Here's the curious thing about Morgan Schneiderlin. When he arrived at St Mary's in 2008 as a callow figure from Strasbourg, he was perceived as a gifted passer of the ball who didn't get stuck in. "Everyone spoke about my lack of aggressivity when I came here and I agree with that totally," admits the Southampton midfielder, quoted in the Southern Daily Echo. "When I first came to England, people were saying you need to improve on your defensive skills, and that's what I did."
The process started under former Saints manager Alan Pardew and Schneiderlin is keen to credit his old boss for hammering home the message. "He was the one saying to me to improve on my defensive skills. He was the one who was telling me 'come on, you need more tackling.' So, thanks go to him and his words every day saying that to me."
The 23-year-old has since flourished under Nigel Adkins - and now Mauricio Pochettino - to the point where he ranks above every other player in the Premier League for both tackles and interceptions in his debut season in the top flight. Although the two are often seen as going hand-in-hand, it is unusual for one man to dominate both disciplines. But Schneiderlin is both a clean tackler and an intelligent midfielder with good anticipation skills.
|Tackles - Premier League 2012/13|
|Mark Noble||West Ham||95|
|Pablo Zabaleta||Man City||93|
|Interceptions - Premier League 2012/13|
|Matthew Lowton||Aston Villa||75|
It was Adkins who had done the anticipating when it came to Schneiderlin's Premier League impact. "I know when we get to the Premier League he will be one of the better players in there," he announced last spring. "Morgan is a very talented player who, like many players here at Southampton, works very hard."
That work rate has been another key element of the Frenchman's success. The statistics show that Schneiderlin covers more ground per game than any other player in the Premier League. For a player who initially caught the eye with his passing ability, it suggests Southampton have an unusual talent on their hands - and the current coach agrees.
"Morgan has shown what a capable player he is and has demonstrated his potential to become one of the Premier League's most complete midfielders," Pochettino told the club's official website. "His work-rate and determination make him an integral part of how we play."
As a protégé of Athletic Bilbao coach Marcelo Bielsa, intense pressing is a feature of Pochettino's tactical approach. "I like football to be played well from the back, to have movement both in and out of possession, to pressure high up the pitch, and to be attacking," explains the Argentine. And for that to succeed, Schneiderlin's midfield partnership with Jack Cork is key.
Although Schneiderlin is seen as the enforcer, Cork often sits as the deeper of the two men while his team-mate hunts in search of the ball - on the press, trying to break-up play high up the field. With both players justifiably regarded as good all-rounders it provides flexibility to the Saints midfield and allows them to adapt easily when in and out of possession.
In this respect, Adkins was unfortunate not to be able to count upon that partnership during Southampton's difficult start to the campaign. With Cork unavailable due to injury for the first 10 games of the season, Schneiderlin was left swamped in the centre and Saints proceeded to lose eight of those games. Since the pair have been reunited in tandem, they have lost just five of the next 20 matches.
Cork's presence, coupled with Pochettino's demands for a more proactive approach, have even combined to see Schneiderlin add a further asset to his game - the knack of popping up with crucial goals. The £1.2million signing netted just three goals in his first 160 games for Southampton but has found the target five times this season, including three times in the last six games.
As his reputation grows, Schneiderlin has been rewarded. A new four-and-a-half year deal is testament to Southampton's determination to keep hold of their midfielder. When that contract ends in June 2017, he will still be just 27 years old. First he was a passing playmaker, then he earned praise as a ball-winning midfielder and now he is showing potential as a goalscorer. Who knows what sort of player Morgan Schneiderlin will have developed into by then...