If you were to imagine the archetypal Spanish midfielder, you’d probably envisage a player similar to David Silva, Andres Iniesta or Thiago; smooth as silk, can find space in a phone box and is tougher to get to grips with than Adama Traore running full pelt covered in baby oil.
What you most likely wouldn’t imagine is a player who has five goals and one assist to his name in 185 Premier League appearances, and has a disciplinary record that would make most 80s centre-backs blush.
Oriol Romeu may not be quite what you’d expect from a player nurtured at Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a quality operator, and someone Southampton can’t do without.
The Saints have experienced a dramatic turnaround since their 9-0 hammering at the hands of Leicester a little over a year ago. Having looked destined for life in the Championship, Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men have regrouped and now look a serious force to be reckoned with, sitting top of the Premier League on Friday night, albeit after playing an extra game.
While their team performances have been superb, certain individuals have come in for plenty of individual praise, with players like Danny Ings, James Ward-Prowse and Stuart Armstrong rightly singled out.
Romeu’s influence at the base of the Southampton midfield has gone largely unremarked upon, yet the reality is he’s the catalyst for much of his side’s recent success.
The Spaniard’s ability to shield the backline has been crucial to the Saints’ development this season, with the club already keeping four clean sheets in their opening eight league games. His display against Newcastle on Friday evening typified everything we’ve come to expect from the 29-year-old, stifling the threat posed by dangerman Allan Saint-Maximin as the Magpies looked to hit out on the break.
On the one occasion the enigmatic Saint-Maximin did escape Romeu’s attention, the Southampton man was left walking a tightrope for the remainder of the match having committed the type of professional foul that’s become commonplace in the game.
However, unlike some holding midfielders, Romeu had the intelligence to adapt his game, opting to sit slightly deeper than he had been so not to allow Saint-Maximin in behind him and reducing the threat of a second yellow.
Intelligence is a huge part of the Spaniard’s game, whether it be evidenced by his positional awareness or his ability to spot a pass. He isn’t the type of player to play simple balls sideways and slow down the tempo of the game, instead he constantly looks to get his head up and play through the lines of the opposition where possible.
Alongside Romeu, James Ward-Prowse and Stuart Armstrong provide the perfect balance; both enthusiastic livewires who provide the energy needed in the midfield. But without the reliable, calming figure of their midfield anchor alongside them, the pair would be forced to play a more conservative role, taking away one of the main highlights of Southampton’s season so far.
Doing the dirty work in front of the backline is rarely a job which earns high praise, but without Romeu breaking up play and dictating the pace of the game, Hasenhüttl would be forced to rethink his entire midfield.
He may not be Silva, Iniesta or Thiago - but that doesn’t mean he’s not a vital part of a team that looks like it could cause serious problems to the top half of the Premier League.