2014/15 Player of the Season: Morgan Schneiderlin
When Saints trailed 1-0 at Upton Park on August 30th with half-time approaching it looked as if all the pre-season doom-mongering might have been justified. The team had picked up a single point in the first two games, and looked unconvincing against West Brom and Millwall. Saints had been well beaten at West Ham the previous two campaigns and hadn't come from behind to win in the league for some time. Step forward Morgan Schneiderlin. The Frenchman curled the ball through a wall of players before half-time to make it 1-1. On 68 he notched his second, hooking on to James Ward-Prowse's corner. Graziano Pelle went on to make it 3-1 later in the game, and the Saints fans behind the goal started to believe again. Schneiderlin's future was still up in the air somewhat beforehand, but any doubts about his commitment and attitude were completely erased by full-time. Saints had managed to keep their best and most influential player and it completely changed the complexion of the season.
On July 28th reports circulated that Schneiderlin was set for a move to Tottenham. Having lost Calum Chambers the same day, this was the absolute lowest point of the summer. A day later Ralph Krueger insisted Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez wouldn't be sold. Nobody believed him at the time. Confidence in the board was at rock bottom, and when Schneiderlin hit out at the club on Twitter, few could have envisaged him still being at St Mary's beyond September 2nd. He missed training and sat out the Bayer Leverkusen friendly, before acquiescing in the week leading up to the first game of the season at Liverpool on August 17th.
Just having Schneiderlin's name on the team sheet at Anfield was a boost in itself. Seeing so many star players leave was gut-wrenching, but here we were with one of the best midfielders of his type still in the building. Player for player there wasn't as much between the two teams as some feared there might be a few weeks earlier. Schneiderlin later said he struggled physically, but it barely showed. The former Strasbourg man was still one of the most influential men on the pitch. His hooked pass in the second-half was exquisite. Schneiderlin came agonisingly close to equalising, smashing the ball against the bar late on. It would have been an incredible moment, in keeping with the drama of the previous month or so. It wasn't to be, but Schneiderlin's second coming was only 13 days away. That win at West Ham gave Saints the impetus to push on and scale the heights to a degree unimaginable a few weeks earlier.
Schneiderlin picked up from where he had left off following his return from international duty in September. He scored another beauty against Newcastle on September 13th, calmly curling the ball into the top corner. He fought hard against Swansea, and was dominant in the League Cup win at Arsenal on September 23rd. Schneiderlin was solid against QPR and ok against Tottenham on October 5th. He made even the difficult stuff look effortless in the 8-0 win against Sunderland and also performed strongly in league and cup wins over Stoke.
Schneiderlin's lack of pre-season would soon catch up with him again. After helping Saints to two further wins over Hull and Leicester, the Frenchman would suffer an injury against Man City. Schneiderlin had been Saints' best player on the day, and it's no coincidence that the team collapsed to lose 3-0 in his absence. Saints also lost subsequent matches to Arsenal, Man United and Burnley without their star man. Schneiderlin returned at Sheffield United, and was one of Saints' better players, despite picking up suspension.
Saints coped fine without Schneiderlin against Everton on December 20th, but he would return to form on Boxing Day in the 3-1 win at Crystal Palace. A late red card against Chelsea for a rash challenge on Cesc Fabregas was the only blemish on what was an otherwise top display. Schneiderlin intercepted everything that day. He was back on the scoresheet against Ipswich on his return, and put in a monster display at Old Trafford, helping Saints to a famous victory.
Schneiderlin dropped out again through injury, and as they had done previously, Saints' performances suffered as a result. He made his return from the bench at QPR on February 7th, but didn't quite look at 100%. Schneiderlin missed the draw with West Ham, and was only average after coming on against Liverpool. Against West Brom on February 28th he made a slow start, but displayed a good range of passing in the second half.
Saints ended a poor run of form on March 3rd, with Schneiderlin starring in a 1-0 win against Palace. His best outing of the season came at Chelsea on March 15th. Schneiderlin won the ball back countless times, helping Saints gain control of the midfield. He was on top of his game once more against Burnley the following week. Schneiderlin nicked a goal at Stoke on April 18th. He went down with an injury late on against Spurs on April 25th, which kept him out for the remainder of the season. Schneiderlin was certainly missed in three of the final four games, with Aston Villa being the obvious exception.
Keeping Schneiderlin at the club completely turned the tide going into 2014/15. Saints were perceived as weak and open for business up until that point. When they finally put their foot down and refused to sell Schneiderlin, it conveyed the message that they were actually serious about trying to move the club forward. Had he gone, others may have been tempted to follow. Fans would have got even angrier, and the atmosphere at St Mary's could have turned poisonous pretty quickly. As it was Schneiderlin stayed and so did everyone else from that point on. More players arrived, helping Saints finish higher than they did the previous season. Say what you like about his Twitter outburst and his desire to leave, but Schneiderlin never let Saints down on the pitch. The West Ham game symbolised Saints' turnaround at the end of the summer, and he was very much at the heart of that. His form throughout the campaign was exemplary. Saints often struggled when he wasn't fit, which is a slight worry given he has likely played his last competitive game for the club. There's a very good chance he'll be at Man United very soon, one of the many teams he has bossed in a Saints shirt over the last few years.
On the one hand it'll be sad to say goodbye to Schneiderlin, but on the other we should be thankful that he stayed for as long as he did. Apart from Claus Lundekvam he has made more Saints appearances than any other foreign player. He wasn't just here for seven years, he was on top of his game for most of that time. It's doubtful we'll ever see someone with such quality come from abroad and stay for as long again. Schneiderlin made his debut in Lundekvam's testimonial and showed his class instantly; foxing Champions League regulars Celtic was a flurry of perfectly weighted crossfield balls. He suffered a dip in form during the second-half of 2008/09 when the club was in freefall, but has otherwise been pretty much flawless. Saints' rise over the last six years has been very much a team effort, but Schneiderlin has been the most influential and important member of that group. When ranking the greatest players in Saints history he is easily in the top five, if not the top three. Saints did well to rebuild last summer, but replacing Schneiderlin will be the toughest job of all. Assuming he returns to St Mary's in opposition colours next season he deserves to be greeted with the type of reception that Rickie Lambert received when he came back with Liverpool, if not even greater.