If you ask Southampton supporters who their favourite central midfield partnership has been since the club returned to the Premier League in 2012 the majority will say it was the link-up between Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama, but they may face some competition on that particular accolade this season.
The duo often started together under Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons when they helped to deliver eighth and seventh-place finishes respectively, with the latter campaign also delivering a spot in the Europa League for the club for the first time since 2003.
When Saints conceded 46 goals in their 38 Premier League matches in 2013/14 and then just 33 the following season, a lot of the praise was given to the likes of Jose Fonte, Dejan Lovren and loanee Toby Alderweireld, but huge amounts of credit should also go to Schneiderlin and Wanyama for the barrier they provided in front of the back four to make the club so solid defensively.
The 4-2-3-1 formation that the players had become so used to was ditched by Claude Puel at the start of the 2016/17 campaign, with the Frenchman instead favouring a 4-4-2 diamond system with Oriol Romeu at the base of the midfield.
It was quickly apparent that it wasn’t working and the team was failing to adapt to the change and the south coast outfit reverted back to the more familiar system with Steven Davis often partnering Romeu in the defensive midfield spots.
However, the Northern Ireland international certainly didn’t bring the presence or the ability to intercept that Wanyama and Schneiderlin did previously, and with the likes of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Jordy Clasie struggling to impress it was clear that the club needed to sign a new midfielder this summer.
Step forward Mario Lemina.
Despite coming on as a late substitute for Juventus in the Champions League final last season, Saints managed to bring the Gabon international to St Mary’s in an £18.1m club-record deal last month and the early signs are positive from the 24-year-old.
The 24-year-old put in a man-of-the-match in just his third appearance for the club as they beat Crystal Palace 1-0 at Selhurst Park, and his statistics from the match show just how influential he can be from the middle of the park.
Even more was to come in the narrow 1-0 defeat to Manchester United at St Mary’s on Saturday, where Lemina not only showed his ability to win possession and tackle, but also showed that he has the skill to beat opposition players and drive the team forward as he quickly becomes a fans’ favourite.
Alongside Romeu, who had a passing accuracy of 95% as well as making six tackles and four interceptions against the Red Devils, and Saints have quite the formidable defensive midfield partnership.
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) September 23, 2017
So can the duo really be as effective as, or even better than, Wanyama and Schneiderlin were for Southampton previously?
While Wanyama was as strong as an ox his passing accuracy often left something to be desired and there is no doubt that Romeu – who is seen as the Kenyan’s long-term replacement – certainly has more technical ability on the ball after he has won it back or when he receives it to feet.
Schneiderlin was somewhat a different player altogether as he brought energy and an ability to win the ball back, as well as being brilliant in possession and able to produce an array of different passes.
Lemina is already showing that he has many of those attributes and more, and he certainty brings something to the Southampton midfield they haven’t really had since Schneiderlin’s departure to Manchester United in 2015.
The Frenchman did also score 11 goals in his three top flight seasons with Saints, and that is something that both Romeu and Lemina will look to aspire to as the season goes on with their side struggling to find the back of the net.
Having conceded just one goal in the last three Premier League matches that they have started together however, the midfield duo are certainly showing signs that they can provide the barrier in front of the defence to ensure they shouldn’t concede too many goals, and this should allow Mauricio Pellegrino to focus on his team’s goalscoring issues over the course of the next few weeks and months.
The season is still young, but the midfielders have certainly already shown that they have the potential to be even more effective than Schneiderlin and Wanyama were for Southampton.