On August 15, 2015, Southampton were trailing Everton by two goals to nil as the referee put an end to the first 45 minutes. Roberto Martinez’s team had been sharp, alert and clinical, but Ronald Koeman’s boys were lacklustre, lazy-legged, and desperately needing change. Koeman turned to his bench and handed a Southampton debut to one of football’s forgotten men: Oriol Romeu.
Within minutes, the Spaniard took charge of the midfield and clattered James McCarthy with what has now become a trademark feature of his game – a crunching tackle with a customary yellow card too.
For the first time in the 2015/16 season there was finally a showing of passion and fight on the field, and despite being unable to change the result, Romeu had started his quest to develop as a footballer and finally find a club that he can call home. A year down the line, he has most certainly achieved that.
The growth in Oriol Romeu at Southampton FC has been staggering. When he arrived in the summer of 2015 for a £5m fee, the fans appeared to be in agreement. He was ready to prove a point, physically dominant over the opposition and gifted on the ball. At the same time, he was a raw talent and clearly lacking experience. He possessed the ability to execute those vital tackles and passes, but would often mistime and misplace them. He was rusty, but perhaps that’s no surprise when you’re a victim of the Chelsea loan system.
Like a professional, he kept his head down and continued to strive for improvement; waiting for the chances to come his way. And when they did, he made sure to make the most of them, often leaving onlookers at St Mary’s desperate to see more. Koeman, on the other hand had different ideas, with the most common position for Romeu following a top performance, being the bench.
There is no denying that there were obvious faults in Romeu’s play – the most obvious being his ill-disciplined style and wayward positioning – but his inability to gain a starting place was cruel. Fans would argue against Koeman’s team selection, saying the Dutchman showed an unfair favouritism toward Victor Wanyama. Maybe, but not a whisper was made to his agent or the media. Romeu just tried and tried again.
As an outsider looking in, it seemed to me that Romeu was quite simply still grateful for the opportunity handed to him by Southampton. The trust from the club and the morale of our dressing room appears to have allowed Romeu to call our club home, and for that, he was prepared to fight for a starting spot.
Then along came Claude Puel this summer and with him, the best of Oriol Romeu.
Puel came to Southampton with a clear philosophy and set of ideas in his mind; he knew exactly what he wanted and just what type of players he needed to carry it out. Luckily for Romeu, the formation in focus is the 4-4-2 diamond and this presented him the opportunity to make the defensive midfield position his own.
The first few fixtures were tough; not only for Romeu but for the whole team. Each player not only had to familiarise themselves with their new role, but they also had to learn about the roles of their teammates and what that meant for them during an in-game situation.
A slow start for all players in the Southampton side was inevitable – anything else would have been a miracle at work – but few have taken to their new role as smoothly as Romeu.
The cup game against Crystal Palace aside – where he used a heavily rotated side – Romeu has started every competitive game under Puel so far – the perfect testament to the Spaniard’s clear improvement. But just what role is Romeu playing exactly?
Over the past six games that Romeu has started in, we’ve truly been able to see just what Puel is demanding from the man at the base of the midfield diamond. During build up play, Romeu has been operating as an auxiliary centre back. This involves Romeu often dropping in between the centre backs, therefore giving Van Dijk and Fonte the freedom to spread wider, and the fullbacks freedom to push higher up the field. This positioning from Romeu allows for the composed possession-based play that has gifted us so many passing options in recent fixtures.
He’s executed this role with perfection too, showing that he has the discipline to remain in position and the technique to control the tempo of the game. In addition to this, he’s also been making so many of these passes with his first or second touch of the ball – only a player with an immense understanding of his teammates can carry out such a difficult task.
What makes this all the more impressive however, is that throughout Romeu’s career, he has so often played with a partner alongside him in the midfield. It takes an abundance of intelligence and ability to switch from a midfield role that you’ve become so accustomed to – a double pivot – into a lone defensive midfielder.
Romeu serves as the first passing option for the CB’s, he’s responsible for breaking up opposition attacks, he so often initiates our counter’s and is effective in recycling play – handing out such key tasks to one single player shows just how much faith and trust Claude Puel has placed in Romeu.
With the combination of Romeu’s standout attitude and Puel’s attention to detail, Southampton are making remarkable progress to ensure that the rough diamond that joined our club in the summer of 2015, will soon be the finished product. One thing though. This diamond isn’t for sale.