I’d like to discuss a player who, in my mind, was arguably the biggest victim of Mauricio Pellegrino’s managerial shortcomings: Oriol Romeu.
It may be harsh to single out Romeu in what’s been a disastrous season for the Saints, but after his breakthrough into the starting XI last year when Victor Wanyama left for Spurs, I was expecting the gritty Spanish midfielder to stand out yet again. For him to become a leader in a relatively young squad.
It’s hard to deny his ball-playing qualities that were developed in Barcelona’s famed La Masia, and it’s certainly arguable that he’s one of the most effective defensive midfielders in the Premier League, with his monstrous physicality and crunching tackles.
But this season he’s been a passenger – something that’s really disappointed me. I expected him to be the first to grab others by the scruff of their neck and pull us out of this rut, especially when you look at his captain-like qualities and characteristics. However, those duties have been left to the younger players such as Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, James Ward-Prowse and Jack Stephens.
Romeu’s simply not been good enough at breaking down play and shifting the ball in comparison to last season, and there are a number of games in which he’s gone missing. The same mind that was decisive and calculated last season is suddenly being affected by doubt and hesitancy. Something which I can only guess was installed into his game by Pellegrino, a man who spent his time at Staplewood and St Mary’s in constant fear of the opposition.
Over Pellegrino’s 30 Premier League games in charge of Southampton, we approached the vast majority with a negative and fearful approach to just about every passage of play.
Our slow and lacklustre approach to attacking, which would often just turn into a depressing game of keep-ball, forced Romeu into playing countless sideways and backwards passes, knowing that the manager would blast him for playing a risky ball. For over eight months he’s been told to be in constant fear of the opposition picking up the ball, and in turn it’s harmed the way in which he controls the midfield and views the opposition.
Then on the rare occasion that we did actually take the lead, Pellegrino would encourage us to take up a deeper starting position with the aim of shutting out the opposition. This means that not only is he being forced into defending in deep areas, where he’s less likely to make risky and game-changing tackles/passes, he’s also having to defend on the back foot. Romeu’s best when he’s playing instinctively and on the heels of the opposition. He has the talent to play one step ahead of his opponent, but Pellegrino’s shortcomings have forced him into showing all too much respect.
Rather than imposing himself on the opposition and aiming to simultaneously play and bully them of the park, Romeu’s been forced into retreating, reacting and respecting. Having come through the ranks of La Masia, this mentality just simply isn’t in his DNA.
But in the form of Mark Hughes, I’m holding out hope that Romeu can turn his season around.
In spite of being dropped for the FA Cup Quarter Final against Wigan, I can see Mark Hughes utilising a crunching defensive midfielder like Romeu further down the line. He’s got history of fielding a physically dominant midfield throughout his managerial career, and Romeu certainly fits the billing there.
Hughes hardest task will be encouraging attacking play and positivity throughout the entirety of the squad, so some fans will understandably ask why we would want to field a defensive midfielder.
But I feel like that’s selling Romeu short. Not only does the Spaniard boast an impressive passing range and a fair share of technical quality, but his defensive traits can help the side offensively too. Rewind to last season and I can remember countless interceptions and tackles from Romeu that initiated counter attacks and lifted the side.
Playing effective attacking football isn’t just as simple as fielding attack-minded players. If a defensive player can help our attackers to flourish by recovering the ball in dangerous areas high up the field, then I’m all for it.
As a manager who’s had to manage big-name players at Manchester City, and as a player, who’s won everything in the game at teams such as Manchester United, I’m confident that Sparky is capable of re-igniting Romeu and getting the best out of him.
Hughes has a huge task on his hand – getting the best out of Romeu is just one of a number of smaller tasks that will ultimately keep us from being relegated, or not, but I have the confidence that Oriol will return to form over the coming weeks.