Kevin Strootman played a football match on Friday.
It was a primavera game, but that shouldn’t distract from the true meaning here. The important thing isn’t who Strootman played; it’s there mere fact that he did.
He was there, on the pitch. He ran, and he battled hard, and he scored a penalty. He did not hesitate to go after the ball, or to put weight on his leg, or to put his body in positions to win possession. Luciano Spalletti noted in his press conference how much he enjoyed watching the Dutchman’s return to action and his willingness to do things that some top-level athletes wouldn’t bother to do during a primavera game.
Strootman’s injury woes have haunted him since the early spring of 2014, when he first hurt his right knee. He said then that he felt a twinge in an international match against France, and when he played against Napoli a few days later, he tore cruciate ligaments. He was sidelined for roughly eight months, before returning to action. In a game against Fiorentina he felt something wrong with his knee and it was soon discovered that his cartilage was in worse shape than expected; another surgery was on the table, and it’s been another long road to recovery since.
For him to return to the form he was in, nearly two years ago, will take quite a bit of time; for now, the morale boost of one of Roma’s most important talisman will have to suffice.
Strootman became beloved during his first spell with the club for the sheer ease with which he transformed the midfield. With the more defensive-minded Daniele De Rossi and the creative Miralem Pjanic as partners, he fell somewhere in the middle.
His work-rate and ability to hassle opponents meant he always contributed to the team’s shape and pressing; his well-timed runs into the box and technique with the ball meant he could slip an assist (see his free-kick for Francesco Totti’s first goal against Lazio in the Selfie Derby) or score a brilliant goal (such as against Napoli in the Coppa Italia, with a screamer from some distance) from time to time, too.
Perhaps no moment better embodies what Strootman brings to the table than 1 December 2014. Roma were in the midst of a historical 10 match winning run to the season, but three ensuing draws had allowed the likes of Juventus to catch up.
The match is a struggle, and as the game wears on, the visitors are hunting and prowling for an equaliser: Davide Brivio’s goal early in the second half has Atalanta in the lead. The minutes are waning and Roma look to be on the brink of their first league loss of Rudi Garcia’s debut campaign.
Enter Adam Ljajic: the Serbian takes the ball to the byline in the home side’s box and manages to cut back a tight, fizzing pass towards the center. Strootman, well-placed high in the box, takes a step in front of his defender and away from the goal to meet the ball, contorting his foot to place the effort with his first touch comfortably into the net. He slowly starts to move towards his teammates in celebration, but he’s cautious: he watches the trajectory of the ball and waits for it to ripple the net before running, in full exultation, arms down and yelling at his teammates.
That ability to be in the right place at the right time, to rescue a point at the very death of a game that looks to have just slipped past the side despite so many chances on goal – it’s that grinta, that willingness to sacrifice himself, that ability to be whatever the team needs him to be, that Roma benefitted from so much when Strootman was healthy.
And that Roma will hopefully be able to benefit from again.
But getting there is going to take some time.