Don't forget the middle men: how Southampton's midfield is winning games this season

The Saints are keeping it tight defensively and blasting their way to victory at the other end, but Michael Cox saves some love for Ronald Koeman's hard-working engine room...

When analysing the reasons for Southampton’s surprise success so far this season, a few obvious features stand out.

There’s the appointment of a new manager, the signing of some extremely talented attackers, and the best defensive record in the Premier League. These are all extremely important factors, but this ignores arguably the most crucial part of Ronald Koeman’s side.

The midfield zone hasn’t received anywhere near enough praise, perhaps because it’s been relatively uneventful. For example, there have been no multimillion pound new arrivals, and while the goals-against column and 8-0 thrashing of Sunderland indicate that Saints are doing very nicely at both ends, it’s tougher to find statistics to outline the excellence of Southampton’s midfield.

Morgan's way

The Saints' midfield trio aren’t household names, but they’ve been performing their jobs particularly effectively this season. In a team boasting impressive cohesion across the pitch, especially in terms of ball-winning, there’s a particular sense of familiarity in midfield.

Schneiderlin

  • Full name Morgan Schneiderlin
  • Born 8 Nov 1989, Obernai, France
  • Teams Strasbourg, Southampton: total 244 games, 13 goals 
  • International France U16, U17, U18, U19, U20, U21 & senior: total 37 caps, 4 goals

It could have been completely different, of course. Morgan Schneiderlin did his best to engineer a move away from St Mary’s in the summer, with the Frenchman supposedly keen to follow Mauricio Pochettino to White Hart Lane. Schneiderlin ended up staying, and that decision might be as crucial as any other signing Southampton made in the summer. Had the 24-year-old left, Saints would have lost the entire spine of the side: Dejan Lovren, Schneiderlin, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert.

Schneiderlin remaining ensured Southampton still felt like Southampton. It was a symbolic factor, but also a technical one – in a team based around energetic midfield harrying, Schneiderlin is the best ball-winner. In fact, he might be the best ball-winner in the Premier League.

Playing the holding position in a pressing team is demanding both physically and tactically. When a team defends very deep, the task is clear – you scrap in front of the defence and ensure no one finds room to shoot from between the lines. When much higher up the pitch, however, there are more decisions to make about who to track, and more running to get through. Schneiderlin seems to understand the role instinctively.

On one hand, he’s very effective at protecting the defence. On the other, he’s often found towards the touchlines, putting in tough tackles and harrying opponents relentlessly. His performance in Southampton’s 8-0 thrashing of Sunderland was particularly notable – he made 4 successful tackles, and also conceded 3 fouls. He’s a physical player, and is often penalised by referees, but he’s excellent at breaking up play.

Steve-of-all-trades (and Jack)

Cork

  • Full name Jack Frank Porteous Cork
  • Born 25 Jun 1989, Carshalton, London
  • Teams Chelsea, Bournemouth (loan), Scunthorpe (loan), Southampton (loan), Watford (loan), Coventry (loan), Burnley (loan), Southampton: total 287 games, 10 goals
  • International England U16, U17, U18, U19, U20, U21 & Great Britain: total 43 caps, 0 goals

Schneiderlin’s role as an energetic destroyer means it’s crucial other midfielders have good positional discipline. That’s the crucial thing about this Southampton side – the three midfielders are happy to cover for each other, with and without the ball.

For example, when Schneiderlin is out towards the flanks winning possession, the defence is never left exposed. Jack Cork, or sometimes Steven Davis, will drop into that position and keep the side compact.

That, arguably, should be expected. But what’s more interesting is the midfield rotation when Southampton have possession. This was particularly useful in the 1-0 victory over Stoke last Saturday, because Mark Hughes instructed his players to man-mark in midfield.

More basic sides would have struggled to overcome this press, with Schneiderlin remaining deep and his two midfield colleagues receiving the ball with their back to goal, under heavy pressure, and playing simple return balls. Southampton, however, pivoted around the pressure.

Schneiderlin isn’t particularly inventive on the ball, but he’s capable of making direct forward darts – and with Cork or Davis dropping back, it flipped Stoke’s midfield out of shape. Charlie Adam, in particular, couldn’t cope with the constant movement. Look at the passing chalkboards of Cork and Davis, and it’s hard to ascertain who was playing on which side – because they rotated so often.

Davis

  • Full name Steven Davis
  • Born 1 Jan 1985, Ballymena, N Ireland
  • Teams Aston Villa, Fulham, Rangers (loan), Rangers, Southampton: total 420 games, 37 goals
  • International Northern Ireland U15, U16, U17, U19, U21, U23 & senior: total 100 caps, 6 goals

Davis and Cork haven’t received significant plaudits this season, but both go about their business in an admirably unfussy manner. Cork has been performing consistently for two years now, impressing with the basics: he’s constantly on the move to receive the ball in space, and distributes it neatly out wide.

Davis, something of a jack-of-all-trades, a hard-working midfielder, has become more attacking in specific games this season – in the League Cup victory over Arsenal, for example, he was continually driving forward from midfield. He lacks a consistent end product, often panicking inside the box, but that drive has characterised Southampton’s attacking play this season.

Tougher challenges are to come, and it remains to be seen how Southampton will cope against a top-class deep-lying playmaker, for example.

But this midfield is capable of dominating matches against good Premier League sides, and while statistics point to brilliance at both ends, the men in the middle deserve their share of the credit too.

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