Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
As Kevin Strootman prepares to turn out for the Dutch national team on Friday night, it's a far cry from De Adelaarshorst. That 6,700-capacity stadium in Deventer is where Strootman started last season, lining up for Sparta Rotterdam at Go Ahead Eagles in Dutch football's second tier.
Strootman scored Sparta’s equaliser that day, and his stock has continued to rise sharply ever since. As Dutch national team coach Bert van Marwijk, who has gradually become one of Strootman's biggest fans, puts it: "I think the boy can go a long way."
In fact one of the things that impressed Van Marwijk was that the young man didn't go very far over summer. Strootman's storming season for Sparta had caught the eye of suitors abroad, from Premier League sides Tottenham and Fulham to Serie A giants AS Roma, but the midfielder opted to stay in his homeland with PSV – much to the national boss's pleasure.
Strootman cuts a languid figure and on first appearance alone it’s hard to imagine he was a creative attacking midfielder in the trequartista mould in his earlier days. But watch him spray the ball over long and short range, with intuition, vision and a gifted left foot, and you'll stop judging this book by its cover.
Born in southern Holland in February 1990 and starting with local side Rijsoord, he joined Sparta’s youth academy in 2007. By January 2008 he was promoted to the senior team and started to create a buzz. He was linked with leading Dutch clubs in summer 2009 after his first full season, but no move transpired and he stayed on.
The following season was the lowest point of his short career. After a disastrous campaign, Sparta were relegated for only the second time in their history. His own individual potential tempted champions FC Twente but again the move didn't happen and he played a further sixteen times for Sparta last season in the second division.
Last winter brought an unsurprising return to the top flight, with FC Utrecht, but perhaps more importantly a switch of position. Adjusting from the advance role he was afforded at Sparta, he became a more reassured, deeper-lying regista, excelling at ball retention and recycling.
That said, Strootman hasn't allowing his attacking instinct to wane; he often joined in with Utrecht attacks and remains confident in goalscoring positions.
His impressive performances at his new club – not to mention the successful procession through the Netherlands U18, U19 and U21 levels – earned him a full cap in the February friendly against Austria, becoming the 21st player to be handed a début under Van Marwijk’s tenure.
After the game he was praised by Wesley Sneijder for his quick adaptation – adjusting to the rhythm of the team without putting a foot wrong– and showing nerves of steel given the situation.
Strootman came into the Dutch consciousness with his usual impeccable timing. After the 2010 World Cup campaign's consistent selection of two destructive defensive midfielders, Van Marwijk has altered the Oranje's central shape.
In truth necessity was the mother of invention, due to Nigel de Jong’s suspension. But using Rafael van der Vaart as a deep-lying playmaker successfully invoked memories of long-ago Holland sides.
The question is whether Van Marwijk will retain it in the long run, especially when Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong are both in the squad, but with Finland and Moldova the next opponents after facing San Marino tonight, it's a fair bet that the coach will stick with the creative players.
Strootman was one of the few that stood out in Holland’s mini-tour of South America early in the summer, most notably his performance against Brazil. Van der Vaart's absence allowed him to play in the deep-lying playmaker role – impressively – alongside the more defensively rounded De Jong.
After the tour, amid much speculation, Strootman and his FC Utrecht teammate Dries Mertens moved to PSV for a combined €13M. Before making the move, Strootman spoke with his former Sparta coach Foeke Booy – who had made him the side's captain – and both agreed it was the right step at this stage of his career.
"I could have continued my development at Utrecht," said Strootman, "but PSV is one of the top clubs in Holland, where I can quickly become a better player.
"This was the most logical step. There have been a number of steps in quick succession, but I do not think about it. I wish every day to get the best out of myself and see where it leads.”
While his vision catches the eye, Strootman's leadership is often undervalued. Booy believes that even without the armband, he will be the leader PSV have needed for some time. For guidance, he need only look to the club's assistant manager, the former PSV and Holland legend Phillip Cocu.
Still only 21, Strootman proved his wisdom by not moving from Sparta to a major foreign league: it could have been a step too far. Although many close to him – including former coaches – believe it’s a move he’s destined to one day make, he may have struggled for regular first-team football at say Spurs or Roma.
By contrast, he has been given PSV's No.6 shirt, formerly owned by illustrious names like Mark van Bommel and Jan Poortvliet. Settling in immediately, he scored his first goal for the club in late August against SV Ried, arriving in the penalty area to calmly convert a cross.
With Euro 2012 on the horizon Van Marwijk would love nothing more to have a Dutch squad with strength in depth and Strootman gaining regular football at PSV would allow him to move comfortably to the next step.
When the young midfielder was asked about representing the Oranje in one of his first interviews after joining PSV, he diplomatically stated that only by showing and proving his worth at the Philips Stadion could he then dream of wearing the orange shirt.
If you were to ask Strootman, he probably wouldn’t describe himself as a bona fide defensive midfielder: strong tackling isn’t in his repertoire. However, he excels at spatial awareness and keeping the ball circulating.
Aside from Van Bommel and De Jong, not many defensive midfielders leap to mind. Stijn Schaars – who recently joined Sporting CP – Strootman and possibly Theo Janssen will compete to be Van der Vaart’s understudy as the side's regista.
There’s a school of thought that all three could go to the Euros, but although Van Marwijk has never been afraid of putting his trust in youth, he’s unlikely to overegg the pudding and most likely take two from three.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the coach's thinking could be seen in his squad selection for the postponed friendly against England, where he omitted Janssen and Schaars but included Strootman. In his explanation, Van Marwijk argued that Strootman needs to have a presence now in the squad as the months count down to the summer championships with Holland already having won all six group games so far.
Nothing is certain in football, and a lot can happen over the course of a season. But if Strootman continues his progress, then he could prove his national team manager right in going a long way – on the plane to Poland and Ukraine.
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