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Unsung heroes catch the eye

After a weekend that brought four of the finest goals we will witness all season, it may seem odd to suggest this but it was also a weekend when the unsung heroes of this league once again caught the eye.

Take Morgan Schneiderlin for instance. His Southampton team might ultimately have gone down to Newcastle but not before the French midfielder had scored a fourth goal of the campaign. A day later he had much more to celebrate as he signed a four-year contract extension with the south coast club.

Sunday’s game at St James’ Park represented Schneiderlin’s 26th start of the season and the 23-year-old was in typical hard-working form. The goal will have come as a bonus to him because his real value lies in his ability to win the ball. Schneiderlin is the only player in the league to have made more than 100 tackles this season. He covers the most ground on average per game of any Barclays Premier League player and he has made more interceptions than any player in the top five European leagues.

Little wonder manager Mauricio Pochettino and the club moved swiftly to keep Schneiderlin contracted until 2017.

“During my short time with Southampton Morgan has shown what a capable player he is and demonstrated his potential to become one of the Premier League’s most complete midfielders,” said the Pochettino.

The Argentine has been happily heaping praise on another of his players recently. Rickie Lambert masterminded Southampton’s superb win against Manchester City then struck again versus Newcastle to take his goal tally for the club to 100 from 185 appearances in all competitions. Those goals may not all have come in the top flight but Lambert has still become the fifth-fastest Saint to reach the landmark and has done so faster than Southampton legends Matt le Tissier and Mick Channon.

This is what Pochettino had to say about the 31-year-old Englishman: “For me, he’s an extraordinary footballer. When I see his career, I am surprised he hasn’t played longer in the Premier League. He has many qualities and none are outstanding over the others. It’s well known he is a good player. He can shoot well and he’s skillful. What surprised me is his mentality.”

In praising Lambert’s approach to the game, as he did with Schneiderlin, Pochettino hit on the precise qualities that clubs such as Southampton need from their players if they are to survive in this league. Not every club can afford the finest talents in the world and every season we are provided with evidence that the right mentality is what keeps clubs up.

Take QPR for instance. They are now staring at the very real prospect of relegation and their exasperated owners must be wondering why this is the case given the number of talented players they have brought in over the last two years.

Imagine, for instance, if they possessed someone like Sebastian Bassong. Many tipped Norwich City to struggle this season and although they still find it hard to win games (Saturday’s late show against Everton brought their first three-pointer in 10 games) they are nonetheless a tough team to beat. French-bred Cameroonian international Bassong has been an integral part of their strong defensive showing this season. To quantify that, if we turn to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index we learn he is way out in front at Norwich in terms of positive defensive contributions.

Alternatively, we could just listen to the man himself, who recently said, “I like responsibility. I am someone who would rather try to be a leader because that’s the way I am. I never shut up. I am always talking on the pitch and outside.”

That’s another key word there, “responsibility”. It is also a quality players have to demonstrate in the attacking half of the pitch, rather than “hiding” from the ball and Norwich are blessed in that they possess another highly-responsible player in the shape of Robert Snodgrass. The Scotsman has put in more crosses this season than any other Norwich player, has an outstanding percentage when it comes to pass completion in the opponents’ half and is rated an impressive 28th overall in the Barclays Premier League by EA SPORTS.

To continue this theme of analysing players whose performances might just ensure survival for clubs who had been tipped for relegation, it’s worth looking at the efforts of two players who were not involved in league action this past weekend.

Instead, Jonathan de Guzman and Ben Davies were at Wembley, helping Swansea crush Bradford City in the Capital One Cup Final.

De Guzman, the on-loan Dutch international from Villareal, showed his tough side in refusing to hand the ball over to Nathan Dyer when Swansea won a penalty. He coolly converted it and went on to score a second in the final. It was De Guzman’s eighth of a really impressive season in which he has quietly gone about his work while another La Liga import, Michu, has commanded all the headlines. Although Villareal invested heavily in the player before their untimely relegation, De Guzman has said he now hopes to become a Swansea player. That’s the kind of commitment that helps a team stay in this league.

Then there is the kid who was on 400 pounds sterling a week at the start of the season. Ben Davies, the 19-year-old full-back, got his chance when Neil Taylor was injured early on in the campaign. The build-up to Sunday’s Cup Final was full of newspaper stories about the young man who famously used to drive the only car that had wind-down windows in the players’ car park at Swansea, but no one in football would deny his right to a place in that car park.

Davies has made 32 appearances for Swansea and gained three Welsh caps in a breakthrough season. His success wasn’t something manager Michael Laudrup will have anticipated at the start of the season but he has grabbed his chance with both hands.

Just as Schneiderlin has done, having seen his career drift slightly after early promise at Strasbourg. Just as Rickie Lambert has done now that he is, belatedly, in the big time. Just as Bassong and De Guzman have done, even though they looked initially to have downgraded their careers by moving from “bigger” clubs. They might be relatively unsung heroes and they might garner fewer headlines than the likes of Gareth Bale and Dimitar Berbatov but these players remind us each weekend what a huge part character and commitment have to play in this league.

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