It’s easy to forget just how far Southampton have come in recent years; the Saints’ unlikely Champions League bid may have been unsuccessful, but the seventh place finish was the sixth consecutive season that the club had improved their league position.
Just six years ago, Southampton finished 23rd in the Championship and the club entered administration. Had the Liebherr family not have bought the Saints for around £15m, the club could have ceased to exist altogether.
One of the two survivors of that squad is goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, who after the Liebherr takeover decided to cancel his move to then-Premier League side West Ham, and made his 300th appearance for the Saints in the 2-0 loss to Manchester City last weekend, receiving a heroes reception from the 3,000 away fans at the Etihad.
The other survivor did not play in the final game of Southampton’s memorable 14/15 season, and many Saints fans reluctantly accept that he probably won’t play a part in the 15/16 season either. Morgan Schneiderlin had already said goodbye the week before after the final home game of the season, in the lap of honour after the 6-1 drubbing of Aston Villa.
Schneiderlin has been injured since the 2-2 draw against Tottenham, ironically coming against one of his most favoured managers in Mauricio Pochettino, and has likely played his last game on the South Coast. The next time he wears red and white, it will be more than likely the red and white of Spurs’ biggest rivals, Arsenal. Meanwhile, reports suggest Manchester United are interested.
The 25 year old is one of the more under-appreciated midfielders in the league, his reputation often coming from fans who just see his name linked to them in the papers, not from actual understanding of what he does. Some may say he’s just a box-to-box midfielder, because of the high number of tackles and interceptions he makes, but to call him a mere ball-winner would be drastically underestimating him.
Schneiderlin can play that role, but what sets him apart is how well rounded his game is. Physically very strong but also deceptively quick (as the video of his tackle on Danny Welbeck on Youtube will testify), the French international also has an impressive passing range, and provides a Gallic flair alongside the more robust Victor Wanyama. Under Pochettino he’d push forward more, but under Ronald Koeman he has become the conductor of the Southampton midfield, often just sitting in front of centre backs Toby Alderweireld and Jose Fonte.
It has been some journey for the Frenchman. Arriving from Strasbourg in summer 2008 as a skinny young 18 year old, he was thrown into the hustle and bustle of the Championship; like so many of the younger faces in that Saints team, he wasn’t ready to play so many games, and his rumoured £1m transfer fee, paid by a club struggling to pay the bills, meant he had more than his fair share of critics.
It would have been easy for Schneiderlin to give up and go back to France, like Romain Gasmi who also joined from Strasbourg that summer, but he didn’t want to. The club received offers for him, but the Frenchman wanted to prove himself and pay back the Saints. Schneiderlin’s new chairman, Nicola Cortese, made sure he knew he was to stay too, as the Italian banker ripped the transfer offers up in front of him.
It was tough in the Football League for the Frenchman, though. Still only 20, the four seasons he spent in League One and the Championship were a steep learning curve. He went from someone, by his own admission, who struggled to finish games to the player now who regularly tops the distance covered tables.
Perhaps his biggest adaptation was in his style of play. Casual watchers of Schneiderlin will know he’s a very good tackler, yet this is someone who was deemed by his former manager, Alan Pardew, as a player who couldn’t tackle. From a playmaker that struggled to impose himself on games, now he dictates the tempo and drives the team forward.
That has come from Schneiderlin’s own hard work; in the lower leagues, he struggled a bit with injury and suspension. He wasn’t the most important player in the team that won consecutive promotions, but it would have been very difficult to steal the limelight from Adam Lallana or Rickie Lambert.
Having wanted to leave last summer, even tweeting his displeasure of his ‘six years of an amazing journey being destroyed in one hour’, Schneiderlin was understandably frustrated at not being allowed to move, feeling promises had been broken.
But with a new agreement with the club’s hierarchy, after the previous arrangement was made with the departed Cortese, Schneiderlin was allowed to leave a season later. Considering the struggles of his ex-teammates, it was to his benefit.
And after keeping up his side of the bargain, it is now very likely that the midfielder will be finally be allowed his wish to join a team in the Champions League. Arsenal and Manchester United are the obvious favourites, considering his desire to continue in the Premier League, but a move to Juventus or PSG may not be totally out of the question, especially if they agree to the £25m asking price.
It will bring an end to the stay of perhaps one of Southampton’s finest players of the modern era. Considering the transformation that Schneiderlin has gone under in his seven years at Saints, it almost feels like the fans will be saying goodbye to one of their own. He may not have come from the muddy pitches of Hampshire, but the intense pride Southampton fans will have felt when he made his World Cup debut for France in the Maracana will have been priceless.
Merci beaucoup, Morgan, et bonne chance, wherever you may be.