Morgan Schneiderlin, once nicknamed after Zinedine Zidane, now close to becoming the complete player
5:00pm Wednesday 27th February 2013
Uncomfortable at being mentioned in the same breath as arguably his country’s most gifted and revered player ever, the general response from a slightly embarrassed Schneiderlin on hearing the tag at the club’s training ground was “no, no, no”.
Despite his protestations, though, Wilkins would persist with the comparison.
“I think he has to have that belief that he can hit those heights and reach that level,” said Wilkins, back in 2009, when he was the assistant to Alan Pardew at St Mary’s.
“We’re all going to try and bring that out in him.
“He’s got that ability to manipulate the ball with both feet, with the inside of his foot, with the outside of his foot.
“However much pressure he’s under he’s got that ability to get out of a tight situation, and Zidane is probably the best there’s ever been for doing that.”
At 23-years-old now, Schneiderlin is still no Zidane. Few, if any, ever will be.
What he has developed into, however, is one of the most promising, and perhaps underrated, young midfielders currently playing in the Premier League.
The contract extension he signed this week, which ties him to St Mary’s until 2017, could hardly be more warranted.
Certainly, the fee of up to £1.2m that Saints agreed to pay when they signed him from RC Strasbourg in 2008 has proved to be a magnificent investment, even if it seemed completely at odds with the club’s fiscal policy at the time.
Despite the cost-cutting that was the order of the day at St Mary’s that particular summer, it was the recommendation of Saints’ highly-regarded former academy coach, Georges Prost, that persuaded then chairmen Rupert Lowe and Michael Wilde to pursue the player.
On completing the signing of the 18-year-old midfielder, both men were buoyant.
Lowe would once even admit in private that he was slightly unsure how they had managed to convince Schneiderlin to join Saints when many higher-profile clubs were also interested in him.
Timing was everything, though. Schneiderlin had been offered the chance to join a Premier League club, believed to be Arsenal, when he was 16.
Sensing he was not ready at that age, he turned down the move.
However, two years later, he felt the time was right to pursue his dream of playing in England’s top-flight, and that Saints, who were then a Championship side, could help him realise that ambition.
It was a daunting move. Schneiderlin could not speak the language and did not know anyone in England.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he struggled to establish himself in that first season, finding himself in and out of the team, as Saints were eventually relegated to League One under a cloud of administration.
Even then, though, Mark Wotte, who was head coach for the second half of the season, would describe him as “an extraordinary player”.
“The first year was especially hard as we also did not have the best results,” Schneiderlin has said.
However, with Markus Liebherr’s takeover having been completed and Pardew installed as Saints manager in the summer of 2009, the club began moving forward again, and so, too, did Schneiderlin.
It wasn’t an entirely smooth process for him, however.
While Schneiderlin was always technically gifted, the physical side of the game never came naturally to him, and in the unforgiving world of English football’s third tier he sometimes struggled.
“Everyone spoke about my lack of aggressivity when I came here and I agree with that totally,” he once admitted, in honest fashion.
Although Pardew was an instant admirer of Schneiderlin, he was not impressed with the midfielder’s defensive attributes, or lack of them, either.
A process of constant nagging would ensue, and how it has worked.
Schneiderlin, who once shied away from the physical side of the game, is now the Premier League’s most prolific tackler.
Before Sunday’s game with Newcastle, he was the only player in the division to have made more than 100 tackles this season.
In this particular category, Saints’ ‘ZZ’ is top.
After facing his former manager in the 4-2 defeat at Newcastle on Sunday, Schneiderlin revealed that he owes a debt to Pardew for the role he has played in his development.
“He was the one saying to me to improve on my defensive skills,” he said.
“He was the one who was telling me ‘come on, you need more tackling.’ “So, thanks go to him and his words every day saying that to me.”
Schneiderlin’s work rate this season has been immense. A statistical breakdown of his game has shown that, at times, he has run for more than seven miles during a single match.
He also averages in excess of 50 passes per outing, and has an accuracy rate of just below 85 per cent.
Even the goals are now starting to flow.
Schneiderlin’s strike at St James’ Park took his tally for the season to four, a rather impressive total given that, in the four campaigns prior to this one, he had only found the net three times.
Schneiderlin insisted on Sunday that his newfound attacking instincts are not down to luck. Instead, he has been diligently working to improve them.
It is perhaps a mark of the player, though, that before turning his attention to the glory of goalscoring he was determined to sort out the less glamorous side of his game.
“When I first came to England, people were saying you need to improve on your defensive skills, and that’s what I did,” he explained.
“After that they say you need to improve on scoring goals and that’s what every day I was trying to improve. I’m very happy to do so.”
It is increasingly hard to shake the feeling that Schneiderlin is now fast moving towards becoming the complete midfielder.
At his current rate of progression, the call-up to the senior France squad that has so far eluded him may not be far away.
If and when it does arrive, he might finally come to realise that the nickname ‘ZZ’ wasn’t quite so silly after all.