Old-fashioned Oriol Romeu combines grace with grit

“Staying here for longer is just what I wanted and I’m so happy. It’s been six years and I haven’t felt as good as I feel right now. I want to keep it going as long as possible,” said Oriol Romeu after signing a new Southampton contract that takes him to 2023.

Midfielders in the modern game are increasingly pegged as either defensive or offensive, with the box-to-box, up-and-down nature of the central midfield role often considered outdated. Romeu defies these conventions and frankly, he’d probably quite enjoy being labelled ‘old-fashioned’.

Saints fans have always had a certain affinity for Romeu. Arriving from Chelsea in 2015, with his shaved head and determined glare, he’d only played a handful of games for the Blues, experiencing a couple of loan spells with Valencia and Stuttgart. The Catalonian midfielder quickly earned a reputation as the sort of no-nonsense destroyer that supporters adore seeing clatter through an opposition forward.

Romeu doesn’t get bums off seats so much as he evokes a savage, bloodthirsty roar from the home fans. From his early days under Ronald Koeman, he cultivated a position in the team reliant on reading the game and diligently receiving a habitual yellow card when needed.

However, just as 2020 has touched many facets of our society in strange and unexpected ways, Romeu has been transformed into an all-action, tempo-setting midfield maestro under Ralph Hasenhüttl. Much was made of the £15m departure of Pierre Emile-Højbjerg to Tottenham in August, but even new signings like Ibrahim Diallo haven’t yet been able to dislodge the immovable object from this Saints team.

In Hasenhüttl’s system, nominally a 4-2-2-2, Romeu lines up in a ‘double pivot’ midfield next to Duracell bunny James Ward-Prowse, who covers the immense distances that the Austrian coach demands. The system relies not only on intense off-the-ball work, but positive, incisive passing from the two midfielders, who look to recover possession and find the forward players as quickly as possible.

Romeu’s presence in the team would prove utterly unsustainable had he not developed his game. Not only is he looking for the forward passing options, the Spaniard is driving on in possession and – most shockingly – he’s scoring blinders like the one against West Bromwich Albion.

He’s not the first to be revitalised, or even transformed, under Hasenhüttl – Ward-Prowse and Che Adams are recent beneficiaries of the former Leipzig coach’s magic touch – but Romeu’s improvement with the ball was recently lauded by his manager, who singled out his evolution, saying: “He’s a role model. There was a time last season where he was fourth choice behind the other midfielders.”

Part of what Hasenhüttl calls his “double 6 midfield”, Romeu started the last seven matches of the restart last season, with the Saints unbeaten across those games. The Spaniard was handed a path back into the starting line-up when it became clear that Højbjerg was on the radar of Jose Mourinho at Spurs. “Over lockdown he knew he needed to [improve],” said the Austrian, who also credited Romeu’s new nutritional habits. “He came back fitter and grabbed his chance with both hands.”

But perhaps a new diet is one among many factors behind the midfielder’s exquisite work in the centre of the park. After all, he did spend seven years in the youth system at Barcelona, with Pep Guardiola handing him his La Liga debut in 2011. La Masia (‘The Farmhouse’), the renowned Barça youth academy, has garnered a deserved reputation and seemingly fails to produce footballers without a pristine technique.

Romeu’s touch, awareness and vision have Barcelona seals of authenticity all over them, though crunching tackles and a penchant for yellow cards aren’t often found in the Barca DNA. Perhaps it was inevitable that this otherwise assembly-line Barcelona footballer was to be cast into the box bound for the Premier League, where his gritty approach would be truly appreciated.

Though his tackling is among the most important tools in his arsenal and the midfielder has collected 51 yellow cards since arriving in England’s top flight, he’s yet to be shown a red card. Arguably, the closest Romeu has come to being dismissed in a Saints shirt was after his poorly timed challenge on Mason Greenwood during last season’s restart.

Romeu, late to the ball, stuck a hopeful leg out and caught the England man on the ankle, hard, leaving him in a heap. No action was taken.

“I do not like that,” said Gary Neville on Sky Sports. “The ball’s gone, he’s tried to do him.” Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also chimed in after the match: “My ankle wouldn’t like that one.”

Much like his former Chelsea teammate Ryan Bertrand, Romeu has settled in seamlessly on the south coast. A testament to how much a footballer’s sense of ease and acclimatisation can impact their performances on the pitch, the 29-year-old has embraced his so-called step down from the five-time Premier League champions.

Romeu’s Instagram – which he recently abandoned – painted a picture of a man fascinated with nature, life and the great outdoors. Any Saints fan on social media will lament the loss of his dog pictures or insights into his Sunday strolls in the New Forest. All of this adds to the image of a man genuinely enjoying his life and his football. It’s an image which couldn’t be further from the purposefully cultivated, social media-savvy lens through which so many athletes want the world to see them.

The sort of character that everybody gets on with, the Saints man’s off-the-pitch demeanour is contrary to his hard-man image on the pitch. Still a close friend of ex-Chelsea star, Juan Mata, the two put their friendship on pause for the 2017 EFL Cup final, when United ran out 3-2 winners. He also formed a fan-favourite bromance with former Saints defender Maya Yoshida – even pictured wearing the Japan star’s replica shirt at home whilst watching his friend in the 2018 World Cup.

Much as Romeu has settled at Southampton, so have the team. Gone are the days of uncertainty, inconsistency and frustration that plagued the Saints under Claude Puel and Mark Hughes. Hasenhüttl was recently asked if this defined way of playing will present his team with problems if opposition sides eventually figure them out and the manager shrugged this off with a wry smile.

“We played this shape for two years in Leipzig and we know a lot about it. [We] stick to what we know best and let the opposition find solutions. If they find those, we have to adapt.”

With a sense of comfort and familiarity over their respective identities, Romeu and Southampton are mirror images of one another. Granted, comfort isn’t something that Hasenhüttl allows his players to slip into, but Romeu himself certainly feels like he’s found his place.

“It feels like home. I know everyone and they know me. The feelings right now are very good and we all feel very optimistic, we just want to carry on like this.”

Connor Spake – follow him on Twitter