When Marco van Ginkel made only his second Chelsea start at Swindon Town’s County Ground in the English League Cup, he could not be blamed for thinking that a special career with the Blues was about to begin.
The 20-year old midfielder had recently signed from Vitesse Arnhem in a £9 million move, and with comparisons being drawn with Chelsea legend Frank Lampard upon his arrival, van Ginkel looked set to establish himself in Jose Mourinho’s squad.
Into the wilderness
It is customary practice for young players to make their initial strides in preliminary rounds of cup competitions, and it was no different for van Ginkel. In the context of the Dutch national team, the 2013/14 season also offered a platform for the midfielder to impress Oranje head coach Louis van Gaal ahead of the upcoming World Cup in Brazil.
However, van Ginkel’s experience in English football was over before it had even taken shape. The Dutchman suffered a horrific anterior cruciate ligament tear in only the tenth minute of the match against Swindon, leaving him sidelined for nine months. Remarkably, van Ginkel managed to hobble off the pitch, summoning up a moment of courage before he disappeared into the lonely and inexorable wilderness of injury rehabilitation.
Ultimately, the recuperative period afforded the midfielder time to reflect upon his promising start to life in London and plot how he could make an impact upon his return. After all, van Ginkel had made his first start for Chelsea in a Champions League home fixture to Basel, an outing which was the last time he played in European competition until February 2016, a two and a half year period.
Upon his full recovery, van Ginkel was loaned out to AC Milan. With only one Scudetto title victory since 2004, head coach Filippo Inzaghi sought to make immediate impressions, but not without alienating some of his squad.
Fundamentally, van Ginkel’s relationship with Inzaghi was bizarre. Inzaghi’s indecisiveness stunted the Dutchman’s development, leaving him increasingly disillusioned during his stint in Italy. In an interview with Telesport in January 2018, van Ginkel insisted that there “was no logic at all” to Inzaghi’s approach. The rushed nature of Italian’s decision-making also contributed to the deterioration of van Ginkel’s self-confidence, further distancing him from the prospect of playing for Chelsea’s again.
The involvement of AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi added another dimension of peculiarity to van Ginkel’s spell in Italy. Defying Inzaghi’s management, Berlusconi once asked van Ginkel if he was fit to play in an upcoming fixture. When van Ginkel clarified that he was able to play, Berlusconi promised him a start, leaving the Dutchman perplexed over who exactly was in charge at Milan.
An unacceptable 10th placed finish in Serie A during the 2014/15 season was a glaring contrast to the success that van Ginkel’s parent enjoyed, as Mourinho sturdily guided Chelsea to the Premier League title.
In the summer of 2015, Stoke City handed van Ginkel a second chance in England. The initial signs, much like at Chelsea, were positive for the then 22-year old, as he started the first six matches of the season under Mark Hughes. However, with the arrival of Gianelli Imbula from Porto on deadline day of the winter transfer window in 2016, van Ginkel’s position was sacrificed.
Despite Stoke thus cancelling van Ginkel’s loan, the midfielder attracted interest from Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, signing on the 1st February 2016. The move was the vital turning point in van Ginkel’s resurgence, as he sought to rediscover the form that brought him to Chelsea in 2013.
Inzaghi failed to inspire change at AC Milan, and van Ginkel suffered directly from the Italian’s volatility. With a debut goal away to Utrecht in a 2-0 victory for PSV, and another strike the following week against Nijmegen, van Ginkel embarked upon a rich goal-scoring run of eight goals, contributing to the club’s Eredivisie title victory. In a three-man midfield alongside Andrés Guardado and Davy Pröpper, van Ginkel flourished in a midfield role that allowed him to create chances to a greater degree than he had been afforded with Milan and Stoke.
Under the guidance of Phillip Cocu, van Ginkel was not only more expressive in midfield, but provided defensive discipline when necessary, most noticeably in the two legs between PSV and Atletico Madrid in the last 16 stage of the Champions League. The Dutch side held Diego Simeone’s side to two goalless draws, only to be cruelly eliminated on penalties.
It was the 2017/18 season when van Ginkel truly made his name at PSV. Despite remaining contracted to Chelsea, the Dutchman was awarded the captaincy by Cocu. The statements that van Ginkel has made in interviews reinforce the trust placed in him by Cocu. Despite remaining a loanee during his spell in Eindhoven, van Ginkel conducts himself like a veteran of the club. Van Ginkel’s statement, “they do not choose me as a leader for nothing”, illustrates his renewed self-confidence – a welcome departure from the dispirited image he cut for so long preceding his arrival at PSV.
Under van Ginkel’s captaincy, PSV captured the Eredivisie title by a narrow margin of two points in May 2018. The Dutchman thrived alongside Jorrit Hendrix within a system built upon utilising wide spaces, with wingers Hirving Lozano and Steven Bergwijn consequentially bagging 24 goals and 15 assists combined.
Cocu drilled into his players the importance of understanding space and versatility in both defence and attack. Wide areas were exploited not only by Lozano and Bergwijn but also by full-backs Santiago Arias and Joshua Brenet, adding four goals and ten assists between them in the league.
On a personal level, van Ginkel took on new roles that enhanced his appeal. PSV’s captain scored nine penalties out of nine taken, netting a handful of goals by arriving late in the box and pouncing upon loose balls in a style resembling Lampard. However, it was van Ginkel’s mentality that proved to be his strongest trait, especially considering the extent to which his confidence was continually knocked between his spells in the Netherlands.
The spectre returns
His demeanour is one of class and honesty, taking his role seriously and using it as a platform to perform better. Confronting adversity has also been key. Van Ginkel is unique in the way he self-evaluates, maintaining an intimate family circle and listening intently to his loved ones’ constructive advice.
Yet the spectre of his past has once returned to haunt him at the worst possible time. In June 2018, van Ginkel had an operation to reconstruct his anterior cruciate ligament and treat enduring damage to his knee. The surgery meant that van Ginkel will remain sidelined until 2019, at least, leaving PSV without a captain that gave the entire squad an assured leader.
Particularly in the context of Cocu leaving PSV to coach Fenerbahce in Turkey in the same month, it is still in the balance as to whether PSV can be confident in their mission to retain their Eredivisie crown, after working relentlessly to prise it away from rivals Feyenoord, and withstand the everpresent title-chasing Ajax.
What is certain is that Marco van Ginkel shall return stronger than he ever has been after his recuperation from recent knee surgery. His mentality should be unquestionable after suffering such a range of setbacks, and his talent to play in so many positions and systems are also evident. But it is his experience of winning matches and titles that is the redeeming feature of his story, with European pedigree always ensuring that many clubs around Europe will continue to monitor his progress.