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Oriol Romeu: The perfectly poised destroyer

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SOUTHAMPTON — A two-hour drive on a straight highway along the coast of Catalonia in Spain, the road from Ulldecona to Barcelona is not as easy to navigate as you might think.

Ask Southampton’s star performer this season, Oriol Romeu.

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Currently reaching levels he admits he wasn’t sure he could ever reach, the 25-year-old midfielder is nailed on to be named Saints’ player of the season and as he prepares to head back to his former club Chelsea on Tuesday (Watch live, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) the combative Catalan has been reflecting on his journey to the Premier League.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk on a sunny day on England’s South Coast, it was another coastal route which Romeu and his family got extremely used to navigating in his days with Espanyol as a youngster.

“It’s 200 kilometers from Barcelona, so quite far,” Romeu said of his hometown, Ulldecona. “It was a bit tough in the beginning because I had to travel a lot and my parents were a bit scared to spend too long on the road. When I was 12 I decided I wanted to go back home and wanted to stop playing football at a big level. Suddenly Barcelona came and said ‘we like you, we want you to be here and we don’t won’t you to go away’ and I said ‘okay, I will accept’ because obviously I love Barcelona and that was a chance I had to take. It went well. It went very well and I was very lucky to develop since the first day and I could become a good player. It was tough because I was too far away from home and I had to travel a lot. It wasn’t easy but I could make it.”

And make it he has.

Given Romeu’s steady ascent over the past 12 months where he first shadowed Victor Wanyama, Saints’ chief midfield destroyer at the time, and then shone at the back-end of last season, we’ve had a chat penciled in many times over recent months but due to his schedule or mine it has never quite worked out. Yet now, ahead of Romeu’s return to Chelsea, it seemed like the perfect time to discuss his rise at Southampton in the midst of the finest season in his career so far.

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“Finally, we can meet!” Romeu says, smiling as he walks through the door at Southampton’s training base at Staplewood. Sporting tattoos on the inside of his arms, Romeu places his wash bag and a light jacket down on the table as we catch up and discuss his plans for the afternoon.

He explains that his dogs will be waiting by the door for him when he gets home and then he’ll set off on a long evening walk across one of the many stunning vistas within close proximity to his home in southern England. It gives him a chance to relax and switch off, he explains, as his life off the pitch is far from what you would expect for a powerful central midfielder who used to showcase a mean Mohawk hairdo.

Calm, collected and poised as he juggles a bottle of water while we talk, Romeu has had a long and winding journey to become a regular in the Premier League.

That journey has taken him to three countries, six clubs and the hugely likable Romeu seems to know so many people in the game. After Saints’ preseason friendly with Espanyol he was holding court with coaches and players in the tunnel area and the likes of Juan Mata and Fernando Torres are close friends, while following a recent home defeat to Manchester City his former boss Pep Guardiola spent several minutes speaking with him outside the locker rooms at St Mary’s.

Romeu made his way through the famed La Masia academy after deciding to stick it out in Barcelona after those tough early years and played under Guardiola for the team he grew up supporting. In his hometown of Ulldecona he idolized Brazilian legend Ronaldo and was a true Barca fan.

“My parents always say that I was a bit mad for Ronaldo” Romeu smiles. He even played up front in his early days as he looked to emulate Ronaldo yet Romeu sheepishly admits that scoring goals quickly became an afterthought in his game.

A move to Chelsea in 2011 saw Romeu’s career take a huge step forward as he played regularly under Andre Villas-Boas but with injuries hampering his progress at Stamford Bridge and after two loan moves to Valencia and Stuttgart, it’s at Southampton where he’s found his feet. Big time. A true fans favorite at St Mary’s in just his second season at Saints, Romeu is both the midfield organizer and destroyer.

His brute force is backed up by a growing intelligence to read the game and time interceptions to perfection. He has made the third-highest amount of tackles for midfielders in the Premier League, behind only Idrissa Gueye and N'Golo Kante, and also ranks sixth in the PL for most interceptions by a midfielder.

Romeu was rewarded for his fine displays by signing a new long-term contract in January, on the eve of what he calls his favorite moment in his career so far. He put in a man of the match display as Southampton beat Liverpool at Anfield to secure a place in the EFL Cup final at Wembley.

