Djenepo: Perspective needed in judging Southampton man’s maiden season

Moussa Djenepo - Southampton 2019-20
Despite offering early promise, the Malian attacker endured personal tragedy before fizzling out...but did he show enough in his first year?

When Moussa Djenepo’s year at Southampton is assessed, there will be an inclination to put a negative mark on what was a mixed season in the Premier League.

After signing for a big-money move from Standard Liege, reported being around £14 million, the expectation placed on the new arrival increased significantly owing to his transfer fee.

For context, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s first signing for Saints cost more than Virgil van Dijk and was only about £6 million short on the fee paid to acquire Sadio Mane from Red Bull Salzburg in 2014. Both players have since gone on to make colossal impacts at Liverpool, taking Jurgen Klopp’s men to the pinnacle of the game at home, Europe and the world.

Following a promising breakout year with the Belgian side, the south coast club splurged on the Malian hoping he’d be a success like the current African Footballer of the Year, rather than disappoint like Sofiane Boufal, the then-promising Lille wonderkid whose impact at St. Mary’s has been hit-and-miss.

Eight domestic goals in the Belgian top flight and an additional three in five games in the Europa League, taking his tally to 11 in all competitions in 2018/19, showcased his knack for getting into goalscoring positions, a profile of attacker Hasenhuttl’s side desperately needed.

Indeed, the Saints were joint-sixth lowest scorers in 18/19, something the Austrian boss was out to correct. Fast forward to the end of the season and 51 goals scored, the highest in the bottom half, represented a six-goal increase from the previous season. However, Djenepo’s raw numbers – two goals and as many assists – added little to their overall return.

Moussa Djenepo - Southampton

This wasn’t what player, head coach and supporters expected when he signed, still, it may be harsh criticising the 21-year-old attacker heavily despite a trying season. The youngster had a more than promising start, too, scoring two goals in his first three games but the second of the pair was the highlight of his maiden year in England.

Just after the hour mark against Sheffield United in September, the young attacker picked up an under-hit pass from John Lundstram, beat defensive midfielder Oliver Norwood with skill and poise, dribbled past John Egan and Jack O'Connell with clever feints before finishing coolly into the bottom corner. It was the only goal in a 1-0 win, and Djenepo’s solo effort, a Goal of the Season nominee, was a worthy strike to win any contest.

However, that was as good as it got for the 2018 Belgian Cup winner in 19/20, as he failed to build on that bright start to add to his tally in front of goal.

The undoubted low point for Djenepo came in late February when he lost his mother just before the coronavirus halted the season.

“Rest in peace the queen of my heart. I love you forever because you gave me all the love to succeed. I will never forget you mom,” he posted on Instagram.

His emotional message on social media indicated how distraught he was at the time, a fact echoed by Hasenhuttl before the club hosted Newcastle United in early March.

“Moussa is back now from the funeral of his mum. He seems to be getting into a better mode again. It was not easy for him. We tried to help him as much as we can,” Hasenhuttl told the club website at the time. “I like to see him laughing and don’t like to see him when he is sad.

"He was not really in a good moment when he came back, but now it is getting better and better.

Unfortunately for Djenepo, his very next game against the Magpies saw the 21-year-old receive his marching orders for serious foul play after the VAR intervened to upgrade an initial yellow card to red. A devastated wideman was cheered on by the fans at St. Mary’s as his teammates consoled him, yet the logic in playing him so soon after a personal tragedy was questionable.

That’s the last that was seen of the promising forward, with a three-game suspension, niggling injuries and non-involvement meaning he couldn’t add to his 18 Premier League appearances (10 starts). A couple of goals and two assists after Southampton’s outlay may discourage supporters of the club, but an extensive observation suggests he was already buying into his manager’s ideas.

Per Fbref, Djenepo contributed to the Saints being the division’s top pressing side, harrying his opponent in possession 265 times. He was his team’s 11th highest presser but 10 of the players with better numbers, excluding Cedric Soares, played more games than the Malian.

Djenepo - Southampton vs Newcastle United 2019-20

Despite his limited minutes compared to other colleagues, the tricky winger was Southampton’s fourth-best dribbler, beating his marker 48 times from 70 attempts. He attempted 2.4 dribbles per game, third behind Boufal and Nathan Redmond (2.6 and 2.5 per match) and it’s no surprise he made 11 dribbles leading to shots – also the third-highest in the team.

Even more encouraging for Djenepo was his shot-creating actions (passes or dribbles) per 90 – 3.78 – only outperformed by Boufal, while he topped the goal-creating actions metric. He sits fifth for Expected Goals per 90 and sixth for non-penalty xG per 90.

While the talented winger endured a seemingly tough first season, his underlying numbers suggest he could turn the corner from next season as he gets even more accustomed to Hasenhuttl’s style in and out of possession.

Southampton were heavily reliant on Danny Ings for their output in the final third in 19/20, with the Englishman accounting for 43 percent of their goals. Given the overall improvement after their 9-0 drubbing at the hands of Leicester City in October, the Saints boss will demand even more productivity from his attacking contingent as the south coast side opt to break into the top 10 or even challenge for a European spot.

For Djenepo, fans of the club will hope their talented youngster grows used to life in England and also overcomes personal tragedy that truncated his season as he seeks a significant increase to his raw numbers next season.