Manchester United: Morgan Schneiderlin is emerging as a key player

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The French defensive midfielder is proving to be the base for Manchester United’s recent successes.

Morgan Schneiderlin’s performance in a 2-1 win against Watford was the latest in a series of displays that illustrate his emergence as a key player for Manchester United.

After some unconvincing performances in August and September following his £25 million move from Southampton, the Frenchman was surprisingly left out of the starting XI in United’s first game of October, a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal. It seemed the perfect match to utilise his combative and physical style.

In the very next game, away at Everton, he scored his first goal in a United shirt and intercepted a stray Phil Jagielka pass to kick-start the move that led to the third and final goal of the game.

Since then, he has steadily improved and could have been named Man of the Match in the 2-1 win at Vicarage Road.

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Schneiderlin’s performance against Watford showcased a skill he has perfected in recent years: winning the ball, keeping it and passing it to a team-mate. It’s something he does better than most players in the Premier League.

One moment midway through the first half demonstrated the ability superbly. With the lively Odion Ighalo chasing down Phil Jones under a high ball, the Englishman nodded the ball six yards forwards to Schneiderlin, who controlled it, eased the pressure on the defence by taking a few touches and then played the ball to Ashley Young in space.

There was nothing fancy or complex about it – he was simply recovering the ball and resetting the play.

During the game, he also made more combined tackles and interceptions than any other player on the pitch, level with Almen Abdi on eight. That, in a nutshell, highlights how valuable the Frenchman is becoming to this United team.

Michael Carrick is the best passer, Ander Herrera is the most creative and Bastian Schweinsteiger is the all-round midfielder – but it’s Schneiderlin who possesses much-needed physical attributes. His ability to continually block, tackle and intercept in midfield suffocates opponents.

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Ever since he came back into the United team at the beginning of October, United have conceded just two goals in the five games he’s played in, one of which was a penalty. There’s no question that his presence in midfield has contributed to the team’s impressive defensive record in recent weeks.

In many ways, Schneiderlin is the perfect long-term replacement for Carrick, even if the two differ in the way they play the game.

The Englishman manages to play at the heart of United’s midfield so intelligently that he rarely needs to make a tackle, whereas the Frenchman makes so many tackles that the defenders playing behind him must feel a greater sense of security with him in the side.

But one trait the two players share is composure. Like Carrick, Schneiderlin has calmness in his play that is perhaps surprising given his destructive style.

In the win at Watford, Marcos Rojo cleared his lines by heading the ball to Schneiderlin, who turned 180 degrees with one touch and played a 30-yard, outside-of-the-boot pass to Young on the right wing with his second. It was very Carrick-like.

To further the point, Schneiderlin currently has a greater passing accuracy than any other United player in the Premier League this season, with a 91 per cent success rate. Carrick is just behind on 90 per cent.

Ultimately, Schneiderlin’s performances in the last month have underlined why he could become a permanent fixture in the United midfield for the next five years.

What’s stood out is that he has impressed in three tricky away games against Everton, CSKA Moscow and Watford. United’s away record under Louis van Gaal was abysmal last season, but the Frenchman’s physicality has added resolve away from Old Trafford.

In fact, United are picking up an extra half a point away from home this season (1.86 points per game) compared to last season (1.37 points per game). Many factors have contributed to that improvement, but chief among them has been Schneiderlin’s tenacity in midfield.

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If there’s one question that remains, it’s whether the Frenchman has enough ability on the ball to dictate games, particularly against smaller teams at home. Moving to a three-man midfield would help him in that regard.

For the most part, however, as his performance against Watford so ably demonstrated, Schneiderlin is a very complete player and someone who could become the fulcrum of United teams for years.