Southampton have a knack for picking up players who have fallen down the pecking order at their respective clubs letting them play, and developing them into a new player. Ryan Bertrand, Toby Alderweireld, Manolo Gabbiadini, and Juventus’ Mario Lemina being the most recent to fit into that category – but of them all, Oriol Romeu stands out with great significance.
The La Masia graduate admitted defeat in his attempt at breaking into the first-team with Barcelona at just 19, signing for Chelsea in a £4m deal back in 2011. Romeu wasn’t gifted the opportunity he had hoped for in London, leaving Stamford Bridge two loans and just 22 appearances later.
Enter Southampton Football Club. The Saints stumped up £6m for the then 23-year-old, with a hefty element of risk attached to the transfer.
Romeu’s first campaign at St Mary’s was one of mixed emotions, with midfield destroyer Victor Wanyama still on the books; game time was not going to be guaranteed. However, he featured 35 times throughout the course of the season, more than he had in any campaign prior, and the inner controller-cum-destroyer started to come out of his shell.
Later that year, with Romeu’s eventual predecessor making a £11m switch to Tottenham Hotspur, it was his time to cement a place in Saints’ starting line-up. And boy did he make the most of it; the former-Barça man took the chance with both hands under new manager Claude Puel, and transformed himself into the team’s most vital cog.
Puel’s initial formation, a 4-4-2 diamond, was incredibly beneficial for Romeu, he had it all to himself – the single-man pivot. He commanded the two advanced central-midfielders to his left and right and dropped into defence now and again to shore up the back line.
When the full-backs pushed on, Romeu would cover, slotting into the defence as an auxiliary centre-back when the ball was in a deeper area of the pitch. If the ball was lost, he would move back into the space in front of the defenders to provide extra protection.
46 games, appreciation and acknowledgement from the Southampton fans, and a comparison to N’Golo Kanté – 2016/17 was more than a success.
“Kante brings the same qualities as Oriol for us because he’s very consistent and in every game he gives good performances,” said then manager Claude Puel. Of course it was an exaggeration – but the similarities were there, and evident for all to see.
Romeu is a tough tackler, boasts impressive ball retention and doesn’t have a half-bad eye for a pass – technical qualities that could be perceived as a breath of fresh air following Wanyama’s departure.
The Spaniard made 2094 passes, 100 accurate through balls, 117 tackles, 89 blocks, 304 recoveries and won 253 duels. Sure, physicality shines through in stats – but his tactical intelligence is not to be underestimated.
However, one of Romeu’s undervalued and perhaps lesser-known attributes is his ability to adapt tactically to diverse systems. For example, under Puel last season, the team sifted through a range of setups: the initial 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-3, and 4-2-3-1.
Romeu featured effectively in each of them. In the 4-3-3, he took up the role in between the two outer central-midfielders and made himself the nucleus of the team. In the 4-2-3-1, which is still in use under new boss Mauricio Pellegrino, he sits in the double pivot with a box-to-box midfielder such as Mario Lemina or Steven Davis.
When a new system comes about, Romeu is one of the best at adjusting his game to suit its, and his manager’s demands. This was particularly evident in the first few months of Puel’s reign at Southampton. His composure and vision came on leaps and bounds, so much so that opposition players quite clearly struggled to read his passing intention.
When it looks as if he is set to play a through ball, he brings the ball forward – and vice versa. Disguised movements are vital to his game.
His La Masia upbringing undoubtedly nurtured him into the player he is today, with intelligent positioning, and potent use of his physical stature when in possession. Receiving the ball on the turn is also one of his better components. His ability to change direction efficiently using his body position enables him to evade the opposition’s press and provides his team time on the ball.
The defensive midfielder has epitomised, in just a season, exactly what Southampton’s transfer strategy and ethos represents. Saints aim to revitalise players who have lost their way at top clubs. Players that have shown the potential to succeed from the very beginning, but perhaps moved on to bigger things too soon in their careers.
Romeu was another experiment that paid off for Southampton, this time on a much larger scale. The 25-year-old is now regarded as one of the best holding midfielders in the Premier League and was even linked with a return to Barcelona in recent times.
Oriol Romeu looks to be finally developing into the player that La Masia bosses saw in him all those years ago, and Southampton are reaping the rewards for integrating him as the trusted core in their side.
By: Sam Hammond