Since Spain won Euro 2008 and subsequently dominated world football for six or so years, there has been an increased demand for nimble-footed, technically gifted and slight-of-framed attacking midfielders in the game.
Midfield, which was once a place where some of the biggest and hardest players on the pitch went to battle, has become a stage upon which a defence splitting pass is far more valued than a cynically professional foul, saving one’s team from certain concession.
It has become the norm to see technically gifted players occupying deep roles. Andrea Pirlo almost restructured what it meant to be a playmaker in his late rise to becoming the hipsters’ favourite player since his Euro 2012 panenka, while Cesc Fabregas and Luca Modric regularly occupy deep, sometimes anchoring positions in the midfield.
The final of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa provided this generation with one of its most iconic football photos.
Though not quite as historic as the image of Diego Maradona punching the ball beyond a hapless Peter Shilton, Nigel de Jong’s chest-high kick on Xabi Alonso is something that, once you have seen it, you can never forget.
The wincing look on Alonso’s face as De Jong’s studs implant into his chest almost make you feel the pain yourself.
Despite being a nation renowned for ‘total football’ and elegant, attack-minded players, the Netherlands side of 2010 was a nasty bunch. A group of hard bastards exemplified by their midfield chiefs De Jong and Mark van Bommel.
Three months prior to that challenge, an 18-year-old Marten de Roon made his Eredivisie debut with Sparta Rotterdam, having cut his teeth there as a youth player, as well as previously learning his trade at Feyenoord.
Making just three first-team appearances for Sparta in the 2009/10 season, De Roon would have just one more season there before Heerenveen came knocking and signed the promising youngster on a free transfer in 2012, and it was at The Super Frisians where De Roon began to mature and really find his feet.
He joined as a promising midfielder, and left three years later as club captain.
Atalanta managed to bring De Roon to Bergamo for a mere €1 million; and despite having just one season at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, this fee has proven to be a bargain.
Frosinone were the visitors for his first game at his new home, and it was clear from before kick off that the fans had taken to him already, despite just 90 minutes of competitive action in a 1-0 defeat to Inter the week prior.
De Roon’s name was greeted with rapturous cheers from the Curva Pisani as the teams were read out before the game, and the subsequent hour and a half showed exactly why.
The Canarini were new to the Italian top flight, and could have proven to be a potential banana skin for Edy Reja’s side. De Roon, along with Jasmin Kurtic and Alberto Grassi in the middle of the park, never allowed this to be a possibility.
They set the tempo from the off. Hard-hitting tackles and forward thinking passes from the first to last minute helped Atalanta to a comfortable first win of the season.
This performance proved to be the epitome of his Orobici career. The fans already loved him, and this love would only grow as the season progressed.
His tireless and relentless style of play earned him the nickname ‘The Bulldog of Bergamo‘, and when he went in to a tackle, he rarely came out without the ball. His reluctancy to dive in has proven successful. Persistence against opposing attacks saw him make 122 tackles in Serie A last season, which is more than any other player achieved.
De Roon told YouTube channel 90/24 Sports last year:
I can be a bit of a dick on the pitch. On the pitch, something clicks, I become a different person.
Physically imposing and never one to shy away from a 50/50 challenge, De Roon – having completed a €15 million move to newly promoted Middlesbrough – is all set to brush aside the typical Premier League clichés thrown at unknown oversees players.
Wind and rain isn’t going to put him off his game, and this particular Dutchman is more than capable of cutting it in England’s northeast, Stoke, or anywhere else on the British Isles for that matter.
I enjoy standing on someone’s toe every now and again. Or whispering in someone’s ear if they do something wrong or miss a chance. Sometimes I go up against talented players, so I’ve got to throw them off their game a bit.
Far from being a reckless thug, De Roon, off the field, is a humble, friendly and by all means a well-intended guy. When he plays, he simply enjoys the physical aspect of the game, and is absolutely made for English football and will inevitably have the Boro faithful purring over his performances and admiring his attitude before long.
I would never intentionally injure someone or go in with two feet or tackle dirty. I play tough but fair. I keep within the rules of the game.
More than a mindless runner and ball-winner, De Roon is intelligent and can read the flow of a game from his position in front of the defence. His 132 interceptions last season was the second highest tally of anyone in Italy’s top flight.
With the ball at his feet, the 25-year-old is not one to lump it long. His intelligence exceeds defensive duties and has an eye for a pass.
Under pressure, he is composed and able to pick a quick and effective short pass, while when given more time, he has the ability and vision to spot and execute a 40-yard cross-field ball.
What’s more, he became known at Atalanta for his desire to kick-start counterattacking moves by driving forward into space with the ball himself.
All the above helped him win the hearts of Atalanta supporters, so much so that many saw him as the successor to the retired Gianpaolo Bellini – a one club man and captain who served Atalanta for the entirety of his 18-year career – a belief that was intensified after De Roon was crowned player of the season for the 2015/16 campaign.
So beloved was De Roon in Bergamo, that more than a few compared him with club legend Glenn Stromberg – a former Swedish international that spent eight years with La Dea after signing from Benfica in 1984 – due to their shared playing positions and style.
Unfortunately for the Bergamaschi, De Roon’s time in Lombardy was short-lived, and as he moves on to a new chapter in the Premier League, it is difficult to see anything other than success for him in the coming years.
AC Milan and Napoli both pursued the tireless midfielder, and, should he impress in England next season, a big move could yet be on the cards.
Coming into the 2016/17 campaign as a relative unknown, it would not be at all surprising for the Dutchman to become one of the signings of the season.
Milan and Napoli wanted De Roon for a reason, and it won’t be long before this bulldog has won the hearts of everybody on Teeside.