Can Sofiane Boufal still be a hit at Southampton?

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Has the Morocco playmaker's recent form done enough to suggest they he can be a success in the Premier League?


COMMENT    By Solace Chukwu     Follow on Twitter
 

Much of coaching can feel like a high-rise circus act, seeking a precarious balance in an impossibly delicate situation. This is no more keen that in the handling of egos; dealing with shapes and numbers, impersonal and two-dimensional as they are, is almost a relief compared to the psychological management of the players themselves.

The legendary Bela Guttmann once described management as akin to a lion-tamer's act, and it is this element of sudden, grievous risk that another visionary, the great Marcelo Bielsa, seeks to avoid when maintaining an emotional detachment from his players. All the better to make judgements; humans are, by nature, whimsical and volatile.

It is, of course, not an approach suited to everyone. All humans are volatile, but some are more volatile than others. It is dealing with this animalistic unpredictability that presents a daunting question, one which must now be answered by Southampton boss Mauricio Pellegrino.

Sofiane Boufal Mauricio Pellegrino Southampton

It is arguably the fact that the fare at St Mary's has been drab and dreary which created the sweet context for Sofiane Boufal's late winner against West Bromwich Albion in October, and his sterling display against Everton this weekend.

The Moroccan cut through the tedium, zigzagging this way and that and trailing bodies in his wake, before finishing low into the corner. Against the Albion, his was a virtuoso finish, the clichéd goal worthy of winning any game.

Was it a goal of the season contender? Very possibly, but when Southampton broke their transfer record to snap up the winger from Lille, it is unlikely they were concerned merely with providing the exclamation point of the seasonal highlight reel video. No, the goal was all the more satisfying for what it seemed to suggest: a maverick finally ready to announce himself...and there have been signs since that Boufal could yet deliver on his transfer fee.

Sofiane Boufal

It has been a long time coming, in all fairness.

Boufal has scored three times since joining in the summer of 2016, but has yet to build any cogent legacy in the Premier League. The natural question is whether he can begin to do that now, whether his goal against West Bromwich and his subsequent showings can mean something wider, bigger, finally igniting the raw genius that was glimpsed in Ligue 1.

So far this term, the Morocco international has made nine appearances in the league, but while only one of his first five performances was from the start, he's been in Pellegrino's first XI for Saints' last four fixtures.

It's a significant improvement from last season,  when he made 24, 12 of them starts. The sum of his contributions then was a solitary league goal.

Finding his feet? Trouble adapting, perhaps?

That may be so, but it is telling that, in spite of their attacking struggles, defender Maya Yoshida backed Pellegrino's decision to introduce Boufal when he did against the Albion, insisting that was the 'plan' as the game became more and more stretched. Often, players will evince some frustration when a deserving teammate is being unjustly set aside. That Yoshida did not speaks volumes in what it doesn't say.

Sofiane Boufal

His celebration too, racing to the bench to preen in front of the former Alaves manager, completed a complex puzzle: for all his talent, Boufal is perhaps too mercurial to be truly great.

He seemed to feed off the perceived slight of his continued exclusion, railing at authority.

In the first place, considering his meager return since crossing the Channel, he might have been more circumspect. Besides, being provoked into good performances is one thing, but it does not immediately suggest how that ability will translate when there isn't a grudge festering beneath the surface.

Sofiane Boufal | 2017-18 Premier League stats

Therein lies the irony: while his celebration was meant as a "see what I can do" riposte at his manager, it actually weakened his case for inclusion from the start.

Intriguingly, but perhaps inevitable due to the paucity of contribution from his other attacking options, Pellegrino has given Boufal a more integral role at Southampton since his wondergoal.

Southampton Middlesbrough Sofiane Boufal

The results have been mixed; he was worryingly neutralised against Burnley, and perhiperhal in the defeat by Liverpool, but played his part in a vibrant attacking display - albeit against a disappointing Everton side - last weekend.

In that match, he created one goalscoring chance and completed two successful dribbles, but beyond that, ensured that Saints' attacking play was quicker, smoother and more cohesive than it has been in recent matches.

It was evidence that Boufal can offer more than just flashes of brilliance and brief flickers of innate ability mottling a general sense of frustration and lack of focus. It was evidence that this maverick can take his place within a team's schema and contribute within a coach's attacking philosphy.

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Since his arrival from Lille, where he scored 11 times and laid on five more in 27 starts in 2015/16, the Premier League has been waiting for him to demonstrate than he's more than just an erratic show pony.

Much of that is to do with the reputation that preceded him: dubbed the heir to Eden Hazard in France, the same instant transformative impact was expected. Against the Baggies, some of that fiery ability was evident, and it isn't a stretch to say that not many could have executed a goal of that calibre, while Boufal hinted against Everton how he could yet shine at Saints.

That there will be a wider context to it; that it will be the start of anything, remains to be seen. Unpredictability is a useful trait for a player, but not so much for a team, and even less so for a manager, as it cannot be incorporated into any sort of gameplan. The signs, such as they are, are not good.

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