“The favorite moment of my career was that semifinal at Anfield when we beat Liverpool away. That was my happiest day as a footballer,” Romeu smiled, again. “We played amazing football and we got to a final and along with the fans we were all there enjoying and playing against a top side like Liverpool. That’s the top moment. When Longy [Shane Long] scored, we all went mad! Fighting for that final, it was so close and if they scored it would be going to extra time. So when he scored it was one of the happiest moments of my career, no doubt.”

This season there’s no doubt it has been the best of his career and Romeu credits this to his growing confidence as he plays week in, week out in Southampton’s midfield. He’s been named Southampton’s Player of the Month on three occasions by the fans as he led their charge to a heroic EFL Cup final defeat, plus a historic campaign which saw them go within one goal of reaching the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League after Romeu dominated Inter Milan in a famous win at St Mary’s.

Even after losing to Man United in the EFL Cup final, just when Saints seemed to be destined to win their first major trophy in over 40 years, Romeu chooses to take the positives from that experience.

“We hope that we can play at Wembley many times,” Romeu said. “It was a day that straight after we didn’t have a good feeling. But looking back now after a couple of months, it was a day to remember. We all had a very, very good feeling playing in that stadium. There was an amazing connection with our fans and since that day we have started to play better football and the fans started to realize we are trying to do our best. We didn’t win, we didn’t get the title we wanted, but there are so many positives to take.”

In the aftermath of that defeat, Romeu was inconsolable on the Wembley pitch as tears poured down his face as he wore the captain’s armband.

He and his teammates had given everything and with the score locked at 2-2 in the 62nd minute, he beat Paul Pogba to a header from a corner but the ball hit the post and was cleared. If Romeu’s header had gone in, there would not have been a more fitting scorer of a cup-winning goal for Southampton, especially at the exact same time as Saints’ fans were also lighting up their end of Wembley with a tribute to their savior and former owner Markus Liebherr who passed away at the age of 62.

Romeu’s song is sung with gusto each and every game by Southampton’s fans and the Catalan admitted he’s never received that kind of adulation anywhere else in his career.

When Romeu steps out onto the pitch against his old club Chelsea on Tuesday — he is once again available after a two-game ban for picking up 10 yellow cards this season — he’s no longer a kid from Catalan among Chelsea’s superstar squad. He’s a beast from Ullcedona who is capable of dominating their midfield.

Romeu credited current Saints boss Claude Puel (who was also a midfield destroyer in his playing days) with improving his game since he arrived last summer as he made the Spaniard a key part of his team.

“He is always trying to help me with the structure of the team. As a midfielder you always have players around yourself. If I can help the team to get tactically ready, it helps the team a lot,” Romeu explained. “We know in this league that sometimes the team gets unorganized and everyone is out of their place. Basically, in me he wants to have someone who makes sure everyone is back in their place and the team is ready to go again. Apart from having that faith in me and playing me in so many games, he is always trying to teach me in different parts of my game.”

Puel has recently compared Romeu to another Frenchman as his talents start to become widely appreciated alongside a growing number of holding midfielders in the Premier League who are garnering added respect. The likes of Kante at Chelsea, Gueye at Everton, Ander Herrera at Manchester United and Wanyama at Tottenham have all become integral for their respective teams.

It is said that in the summer of 2015 Leicester City had two options (former boss Claudio Ranieri also mentioned Jordy Claise, who signed for Southampton too, was in the conversation) when looking to buy a new holding midfielder: Kante or Romeu.

Kante went to Leicester and Romeu went to Southampton and both proved to be fine signings. Romeu admitted that when Saints signed him in 2015 he was not at the best moment in his career and was struggling after a loan spell at Stuttgart. He has more than repaid the faith Saints showed in him to help him rebuild his career.

Both Kane and Romeu will do battle in the center of midfield at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday and with Kante named the PFA Player of the Year on Sunday for his fine destructive displays in midfield, Romeu’s manager believes his midfield destroyer is close to Kante’s level.

“N’Golo Kante brings the same qualities as Oriol Romeu for us. Without Kante it is difficult for Chelsea. Without Romeu it is difficult for us. For me, Oriol is not far off Kante,” Puel explained. “He is very consistent. Every game he gives a good performance and is strong on the recovery of the ball. He has a lot of qualities to also start on the ball and for me, he is at the same level. He’s a great player for me. But for the moment we cannot play for the first place of the table and he is not on the TV, but we will see for the future. For me he can go also to the selection with Spain for example.”

