the field with ease is the question that matters.