On July 29th 2014, Southampton midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin publicly posted a tweet, which read “6 years of an amazing journey #saintsfc DESTROYED in 1 hour !!”. This almost forgotten outburst was in response to Southampton denying Schneiderlin the chance to follow former manager Mauricio Pochettino to Tottenham Hotspur after their mass summer exodus. Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren had all left for Liverpool, and two of their brightest prospects, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers, had also left the club for hefty fees.
There was clearly a rebuilding project to be undertaken by new manager Ronald Koeman, and Schneiderlin staying at the club was seen as integral to the regeneration of the team. He was persuaded to stay and play for the Saints for the 2014-15 season, and it has proved to be their most vital piece of the business they conducted all summer.
Southampton started the season as many people’s relegation candidates. This was always unlikely, despite the loss of players, but their clever signings and intelligent appointment of Ronald Koeman as manager never really made this a creditable claim. However, with Schneiderlin in the team, they are challenging for Europe, flying high in third place in the Premier League rather than sitting in mid-table.
Schneiderlin’s influence over the Southampton midfield is clear to see when observing their performances this season. When attacking, Schneiderlin finds pockets of space, keeping the ball moving from a slightly deeper position, drawing defenders out, and allowing more space for the creative players ahead of him such as Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane. When Southampton defend, Schneiderlin is excellent in cutting out opposition attacks at an early stage, with an exceptional tackling ability and a crucial ability to read the game that allows the French midfielder to intercept passes and regain the ball for his team.
These abilities that Schneiderlin possesses, which are complemented by an almost perfect central midfield partner in Victor Wanyama, make Southampton look a much better and more balanced team. In the FA Cup fourth round defeat to Crystal Palace, where both players were missing, Southampton were destroyed by Palace’s fast counter attacking, which could have been prevented had the French midfielder been on the pitch to cut them out at an early stage.
This effect on the team is heavily reflected in their results throughout the season. Southampton’s dip in form in early December followed the injury he picked up in the first half against Manchester City, leading to a four game losing run. This is no coincidence, without the protection given by Schneiderlin, Southampton were more open at the back, as well as being less able to score, as this table below shows:
Southampton’s league form with Schneiderlin
P 15 W 10 D 3 L 2 F 29 A 8 Pts 33
Southampton’s league from without Schneiderlin
P 7 W 3 D 0 L 4 F 8 A 8 Pts 9
The table clearly shows that Southampton lose more, and win less, when Schneiderlin is missing. Taking the home defeat as a game missed due to his early removal, Southampton have lost four times without Schneiderlin, whereas they have lost just twice with him on the pitch, in over double the amount of matches. This is as a result of the protection that the defence lose from Schneiderlin’s absence.
Southampton gain 2.2 points per game when Schneiderlin on the pitch, which is form that would allow a title challenge, and certain qualification for the Champions League. Without him, however, that figure drops to just 1.29 points per game, not relegation form, but that would leave Southampton languishing in mid-table. Having Schneiderlin in the team allows Southampton to push on from an average side to one that could potentially compete in the Champions League.
The evidence of Schneiderlin’s importance is supported further by comparing the amount Southampton both score and concede from when he is playing and when he is absent. In the 15 full games Schneiderlin has competed in, the Saints have conceded just 8 goals, at a rate of 0.53 per game. The next best in the league is Chelsea, who have conceded 0.86 goals per game. Without Schneiderlin, Southampton have conceded 1.14 goals per game. This shows that the protection offered by Schneiderlin turns Southampton into not only a better defensive team, but by far the best in the league.
Schneiderlin’s presence also makes a marked difference in Southampton’s strike rate. They have scored 1.93 goals per game with him, up from a meagre 1.14 without their star midfielder. This supports the idea that by sitting deeper and drawing opposition midfielders out, he creates more space for creative players such as Dusan Tadic to exploit, contributing to Southampton’s impressive goal tally. Other players who can fill in Schneiderlin’s position such as Jack Cork and Steven Davis just don’t have the positional awareness or passing accuracy to have this effect on opponents.
In conclusion, Schneiderlin is the player that makes Southampton tick. He may not be the flashiest, or the one that gets the most credit, but his intelligent reading of the game and impressive tackling abilities markedly shore up Southampton’s defence, whilst his ability to pick up pockets of space in deeper positions allow more space for Southampton’s attacking players. His football brain contributes to all aspects of Southampton’s team, and is the driving force behind their battle for European places. Whether he remains at Southampton after the end of the season is another matter, with Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool all rumoured to be sniffing around. For now, though, he is playing for Southampton and quietly pushing them towards the Champions League, and should they make it, he might just stick around for a few years.