As Kevin Strootman came through arrivals at Fiumicino airport, he found 300 Roma supporters waiting for him. “In Holland, we’re not used to welcomes like that,” he told Il Corriere dello Sport. “I’ve never seen so many people for one player.”
At the time, Strootman was the most expensive signing of the summer in Serie A. Up front, the 23-year-old cost more than Bayern Munich striker Mario Gomez did to Fiorentina. The €16.5m that Roma agreed to pay PSV Eindhoven is the biggest transfer fee agreed by the club since its takeover by an American consortium a couple of years ago.
And yet you get the impression that, even if Napoli’s own dealings, like investing more than double in Real Madrid forward Gonzalo Higuain, hadn’t eclipsed it, Strootman wouldn’t be at all fazed by being the player on whom the most money had been spent in Serie A this summer.
“A burden? No, it’s a motivation,” he said at his official unveiling. “When I went to PSV, they paid [Utrecht] a lot too [€13m for him and Dries Mertens who has since joined Napoli]. I can’t do anything about the price Roma paid for me, but I can do a lot on the pitch. And it’s there that I want to show Roma that they have spent their money well.”
No one doubts that they have.
The expectation was that when Strootman did leave PSV, it would be for Manchester United. He’d been linked consistently enough with a move to Old Trafford and the reported interest made sense. There was and remains the impression that an all-round midfielder capable of precise passing and tough tackling is a player that they require.
But “no team came forward seriously except Roma,” Strootman revealed to La Gazzetta dello Sport. After the purchases of Erik Lamela from River Plate in 2011 and Marquinhos from Corinthians in 2012, this was another notable coup from director of sport Walter Sabatini and one that drew envious glances from around Serie A.
“The Dutchman is a great player,” said Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani. “Roma have done a [great] deal to acquire him. We would have signed him but €20m is too much for Milan at the moment.”
Had they done, Milan would have bought a player worthy of honouring the club’s Dutch tradition. In October last year, Strootman because the youngest player ever to captain the Netherlands in a competitive match. With Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder both missing against Andorra, coach Louis van Gaal gave him the armband. It was a mark of the high regard in which he’s held.
Earlier that month, he’d given a swashbuckling performance for PSV in a 3-0 win against Napoli in the Europa League. Throughout his participation in that competition, Strootman showcased what he’s all about. He averaged more tackles per match than any other player in the Europa League [7.7], a side of his game that improved while playing alongside his retiring former teammate Mark van Bommel.
The two have frequently been compared with each other and there is some merit to it. In addition to van Bommel’s ability to break up play, Strootman possesses his leadership qualities. He was his deputy at PSV and captained the Netherlands at the Under-21 European Championship in Israel.
But that’s where the similarities end. Because Strootman is as capable in the construction of play as in the deconstruction of it. He averaged 77.3 passes per game in the Europa League last season, the sixth most in the tournament and made those passes with an accuracy of 91.8%. He gets up and down the pitch a lot more than van Bommel did too.
“I like to play from one side of it to the other,” Strootman told Il Corriere dello Sport. “I do both phases of play, attack and defence, without a particular preference.” Indicative of his box-to-box style is the stat that only four players averaged more shots per game  in the Europa League last season than Strootman.
It’s these attributes that appealed to Roma. “I won’t say that Strootman [is the surprise I promised the fans],” president James Pallotta said, “but he’s the player we needed. It was evident that the team found it difficult [going from defence to attack and back again last season].”
In Strootman, Roma have got themselves a complete midfielder, arguably the best on the market this summer along with Paulinho, the Brazil international signed by Tottenham from Corinthians. And it hasn’t taken him long to convince his new teammates of his talent. Strootman scored and set up another in his second appearance for Roma, a 3-1 win against the MLS All-Stars. It led Daniele De Rossi to insist: “Kevin is the right signing for us.”
At one point it had been thought that Strootman might be a replacement for him, but now that no longer looks to be the case and, accordingly, Roma have a midfield to rival Juventus’ and Fiorentina’s.
It’s a source of optimism ahead of the new season. “It’s a bit early to say it, but we have a lot of quality,” Strootman said, “There are great players in every position.” Are there enough to challenge for the Scudetto even? That remains to be seen but with Strootman you get the impression that Roma have taken a big step towards doing so.