Ahead of the World Cup in Brazil, Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal had his trademark—and typically Dutch—4-3-3 formation in mind. Even against opponents like Spain and Chile, the two strongest opponents in the group, the Dutch were going to do it their way.
But in early March, disaster struck. During Roma’s Serie A match against Napoli, Strootman suffered a serious injury. It quickly became apparent that the midfielder would definitely miss the World Cup.
Strootman had been part of the much-talked-about "Big Three," Van Gaal’s affectionate nickname for his three best players: Strootman, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. After that fateful night in the Serie A, the "Big Three" was now a "Big Two."
It was back to the drawing board for Van Gaal. The execution of his favoured 4-3-3 formation depended on the presence of Strootman. Without the Roma man, who seemed impossible to replace, all balance had disappeared from the Dutch midfield.
To understand why Van Gaal thought his key midfielder was quite so important, it’s fruitful to look at the midfield make-up of a typical Van Gaal team.
First, there’s the destroyer. In the case of the Netherlands, Nigel de Jong played that role beautifully, making tackles and stopping the opposition from executing attacking moves. Then, there’s the attacking, central midfielder—the playmaker. At the Dutch national team, that was often Rafael van der Vaart or Wesley Sneijder.
The third man was the all-rounder, in some ways reminiscent of the old-school “box-to-box” player. Not a defensive midfielder, nor an attacking one, the third man in Van Gaal’s midfield trio had to assist the destroyer in defensive mode, but once the ball is conquered, he had to join the attack.
Constantly running from one end of the pitch to the other, Van Gaal’s third man has a double duty. This takes great stamina, but also intelligence and positional awareness. With his two separate but equally important tasks in mind, the all-rounder must be able to take instant decisions about his course of action.
Does he run forward and leave his direct opponent unmarked, possibly exposing his team to a counter-attack? Or does he stay behind, providing an extra lock ahead of his defence, leaving the attacking midfielder to provide extra creativity up front?
At the Dutch national team, Van Gaal felt Strootman was the only midfielder capable of fulfilling this role. Without him, the boss had to change tactics.
The Netherlands went on to play in a 5-3-2 at the World Cup. To many people’s surprise, it was a huge success. The Dutch managed to reach the semi-final and demolish reigning World Champions Spain 5-1 along the way.
Following this World Cup success, Van Gaal has implemented his new-found 5-3-2 at Manchester United—perhaps to fix the "broken squad" he feels he has inherited, as per The Guardian. But it should be remembered 5-3-2 is Van Gaal’s make-do-and-mend formation.
Ultimately, Van Gaal will want to return to 4-3-3, the formation that brought him success at clubs like Ajax and Barcelona. To do that, though, he will need an all-round, central midfielder.
Had Strootman not suffered his injury last year, a move to Manchester United would have seemed more than logical. But the midfielder has not returned to fitness yet, and to find his man, Van Gaal might have to look elsewhere.
In the meanwhile, Strootman must work hard to make his comeback and become an even better midfielder. He must wash away the bad taste of missing out on the World Cup, regain confidence and start making progress again.
Who’s to say what will happen if Strootman manages to take back the momentum he had before his injury?
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