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June 23, 2017

Bags of space.


Before I started this piece I assumed that Oriol Romeu was into his thirties by now. Not that this assumption was anything to do with him achieving a massive amount in the game- a bit-part player for Chelsea after a transfer from Barcelona in 2011 (he arrived at the same time as Romelu Lukaku), Romeu impressed in loan spells for Stuttgart and Valencia before moving to Southampton. 2016-17 was somewhat of a breakout season for the Spaniard, solidifying his place at the base of the Saints midfield and somewhat filling the hole left by Victor Wanyama in the wake of his move to Tottenham. Nevertheless, the stature and approach deployed Romeu suggests a player who has had to adopt a more cerebral and selfless style of play in his late-career as a result of losing his legs, rather than a man in his mid-twenties enjoying the first stable period of his senior career. Basically, it’s surprising to see a (young) big bald bastard who seems content to sit deep in a midfield without this coming as a result of a downwards career trajectory.


Under Claude Puel, Romeu commonly sat as the pivot of a centre-midfield trio, staying deep as a rotating cast of colleagues moved forward and sought to exploit the space and security afforded to them by the big man’s presence. It’s easy to draw parallels with the role of Sergio Busquets, who he spent several years observing and interacting with in the Barcelona system, although the nature of the Premier League and Southampton’s position within it means that Romeu doesn’t embrace the more creative aspects of the deep-lying playmaker role as readily as Busquets does. Instead, Romeu played the third most total passes of any centre midfielder in the Premier League (behind N’Golo Kante and Granit Xhaka), coming in the top five for both accurate and inaccurate short passes from his position (he placed first overall in the latter category) but not even entering the top 15 for long passes, on target or otherwise.


His role as the pivot requires him to ceaselessly pop off passes to other, more adventurous centre mids (such as James Ward-Prowse), and, where necessary, wingers who are more willing to come short for a pass, such as Dušan Tadić. The high quantity of inaccurate passes reflects the fact that he is by no means a world-leading deliverer of the ball, but it speaks to his ability to control the pace of a game from the middle.


This would come as no surprise to Saints fans, whose lamenting of their team’s dull style of play at home, typified by the frequency of sideways passes, led in part to Claude Puel’s dismissal after only one season in charge, but it’s interesting to see just how seminal Romeu was in directing his team’s often slow progression up the pitch. Whatever you think of Puel’s approach last season, Romeu’s consistent and dependable role at the heart his game-plan has to be recognised as a commendable feat in this regard. The fact he received fans’ player and players’ player of the season at his club’s annual awards do, despite only winning one man of the match all year, is further testament to this. Although it is unclear how Mauricio Pellegrino's Southampton will line up and approach the game during 2017/18, you’d think that has done enough to justify both his place on the team sheet and the strategic role he assumes within it.


 So much for when his team are on the ball- In reality, lots of Romeu’s value comes from his ability to break up play when his team are on the back foot and put in a tackle or interception before the opposition’s attack advances into the other half- he put in the third overall most tackles league-wide (any position) across the season, committed the joint third most fouls and the joint third most bookings, but managed to avoid being sent off all year. This was a noticeable improvement for Southampton, as Wanyama’s league-leading 3 red cards during the 2015/16 season really hampered their push for European qualification.


It’s even more pertinent when you consider the Saints largely adopted a possession-based style of play both home and away in 16/17 (their overall 53% for the year puts them seventh overall- the top six are made up of the six teams that finished at the top of the table), so it was vital that he broke up the play against teams looking to launch a quick counter-attack. It should come as no surprise, then, that a huge proportion of these tackles and fouls took place either side of the centre circle, rather than outside his own box.


 Romeu in action


The fact Romeu put in more interceptions over the course of the season than Kante (or any other midfielder for that matter) shows just how important he was in this regard, and whilst my excessive use of these statistics aren’t to suggest that Romeu is necessarily a better player than Kante or other elite Premier League midfielders, it signifies his importance and efficiency within the system employed by his team. It’s for this reason that I’ve focused on ‘total’ stats, rather than frequency per game or per 90 minutes- Romeu’s continuous presence in the Southampton side was vital for the club as a whole, especially as they were plagued by injuries and departures of their central defenders.


We often make a fuss of players on possession-focused teams whose ability on the ball creates opportunities for those around them and can slice open a back-line with a single pass, but it’s equally important to recognise the role of someone like Romeu in shoring up the midfield and covering for other players who may be caught out of position when the opposition breaks forward. Similarly, while the football press in this country now loves to harp on about how players like Michael Carrick have been chronically underrated due to the nature and conventions of the English domestic game, it’s important to actually articulate how these deep-sitting players contribute to the team’s they are part of and enhance the players around them.


I realise I’ve slightly overloaded on statistical analysis here, but what really struck me over the course of the season was just how much more noticeable Romeu’s contribution was in person in comparison to watching him on TV. As I am a fantastic and romantic partner, I went with my girlfriend (a Southampton fan) to a few Saints games last year, and was consistently drawn in by Romeu. In particular, during their away victories against Sunderland and Middlesbrough (the two weakest attacking teams in the league, it has to be said) he was instrumental in both conducting attacking moves from just inside the opposition half and repeatedly prematurely halting the advances of the other team.


When you go to a game, you pick up on different things than if you were going to watch it on the telly. Generally, at least in my experience you gain an appreciation for the subtle, commanding play of deeper-sitting players, as well as the importance and game-long impact of powerful, physical defence. It was on the basis of this untrained impression, rather than from sorting statistical spreadsheets, that led me to write about Romeu here. Without blowing my own trumpet too much, this is how I think detailed stats in football can be best harnessed- to help to justify observations we might find it difficult to otherwise rationalise. Obviously football is an emotive, gut-feeling sport, and turning everything into numbers and charts is at odds with what most people follow the game for, but it’s nice to be proved right every now and then.


Anyway, Romeu is very good and I hope he’s at the base of the Southampton midfield for years to come. Also, he's good his own YouTube channel where he shows off an apparent passion for local history as well as football history, and didn’t do that insincere ‘I don’t want to celebrate’ celebration when he scored against his old club (Chelsea) in April. I think he’s good, and you should try to keep an eye on him the next time you see him play.




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