It has been a long way from the depths of League One for Morgan Schneiderlin, a Southampton player since 2008 who has been with the Saints every step of their journey from the third tier back to the Premier League.
This year, they have lost their manager and have played some exciting football as they battle with relegation back to the Football League. At the heart beat of it all has been the 23 year old centre-midfielder, who has remained rather unheralded.
Born in the commune of Zellwiller in the region of Alsace, located in the north-east of France, he joined local side RC Strasbourg as an eight year old where he spent a decade in the youth-set up before making his debut against FC Gueugnon in a Ligue 2 fixture. He only made 2 appearances in that season as Strasbourg earned promotion and only 3 more appearances followed in the following season, but Southampton scouts saw enough to lure the midfielder across the channel to St. Mary’s.
£1.2 million in fact, was the fee Southampton were forced to fork out for the then 18 year old talent, ahead of an offer from neighbours Portsmouth and rumoured interest from Manchester United and Chelsea. The size of the fee considering he only had 5 professional games under his belt and identity of teams interested in his services were suggestive of his burgeoning ability as he developed into his 20s.
It was Alan Pardew, who is now making a habit of unearthing young French talent at Newcastle, who was in charge of Southampton when Schneiderlin arrived, though after being relegated in 2009, he was replaced by Nigel Adkins. After gaining his place in the first team the season before, he was immediately given a permanent role by Adkins as he made 37 appearances in League One before making a further 27 in their promotion year.
Becoming an integral part of Adkins’s promising squad, the Frenchman signed a new four year deal in August 2011, just before embarking on a successful campaign in which the Saints gained promotion back to the top tier after a 7 year absence. Schneiderlin played 42 times as the club finished runners-up in the Championship.
Since starting against Manchester City on the opening day of the season, the midfielder has missed just one of Southampton’s 30 games so far, providing the back-bone to a side that has confounded expectation to lie four points clear of the relegation zone with eight games remaining. His previous boss Adkins was removed in January in controversial circumstances but Schneiderlin has remained in the plans of his successor, Mauricio Pochettino.
It is his performances, in which he has registered 5 goals, that have seen mentions of a possible call-up to the recent French national team. Though that has come to early for him, it is not to take away from a player who has impressed beyond expectation in his debut year at the top.
Whilst Didier Deschamps is yet to pick Schneiderlin, he is very much on the radar of the national team having represented France at every youth level up to the under-21s. With Paul Pogba, Maxime Gonalons, Jeremy Toulalan and Yohann Cabaye all available to Deschamps, France are very strong in the central-midfield area, but such has been the standard of the 23 year old’s performances this year that it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was mentioned in such esteemed company.
Style, strengths and weaknesses
Schneiderlin is mostly deployed as a centre-midfielder alongside Jack Cork, providing a defensive shield to a back-four that has improved over the course of the season. In doing so, the Frenchman has made more tackles than any other player in the Premier League with 121, 20 more than Steve Sidwell in second-place on the list. He also has the most interceptions, 112 indicative of a spectacular reading of the game far in advance of his age.
His enthusiastic tackling, he has won 58% of his challenges in total and averages 4.1 tackles per game, is vital to Pochettino’s philosophy of intense pressing in midfield and moving the ball quickly after winning it back. His high tackle rate also inevitably attracts a lot of fouls, averaging 1.8 per game, though as suggested by just 7 yellow cards, he has managed to keep his play clean.
Standing at just under 6 ft, Schneiderlin isn’t particularly big physically, but his tenacity and willingness to battle away like a bull-terrier in midfield is vital to Pochettino’s Bielsa-like values of high-press and high energy off the ball. His determination is summed up by his success rate in aerial challenges, winning 42 out of 82 despite not being particularly big, it is this will to win, hunger and drive that casts the French youngster as one of the main players in Southampton’s survival hopes.
His passing accuracy also fits perfectly into the system, registering the highest total at the club with 1470 with a success percentage of 84.5%, bettered only by Steven Davis at the newly promoted club. As well as passing from deep, the Frenchman can also be a threat with the ball in attacking areas, creating 25 chances in total this season.
A stringent 4-4-2 was used under Adkins, utilising Schneiderlin’s ability to move the ball forward quickly as they hit on the counter attack. His willingness to drive into the opponent’s half has been a huge advantage, registering 852 of his passes in the attacking half, as well as scoring 5 goals, more than his previous four years at the club, and something the player himself puts down to fitness;
“Fitness is something I have worked on a lot. When I was in League One I could not finish a game without blowing or after 60 minutes feeling tired on the pitch, so I’ve tried to make sure I eat the right things and look after my body better. When I was 18 I thought if I ate a pizza and a lot of takeaways at nights it wouldn’t affect you but it did. Now I eat only healthy French food.
It has helped me score goals – before, I couldn’t make those forward runs because I wasn’t fit enough to get back in position.”
His leadership skills have also been a huge asset at the heart of Southampton’s midfield, being trusted with the captaincy as he led the Saints back from 2 goals down to draw at Chelsea.
His performances have been key in the fight for survival down on the south coast and he will hope his future, after signing another new deal in February which expanded his contract to 2017, will lie in the Premier League. He certainly deserves it.