Premier League

Saints’ Saviour Hiding On Pellegrino’s Bench

 • by Andrew Gibney
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Sofiane Boufal arrived at Southampton in a blaze of excitement. The Moroccan international had been one of the most exciting forwards in France before making his then club-record £16million move to the south coast.

He may have only played at Lille for 18 months, but his dazzling close control and quick footwork filled a void they had failed to plug since Eden Hazard left for Chelsea in the summer of 2012.

In 43 games, the former Angers youngster scored 14 goals and added ten assists for the former Ligue 1 champions. During his one full campaign, his expected assists (xA) tally finished at 0.32 per 90 minutes.

Which is even more impressive when you consider he was also the club’s top goalscorer on 11, Euro 2016 winner Éder was next on just six.

This week, according to CIES Football Observatory, a research group who use OptaPro data to rank and sort players around Europe’s top-five league in various categories, Boufal, and his Southampton team-mate Mario Lemina, rank in the top ten in their dribbling index.

The 24-year-old was credited with 4.6 dribbles per 90 minutes, with a 53 per cent success rate.

“The dribbling index is calculated by multiplying the average number of dribbles achieved per 90 minutes with the percentage of successful ones,” the football observatory says.

Hazard leads the index with 75 per cent of his 6.4 dribbles per 90 and the likes of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Spurs midfielder Mousa Dembélé also make the top ten.

This season alone, amongst players who have played more than ten times in the Premier League, Boufal is second in both attempted and completed dribbles.

Although it should be a reason to celebrate, it isn’t: the Moroccan winger, in 48 league appearances, he has only picked up three goals and two assists since arriving at St Mary’s.

With what he is capable of on the ball, regardless of injury issues and a lack of first-team starts, from a productivity point-of-view, it’s just not good enough.

The Saints don’t have the best goal-scoring record, sitting 12th and their expected goals (xG) of 31.49 also ranks them 12th, but it is certainly not the worst and should have seen him higher up the table after 28 games.

You can’t help thinking, with a forward capable of beating his marker time and time again, they should be creating and scoring more chances.

Too often, it comes down to Boufal not making the right decision. It could be down to the lack of regular football he’s been handed, just 23 starts out of his 48 appearances, but he’s still stuck in a position of trying to do too much every time he gets the ball.

Boufal dribbling into trouble

Above, he gets the ball in an advances position against West Bromwich Albion, and as he’s going left, he tries to beat one man too many and loses possession.

Compared to Hazard this season, Boufal still loses the ball more often than the Chelsea man, up at 5.9 per 90 minutes, compared to the Belgian’s 4.7 per 90.

It’s something which can take time in the Premier League, knowing when to let go of the ball. With both players coming from the same background, you would hope with time Boufal could be more efficient.

When he’s in tight areas near the opposition box, he is great at winning free-kicks, even corners, but there are too many examples of him failing to get the ball into the box when the opportunity is there.

Boufal-Saints-Dribbling-1

A simple low cross, as seen in the example above, or to pick out his team-mate on the edge of the area, could have created a chance for the Saints.

Against Brighton & Hove Albion, when Mauricio Pellegrino brought him on at half-time with the Saints down 1-0, you could say Boufal did everything in his power to get his team back in the game, but it verged on doing too much.

In 45 minutes, he had 50 touches of the ball, but only made 20 passes.

He led his team with seven completed dribbles, but had attempted 15 overall. That’s one every three minutes, only half of which made it past his man. Sixty per cent of the time he was in possession, he didn’t find a team-mate.

Contrast his performance in the 85 minutes he had against West Brom in the league, he had 65 touches and completed four out of six dribbles, making 40 passes.

Getting the nod from the start seemed to change his attitude. He knows he’ll get time on the ball, and he is more willing to wait for the right moment.

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It wasn’t an assist to remember, but his short pass picked out Lemina before he smashed in a shot from outside the area.

Perhaps a simple move the Moroccan wouldn’t have tried if he’d come on as a sub.

Fighting with James Ward-Prowse, Dusan Tadić and Nathan Redmond for a place on the wing, it is hard for the Argentine boss to guarantee Boufal minutes, but with no one at the club picking up more than three assist this term, the others aren’t exactly covering themselves in glory.

Results haven’t gone the Saints way, sitting level on points with Swansea in 18th, the 24-year-old has impressive numbers, although with issues behind them.

Even his xA90 is down at 0.12, 0.20 less than what he managed in France, but Lille knew he was their star and they started him 27 out of 29 times during the 2015/16 campaign and as his numbers proved, he repaid their trust.

Given more time from the start, the skilful winger could be the ideal man to help Southampton secure their place in the Premier League. Play him off the bench and the signs are you are asking for trouble.

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