Representing Spain is also at the forefront of Romeu’s mind as a former coach of his at national team youth levels was Julen Lopetegui, the current head coach of the Spanish national team.

“As a footballer it is one of your dreams,” Romeu said. “When you are younger you see the national team playing and you say ‘oh, hopefully one day’ but it seems so far away. Now, honestly, I am feeling very good and the coach from the national team has been training with me in the U-23s. He knows the way I am and if he wants me to go there, I feel like I am ready to go. We will see what happens.”

A thoughtful individual who can often be found reading books in his spare time, beating everyone at table-tennis and even darts in the team lounge, Romeu allowed his mind to wander back to when he first arrived in England at Chelsea almost six years ago. Things were very different.

He admitted that he’s even surprised himself at how far he’s come since then.

“I see myself playing matches a few years ago and now I try different things and do different things, I’ve tried to learn to obviously get better and to be one step ahead. This year while I’m playing, I’m even discovering new things about myself because I’m playing on a level that I probably wasn’t expecting before,” Romeu smiled. “Before, I wasn’t feeling that I could do the things that I am doing now. It’s time to see how far I can go. I just want to keep going and see how long it will last. I’m feeling good.”

Romeu’s club and his teammates are in a very similar position.

Each and every season Southampton have been written off after selling on key names – Wanyama, Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle were the latest to exit last summer – but somehow they dig deep to grind out more from each player and secure a top 10 finish. This season, with new manager Puel at the helm, Saints are on course for their fourth-straight top 10 finish in the Premier League after competing in the Europa League and reaching a major cup final.

Puel has hailed Romeu’s importance to Southampton’s future.

“He learned with Barcelona and we can see this. He feels the play and feels the game with passes disguised and quality on the pitch,” Puel said. “He is very important in our start of the play. I like this.”

What’s the next step for Saints and Romeu? To challenge for a UEFA Champions League spot?

Romeu hopes that is achievable in the next “three or four years” at Southampton.

“That would be the main target. Definitely. That would be something so nice,” Romeu said, puffing out his cheeks. “There are teams, even top teams this year, that are struggling to get there. You need to be very, very consistent and have a very, very strong team. We will see if we can get that. Looking at our team now, if all the players injured were okay and if everyone playing is in his best moment, we will have a very strong side. Hopefully we can keep building into this structure that we have in this team and can get even better next year.”

Although there’s still a tinge of disappointment at Southampton that they couldn’t get past Manchester United at Wembley to seal Europa League action for a third-straight season, Romeu believes the potential to not have European games next season could be a blessing in disguise. He’s a man who knows all about European action after being part of the Chelsea’s squads which won both the UEFA Europa League and the UEFA Champions League.

“We are seeing recently that the teams that are not playing in Europe, they feel better in the league and get in better positions at the end of the season. Last year with Leicester and this year with Chelsea,” Romeu said. “So we need to take that part of next year as something good, not something negative.”

Always positive after coming through plenty of testing times at home and abroad, Romeu is far from the end of his journey.

Southampton is certainly glad a young midfielder decided to keep making those trips from one side of Catalonia to the other nearly 15 years ago.

Ahead of his return to PL leaders Chelsea he is, as ever, reflective about his days at Stamford Bridge as a youngster. Perhaps the biggest compliment which can be paid to him is that Chelsea fans often flood social media feeds discussing Romeu’s displays with comments such as ‘why did you leave Chelsea?’ and ‘come back to Chelsea, Oriol.’

“It was probably a learning period of time. I was very young and I was sharing a dressing room with amazing players, idols for me then and now. I could learn a lot from them, the way they approached games and trained on a daily basis. It was a very good period. I was very happy to be there [at Chelsea]. To go back there it is nice and it will be good to play against some players I have a good relationship with and I get on with very well. It is always nice to go back there and play against them… and hopefully beat them!” Romeu laughed. “I think Chelsea have done amazingly and they are in the best position. They cannot relax. This league does not allow you to bring your level down one step.”

Romeu has taken his level up several steps and he shows no signs of stopping that climb now.

USMNT’s Boyd signs with Besiktas

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Add another American to the list of players who will be playing in UEFA competitions this fall.

