Most often we recognize the footballers who grab our eyes and make them spin with excitement. Manchester United has never been short of footballers who will grab a game by the scruff of the neck and blow everything out of the water. Equally so, though, there have been quietly phenomenal footballers at United who’ve gone stunningly unnoticed in their time in Manchester. Fans are still trying to make up for how sorely they underrated Michael Carrick until today. Daley Blind is arguably the best ‘quarterback’ passer of a football in the Premier League. Almost above all, though, people seem to underestimate just how integral of a player Morgan Schneiderlin can be in the Premier League.
Last season saw Leicester City win the Premier League off the back of N’Golo Kante, a lung-bursting, defensively flawless, ball-transitioning N’Golo Kante. The year before, though, Morgan Schneiderlin offered something similar for a thriving Southampton side. Louis van Gaal completely misused Schneiderlin last season and, with that in consideration, he still did relatively well. In a system that accommodates Schneiderlin, though, he can be an absolute staple in Manchester United’s midfield. Breaking down the statistics he managed and explaining van Gaal’s misuse of the Frenchman, it will become apparent that he could be every bit as important as Paul Pogba to Manchester United’s future.
Let’s take a moment and rewind to Manchester United’s 1-0 loss to Southampton at the start of 2015. Schneiderlin, a Southampton stalwart at the time, was superlative, to say the least. From the heart of Southampton’s midfield, Schneiderlin completed 12 defensive actions- unbelievable to say the least. But he also did an incredible job of keeping United out as a whole- distributing the ball, Schneiderlin completed 95% of his passes and was even fouled twice. So integral was his performance that it is believed van Gaal sought after the player, despite never scouting him previously. United wasn’t the first club after Schneiderlin, with Tottenham and Arsenal infamously targeting the destructive midfielder the summer before.
Nobody knew of Schneiderlin’s ground-breaking performances at the heart of midfield, but they came up over and over. It seemed every weekend he was the best player on the pitch- until he was marked, dotted and eyed as Southampton’s best player, coveted around Europe and admired by managers of the highest expertise. Schneiderlin had a statistically monstrous season, completing eight defensive actions per match, passing with 89% accuracy, even scoring four goals, and earning a 7.51 rating- absolutely ridiculous. By the end of that season, he was a staple in France’s midfield, equal to Pogba in the pecking order.
Moving to United, he was limited from doing what he does best by van Gaal- forced more than often to play very deep and not take any positional risks, Schneiderlin was unable to drive forward with the same guile and diehard purpose that Southampton fans claim they could see since he was in League One. The problem with Schneiderlin, much like Kante, is the stereotyping of the role he plays on a football pitch. Some say he’s a box-to-box midfielder- this brings out his attacking weaknesses. Some argue he’s a pure defensive midfielder- he can be, but it doesn’t bring the best out of his abilities. He is typically the deepest of a set of three midfielders, with a license to drive forward when applicable.
Southampton’s system was aggressive, pressing, forward-oriented and counter-attacking, which brought the best out of Schneiderlin and his partner in crime, Victor Wanyama. Schneiderlin’s job became transition football- he efficiently won the ball, got stuck in, closed gaps and moved the ball at pace. Under van Gaal, though, Schneiderlin was instructed to win the ball and control possession. Schneiderlin is an adept passer of the ball, but van Gaal’s system deprived him of the destructive aggression that made him Southampton’s answer to Roy Keane. But there were still matches where he showed signs of the world class quality he added to Southampton, particularly during the Manchester Derby, a match in which he achieved an absolute tactical masterclass that could be used to teach young footballers how to play defensive midfield.
From September to January in Schneiderlin’s first Old Trafford season, United won 10 and drew seven of the 18 matches United played, losing just one. United only conceded 10 goals, which attributes massively to his quality. At the time, United was fifth in the Premier League and eliminated from the Champions League, and projecting those numbers to the end of the season United would’ve finished 2nd in the league, two points behind champions Leicester City. Schneiderlin wasn’t even playing his best football, and yet he was so integral to United. With a player like Pogba alongside him, Schneiderlin can continue to be quietly excellent with Pogba driving United forward on a consistent basis.
It was a preview for what Schneiderlin could, and can do at United when he can be aggressive- he will help United achieve complete territorial domination and take games to the opposition. United has pined for aggressive, fast attacking football and Schneiderlin could be the key piece of the puzzle. He’s incredibly well-rounded, underrated and is the best signing United has made in years- if he is used correctly. This is a vital year for Schneiderlin- hopefully, Mourinho can see his talents and make the best of them because he can embody the heart, soul and potentially even wear the captain’s armband in his United future.