Back in 2008 Arsène Wenger was once again scouring the French leagues for talent. Along with scout Gilles Grimandi, he had come across an 18-year-old who had caught his eye. A talented midfielder, with composure and skill on the ball, the Arsenal boss was contemplating making a move for his services.
The player in question was Morgan Schneiderlin.
In the end Wenger opted against making a move. The youngster was hungry to play football and as a result Wenger recommended him to Southampton. The Championship club heeded the Arsenal manager’s advice and swooped for Schneiderlin, beating their rivals Portsmouth to his signature. At £1.2m, the Saints had snagged a bargain.
This summer Wenger is likely to be ringing Southampton again about Schneiderlin, but this time he should be asking to buy the France international. Simply put, Schneiderlin is the perfect fit for Arsenal’s midfield.
Undeniably the holding midfielder role has been a problem for Arsenal for years, perhaps arguably since Gilberto Silva left in 2008. I was personally a huge fan of the Brazilian. He knitted the side together and provided the back four with crucial protection. Just as Claude Makélélé did for Real Madrid all those years ago, Gilberto sat deep and allowed the attacking players the freedom to shine.
Gilberto’s importance was perhaps understated because he was rarely seen, just as a holding midfielder should be. If the ‘water-carrier’ is doing his job than you should barely notice his presence. He is there to tidy up, keep the ship steady, not make heroic challenges or score wonder goals.
The great Vicente del Bosque sums it up best when he talks about Sergio Busquets. Love him or loath him, you cannot deny the Barcelona man is brilliant in front of the back four. And Del Bosque’s description perfectly describes what you want from a holding midfielder.
“You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the game,” said Del Bosque.
I’m not saying Schneiderlin is Busquets, but he could certainly play that role successfully for Arsenal. While Francis Coquelin’s performances have been very impressive, what it has shown us more than anything is that an out-and-out defensive midfielder would thrive at Arsenal.
In truth, most natural holding midfielders have during their time at the Gunners. Gilberto Silva being the prime example, but even Mathieu Flamini – before his move to AC Milan in 2008 – was turning heads with his displays. You could argue Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira both fall into the same category.
And that is why a defensive midfielder should – and will – be Wenger’s main priority during the summer transfer window. Few teams succeed now without one. Chelsea have been transformed by Nemanja Matić, while Xabi Alonso has taken Bayern Munich onto another level. Arsenal await the man who can complete their title-chasing jigsaw.
That man is Schneiderlin.
There’s a reason why Southampton drew the line at the Frenchman last year when their fire sale was taking place. Big clubs went to the south coast to cherry pick Saints’ best players. Adam Lallana went to Liverpool and Luke Shaw to Manchester United. But when Arsenal and Tottenham sniffed around Schneiderlin – Koeman put his foot down.
And it is clear why. Just like many defensive midfielders, Schneiderlin is the glue that holds Southampton together.
I remember going to Upton Park early in the season to cover West Ham against Southampton. Saints won 3-1, Schneiderlin was supreme. Admittedly he scored two goals, which certainly caught the eye, but it was the other aspects of his game that really caught my attention.
With it being days before deadline day all eyes were on Schneiderlin. Observing him closely you saw why. Not once did he look flustered, his composure and timing was first rate. That being said he never shirked a tackle, happy and willing to mix it with West Ham’s physical midfield.
Schneiderlin offers that lovely blend of style and grit, characteristics that typify the Premier League itself. You can tell part of Schneiderlin’s footballing education took place in England.
And that is one of the most attractive reasons for going for Schneiderlin. He is Premier League proven. He suits the English game. He has international experience and it is clear for all to see he’s ready for exposure to European football.
Options are obviously available from abroad, but none seem as attractive as Schneiderlin. İlkay Gündoğan is one who has been linked. A good player, undoubtedly, but Arsenal do not need another diminutive playmaker. They have those, in abundance.
Javi Martínez and Lars Bender are two others who seemingly top Wenger’s list. Again, both are brilliant players as shown by their performances in the Bundesliga. However, I wouldn’t label them as perfect for Arsenal. Martínez, in particular, seems too slow for the tempo Wenger’s side play at – especially compared to Pep Guardiola’s. There’s the small matter of Bayern also wanting £35m for his services.
Bender is perhaps the most similar to Schneiderlin. He has the engine, the tenacity, but the Frenchman shades the German in terms of his skill on the ball. And – as I have said before – Schneiderlin is Premier League proven.
So, that’s why when the summer window opens I expect Wenger to once again be on the phone to Southampton. Negotiations will no doubt be tough, especially if Southampton finish as high as they are currently placed. But if they slip out of the top four then that certainly strengthens Arsenal’s hand.
Schneiderlin will want Champions League football, he certainly deserves to play it. So for Wenger it’ll be a case of meeting the price and opening the chequebook. That figure could be as much as £25m, but it’ll be money well spent as the midfielder can finally help Wenger complete the jigsaw of his title-chasing team.
Simon Collings is a Regular Columnist here at #ABW – check him out on Twitter at @sr_collings. He is also part of a Premier League Podcast called All About the 3 Points which we definitely think you should check out.