Turkish giant Besiktas announced on Monday that it had signed winger Tyler Boyd to a four-year contract in a transfer from Portuguese side Vitoria Guimaraes. Boyd has had a pretty impressive last six months, from scoring six goals in 14 games with Ankaragücü in the Turkish Superlig on loan, to scoring goals and making the Gold Cup roster for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

[READ: Transfer Rumor Roundup]

The New Zealand-born pacey winger completed a one-time switch to play for the USMNT in May, and he went on to score a brace in the USMNT’s Gold Cup opener against Guyana. While Boyd made five appearances for the U.S. this summer, he was left on the bench as the U.S. bowed out to Mexico, suddenly appearing out of Berhalter’s plans as quickly as he entered them.

Regardless, this is a great move for Boyd, assuming he can get some first team minutes. It’s a big step up from Ankaragücü to play for Besiktas, which not only includes the heated Istanbul derbies against Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, but next season will also include at least six matches in the UEFA Europa League. By finishing third in the Turkish league, Besiktas earned a place direct in the Europa League group stage.

Of course, like we saw this summer with the USMNT, Boyd has to break into a more talented group of players and earn minutes, both for league and European matches. If he’s not playing much, it’s possible we won’t see much of him with the national team, as Jordan Morris gets regular playing time as well as others in that position like Timothy Weah, Corey Baird and possibly Kenny Saief, now that he’s back with Anderlecht.

Boyd is undoubtedly a talented player. Hopefully, this move up in stature and pressure can help the 24-year-old take his game to a new level.

Report: Manchester United “miles” apart on Maguire deal

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Yesterday, the English tabloids exploded with reports that Manchester United was nearing a deal with Leicester City to make Harry Maguire the most expensive defender in the world with a $100 million deal nearly completed. Some even went so far as to suggest a medical would take place on Monday – today.

Now, there seems to be an about-face as ESPN senior writer Mark Ogden reports that the two sides are “miles away” on a potential deal, as his source describes it.

According to the report, Manchester United’s last bid of $50 million is much closer to their valuation of the player, and while Leicester City is holding out for a world record bid, the two sides have not made much movement towards an agreement. They are willing to go up to $75 million with another bid, but that is still well off the Leicester City price tag.

Ogden writes that Manchester United’s first choice was Dutch defender Matthijs de Ligt, but he is nearing completion on a move to Juventus, and if the reports over the last few weeks are to be believed, Manchester United was never really in play. De Ligt was handed significant wages at Juventus, something Manchester United may not have been willing to do.

They turned their sights towards Maguire, but with three weeks left in the transfer window, there apparently needs to be significant work done on a deal to move it across the finish line. Ogden writes that there is “confidence” within Manchester United that Maguire wants the move, but that’s nothing if the two clubs can’t come to an agreement.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: James to Atletico, Rondon to China

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It has seemed for weeks that James Rodriguez is just a formality away from becoming a Napoli player, with Real Madrid motivated to offload the Colombian and Napoli appearing equally as excited to bring him on. However, as the weeks drag on without any official announcement, things may have begun to sour.

According to a number of reports in Spain, Real Madrid were upset with Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis due to comments made by the Italian. With Real Madrid insisting any would-be suitor pony up immediately with a permanent deal, de Laurentiis went public with his insistence on a loan with an obligation to buy. “We are all prepared to make sacrifices for James Rodriguez, but we ask Real Madrid to make them too,” de Laurentiis said to Sky Sport Italia. “We’ve not given up, but in order to break the ice we need Madrid to consider that rather than have an unhappy player sitting around, they should send him out to play. Perhaps on loan.”

That reportedly upset Real Madrid enough to the point where they have shifted focus to Atletico Madrid, willing to deal with a direct rival rather than capitulate to Napoli’s wishes. The reports also state that Rodriguez is on board, growing frustrated with Napoli’s wavering desire for his services. Atletico is also an attractive destination for the Colombian given the gap up front created by the departure of Antoine Griezmann. They have spent all the Griezmann money on Portuguese youngster Joao Felix, but with such a departure, there is always a power vacuum Rodriguez could exploit.


According to Lyall Thomas of Sky Sports, Championship side West Brom has agreed to sell Salomon Rondon to Chinese club Dalian Yifang where he will reunite with manager Rafa Benitez.

The report states the deal between the clubs is done and the player now must agree to personal terms, with the possibility for official confirmation of the deal in as little as 48 hours. It is unclear what the value of the deal is, but Sky mentions that Rondon has a release clause in his contract worth $20.6 million.

