“If you’d told me at the beginning of the season that we’d be in second place in the Premier League, I would have told you that was impossible,” Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin told FIFA.com with a smile.
And yet, the high-flying Saints will welcome English champions Manchester City to St. Mary’s Stadium on Sunday with a two-point lead over their third-placed opponents, just two seasons after regaining promotion to the English top flight, and seven years after being relegated.
For Schneiderlin, who experienced some of those difficult days in the lower leagues, and who came close to quitting the club last summer, the situation is particularly pleasing. After arriving in 2008 from Strasbourg, the Frenchman acquired a taste for the rough and tumble of English football, impressing in the second and third tiers and enjoying the thrills of promotion.
He freely admits to experiencing fleeting moments of doubt, but the midfielder, who arrived with a reputation for technical ability, has been able to adapt his style to the breakneck pace of the English game. “When I was in France, I only played when I had the ball and I let my team-mates regain possession. But in England, I quickly understood that I couldn’t keep doing that – I was also expected to win the ball back.”
Looking back, the Alsace native has no regrets about leaving his homeland at the age of 19, even if the path he selected proved to be long and winding. “Playing for a big club is nice, but when you’re young the key is just to play, and to find a team that allows you to do so. Sure, at major clubs you train with great players every day, but personally speaking, time on the pitch is the most important thing,” he said.
Called up regularly for France at various youth levels prior to his departure for the south coast of England, Schneiderlin saw his patience and dedication rewarded in the run-up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, when Didier Deschamps included him in his final 23-man squad. “I was always confident of being picked. In the end, it happened when I least expected it,” he explained.
Following his return from South America and Southampton’s decision to allow certain key players to move on to new pastures, Schneiderlin also began to have itchy feet, going as far as to enter into open conflict with club officials about his potential departure.
“When I play for France, I rub shoulders with players who represent Real Madrid and other big-name clubs, and so it goes without saying that I would also like to experience the UEFA Champions League and suchlike. I’m 25 right now and I still haven’t played in it.
“Appearing at the World Cup made me realise that I still had a desire to play at the highest level, that it was essential for my career and my international prospects. It was important to me – I think that now everyone can understand why I had that reaction and why I wanted to leave.”
During the first four matches, I felt like something was happening.
But the rejuvenated southern outfit were in no mood to let go of their creative fulcrum, regarded as one of the most proficient midfielders in the Premier League and much admired by the St. Mary's faithful. “Lots of people told me that if I left, it would be the straw that broke the camel’s back, especially as Calum Chambers’ transfer had gone down very badly indeed.
"That was when the club realised that it had to stop, because the fans were already quite angry. One player doesn’t make a team, but by not letting me leave, the club was sending out a strong signal that it was still in control,” he continued.
While the flow of big names out of Southampton was stemmed, some astute recruiting moves, starting with Ronald Koeman's arrival to succeeded Mauricio Pochettino as manager, saw the first steps of a new era begin.
“Everyone is aware of what a great player he was,” stated Schneiderlin. “He knows what the players expect of him, and bases all of his training sessions on ball possession and skills exercises. He gives us a lot of freedom to express ourselves on the pitch and is always willing to listen.”
As well as novel methods and ideas, the legendary Dutchman was not slow to bring in a host of new faces. “He signed a few players that he crossed paths with in the Netherlands, like Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle. Most importantly, the club has managed to attract good guys, who work hard and who have settled in without showing off. They also got Sadio Mane, a brilliant Senegalese player, as well as Toby Alderweireld from Atletico Madrid and Ryan Bertrand – all potential stars in the making,” noted the French international.
Aside from the current table, the irrefutable proof of Saints’ success is their stable defence, which is the Premier League’s best by a considerable margin, having conceded just six goals so far this season.“During the first four matches, I felt like something was happening,” said Schneiderlin.
“The new recruits hit the ground running and we made quick progress. We’re now so solid that when I look back, I feel like we deserve to be sitting second. Now the risk is that we get too big for our boots. But if we keep working with the same mindset, we might well create a huge surprise,” he concluded.