The unsung ball-winner stopping the Premier League in its tracks

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?'s Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE – to run the rule over one of the Premier League's most impressive midfield newcomers...

Stats Zone measures two forms of ball-winning: Tackling and intercepting. Tackling involves directly dispossessing an opponent, intercepting is about cutting out a pass before it reaches an opponent.

Naturally, defensive-minded players tend to occupy the top slops on both leaderboards, with holding midfielders featuring prominently. Some players specialise in one area or the other – West Ham’s Mohamed Diame completes on average 3.9 tackles per game, compared to just 1.2 interceptions, whereas Fulham’s Chris Baird is the opposite, with only 1.4 tackles per game, but 3.2 interceptions. A team’s overall style and strategy, as well as the qualities and preferences of the individual, can impact the figures.

It’s extremely rare for a single player to be the league leader in both categories, but that’s the case this season. Southampton’s defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin is naturally a combative player, but since the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino his ball-winning statistics have risen considerably, in accordance with the Argentine’s insistence on heavy pressing, and winning possession quickly and proactively. The Frenchman’s record is 4.2 tackles and 3.8 interceptions on average per game.

Last week’s 2-1 defeat to Queens Park Rangers was a huge blow to Southampton’s chances of survival – not least because they appear to have let Harry Redknapp’s side back into it – but it was also a great demonstration of Schneiderlin’s talents. He made an astonishing 10 interceptions, and also managed to complete eight out of his nine attempted tackles. Both figures are amazingly high, while such an impressive tackle completion rate shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Clearly, that was extreme – even for Schneiderlin. Consider the impressive 3-1 victory over Manchester City a month ago, and the numbers are less unusual – just three tackles (two successful) and five interceptions.

However, it’s not solely about the frequency of the tackles and interceptions, it’s also about their position. Schneiderlin is fielded as Southampton’s deepest midfielder, generally alongside Jack Cork, who distributes the ball calmly to either flank, and Gaston Ramirez in the No.10 position. Positional discipline is important for Schneiderlin, but the bravery of his positioning underlines how he’s a perfect holding midfielder for a coach demanding heavy pressing.

Under Nigel Adkins, Schneiderlin player deeper. In the last Premier League game before Adkins’ shock dismissal, almost all Schneiderlin’s defensive work was close to his own penalty area, rather than either side of the halfway line. The type of match – away at Chelsea – certainly contributed, but in general he was playing a much more reactive role.

Clearly, pressing heavily requires great stamina, and another league-leading statistic was revealed earlier this month – Schneiderlin runs seven miles per game, more than any other Premier League player. In a week where the dangers of eating processed meat were revealed in a new survey, Schneiderlin is inadvertently encouraging people to eat healthily, putting his energy down to an improved diet.

“Fitness is something I have worked on a lot,” he says. “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.”

Lionel Messi famously improved his eating after a couple of years at Barcelona, having been brought up on an Argentine diet featuring too much red meat, and while Schneiderlin isn’t quite capable of the Barcelona forward’s goalscoring, he claims his nutritional adjustment has benefited his attacking, too. “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.” He’s registered four goals this season already, having managed just three in 163 previous appearances – when playing in lower divisions.

In all, Schneiderlin has probably been Southampton’s most consistent player in their first year back in the Premier League. It’s no wonder the club were keen to tie him down until 2017, with an improved contract agreed last month. They’ll hope it’s another four years of playing in the Premier League – but if the worst happens in May, Schneiderlin’s statistics will surely ensure his own presence in England’s top division next season.

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