Rondon spent last season on loan at Newcastle with Benitez after West Brom was relegated the season before. He was a superb creative force, scoring 12 goals across all competitions, good for second on the team behind Ayoze Perez. The 29-year-old is an experienced attacker with 78 international caps for Venezuela.


Sheffield United is preparing for its first season in the Premier League since the 2006/07 campaign, and they are looking for reinforcements to bolster their lineup and avoid the straightaway drop they faced last time in the top flight. Having already broken the club transfer record by acquiring Callum Robinson from Preston North End for $10 million, they are now looking to beat that number again.

According to The Guardian, the Blades had a $19 million bid for striker Oli McBurnie rejected by Swansea City. The Championship side is reportedly desperate to keep the 23-year-old after already offloading Daniel James to Manchester United.

McBurnie, a Leeds-born Scottish international, scored a massive 22 goals for the club in 42 Championship appearances last season as the club finished ninth in the table, plus he another two in a pair of FA Cup games. He first arrived at Swansea in the summer of 2015 in a deal with Bradford and was loaned out three separate times before sticking with the first team last season.


Roma technical director Gianluca Petrachi has issued a hands-off warning for Tottenham target Nicolo Zaniolo, saying the defender isn’t for sale.

“I have to work to try to get the best out of Zaniolo,” Petrachi said during a press conference for Leonardo Spinazzola’s unveiling. “I am also a very practical person, I have direct contact with my players. I never put Zaniolo up for sale, nor did I say it was on the market. The market is full of surprises, but today Zaniolo is not on the market.”

The 20-year-old joined from Inter last summer and signed a contract through the summer of 2023. There have been reports that Spurs are circling due to Zaniolo’s unhappiness with Petrachi reportedly breaking off new contract negotiations upon his arrival. There were even rumblings of a swap deal for Spurs defender Toby Alderweireld.

The youngster was a mainstay for Roma last season once he earned a starting place in early November, making 27 Serie A appearances and scoring four goals.

Ajax exec Overmars makes Ziyech sales pitch to Arsenal

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Ajax technical director Marc Overmars has made a public pitch to Arsenal for winger Hakim Ziyech, who he believes would be high enough class to directly replace Mesut Ozil at a fraction of the cost.

The 46-year-old Dutchman, a former Gunner during his playing days when he spent three seasons at Highbury, made a bold and direct statement, calling out his old club to make a change in the attack that he believes will benefit them greatly. In fact, he insinuated that the two sides already spoke, but he was rebuffed, a surprising result to the Dutchman.

“I am a bit surprised that it is still so quiet around Hakim,” Overmars told Dutch publication Voetbal International. “I think he has played better every year and his statistics are exceptionally good. Many clubs are increasingly looking at that.”

It’s no surprise the technical director of a selling club is playing up one of his players, but it was only just beginning for Overmars, who specifically said Arsenal should rethink its strategy. “I think Hakim Ziyech is better than Mesut Ozil. I would say sell him and you will get Hakim for half [the price]. But they [Arsenal] didn’t listen to me. So it could just be that he stays with Ajax.”

It’s certainly quite a shock to see such a brazen public statement from an executive when most involved in transfer dealings are all too happy to keep the inside information out of view.

Ozil, who turns 31 in October, is a polarizing figure at Arsenal, where he has produced a host of brilliant and glittering moments but also gone missing for extended periods of a long season. He has failed to truly push Arsenal towards a genuine title challenge since arriving from Real Madrid in 2013, having secured just three FA Cup titles in his time at the Emirates, a relatively disappointing haul at a club that prides itself as one of the biggest in the English game.

The 26-year-old Ziyech is one of the stars of Ajax’s surprising Champions League run this season, helping the club reach the seemifinals and serving as an experienced presence in a squad bursting with young talent. He scored five goals and assisted four more in 17 Champions League matches and added another fantastic Eredivise haul to his wonderful season, scoring 16 league goals and assisting 17 more in 29 top-flight matches. Ziyech has 12 goals in 23 international matches for Morocco and started all four of their matches in this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations, failing to find the back of the net before the country was eliminated in the Round of 16 by Benin.

In the interview, Overmars also lauded David Neres for rejecting a move to China last winter, pointing out how well it worked out for both the club and player, with Ajax reaching far into the Champions League and Neres earning an international call-up.