While Claude Puel’s ever improving Southampton may be enjoying a decent campaign during his first season in charge in England, his side has adapted quickly to his methods. Currently tenth in the table, behind South Coast rivals Bournemouth on goal-difference, the Saints were expected to play out a season of transition under a manager who had never managed outside France before. But the manner in which the side has performed could come in as a surprise to those who believed that Southampton would take time in recovering from the loss of their prized manager and a key player – Ronald Koeman to Everton and Victor Wanyama to Tottenham Hotspur. And one man in there, who has held the key to the Saints’ performances, is their midfield destroyer Oriol Romeu.
The sale of Wanyama left a gaping void in the heart of the park for Southampton, who had used the Kenyan as one of their most vital players since having acquired him from Celtic. While few expected Wanyama to perform as well as he has, he certainly has proved those wrong who thought that the once upcoming superstar would never make a success. His tally of making a hand full of appearances last season had left many Saints fans nervous about how they gap in the midfield could be pegged.
The Spaniard probably was never meant to be this influential after his journeys from one club to another without bearing any substantial fruit forced many into believing that the former Chelsea man would not enjoy too much of recognition. But the midfielder’s journey from everything to almost nothing, in terms of popularity and following and back to prominence is a unique one. And he deserves a lot of credit for turning things around.
He was hardly a figure to be recognised at Chelsea, where the Spaniard’s usage and match time was limited. And it came after having failed to break into the Barcelona first team, where the La Masia graduate could succeed in making a single appearance under Pep Guardiola. Although, his sale to Chelsea was not a surprise but the manner in which he was utilised at Barcelona brought the best out of him. Alongside the flair players such as Thiago Alcantara and Cristian Tello, Romeu acted as a no-nonsense ball winner in the heart of the park. He often acted as the connecting link between the defence and the attack, circulating the ball forward with simple passes from the heart of the park.
A deal in the region of €5 million saw Romeu seal a move to Chelsea, who had agreed to have a buyback clause appended to his contract. After making a limited amount of appearances for the Blues during his first season, it was revealed that the clause wasn’t a ‘buy-back’ one as such, but meant that Barcelona had the final say in where he would move from Stamford Bridge.
Romeu was part of the Chelsea side that won the Champions League in 2012, much to the surprise of almost all followers of the game. He could only make 16 Premier League appearances that season, but Di Matteo ignited hopes of seeing more action after he admitted that the departures of Yossi Benayoun, Raul Meireles and veteran Michael Essien would allow Romeu to feature on a consistent basis. But, a season-ending knee injury wiped off hopes of featuring that season.
A loan spell at Valencia followed, but another knee injury prevented Romeu from featuring regularly for the Blues, who finished eighth that season. He did end up penning a new deal at Chelsea, but was sent out on loan to the then Bundesliga outfit Stuttgart, who made Romeu a vital cog in Hubb Stevens’ wheel. Romeu did make 27 appearances in a campaign that saw Stuttgart avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth, but by that time, the Catalan had already been forgotten among the minds of football fans, let alone Chelsea fans.
The inevitable sale to Southampton for a fee as low as £5 million proved that injuries had probably knocked the stuffing out of a career that was touted to have loads of potential at one point in time. The presence of Wanyama, James Ward-Prowse and the short-lived one of Morgan Schneiderlin, who left for Manchester United that season, rendered the presence of Romeu as slightly less useful. The exit of the Frenchman allowed Romeu to appear 29 times last season, as Southampton secured a Europa League finish.
But it’s this season that Romeu has risen to the opportunity and proved everyone that he could, finally be, fulfilling a certain amount of potential. Being deployed at the base of the 4-3-3, Romeu has been the player who plays a pivotal part in starting attacks from deeper midfield.
The Spaniard has won an average of 3.5 tackles this season, acting as a perfect ball winner in the midfield – allowing the side a dynamic outlet. He has completed 2.1 dribbles this season, which clearly proves that he isn’t a mere presence but also someone who can carry the ball out of crowded areas. His physicality also allows him to press the opposition, which is something Puel’s sides have been known to do to some effect.
All in all, it’s been a story of renaissance. A one that Southampton have become rather to witnessing and living after having been forced rebuild themselves multiple times over the past five years. Although, they are never capable of challenging at the very top of the league, but it’s due to them that a number of big clubs are as good as they are. As Romeu continues to play a key role in their destinies this season, all he would aspire for is a move to a big club.