Does Sofiane Boufal have a future at Southampton?
Background image: Markhig, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Sofiane Boufal spent last season on loan with Spanish side Celta Vigo. He returned to Southampton but has largely been on the periphery. With the January transfer window now open, should Boufal consider an exit?
After spending two years with Lille, Boufal joined Southampton for £16million - becoming the club's most expensive signing. Boufal had shown real promise in France, amassing 11 goals and four assists in 29 Ligue 1 appearances - numbers a striker would be proud of. At 22 years of age, he was proving to be an exceptional talent.
His debut season in Southampton colours didn't match expections, however. Two goals across all competitions wasn't what fans had expected from their club-record addition - and it wasn't just about the lack of end product. Boufal had a tendency to lose possession and disappear in games. He clearly had the talent but producing quality performances often enough was the main problem...
Boufal's second season wasn't much different from the first. In a campaign that saw Southampton narrowly escape relegation, the Morocco international again showed glimpses of his ability. His solo goal against West Brom to win the Saints three points being the season-highlight. He'd see his chances dwindle after Mark Hughes was appointed to replace Mauricio Pellegrino with the Saints in freefall.
Hughes didn't favour Boufal and you could understand why. The Moroccan is a luxury player whose excesses are difficult to contain. He would often give the ball away and turn the other way. That led to the aforementioned loan move to Spanish shores.
Boufal has made 35 La Liga appearances and was given a free role. Three goals and three assists don't tell the whole story with Boufal proving to be a joy to watch. He was a live wire out on the left and posed a headache for opposition defenders throughout games. He began to look more like the player that drew comparisons with Eden Hazard in his Lille days before returning to England brimming with confidence and a point to prove.
Now with a new man at the helm, the Moroccan must have backed himself to thrive and force his way back into the Southampton plan. He is, after all, a Ralph Hasenhuttl kind of player. Adventurous, quick and not afraid to take risks. That said the Austrian has used him sparingly.
Boufal has made only five starts in the league. He started well but has faded away over the last two months. When he does come on, he's unable to make a substantial impact. It certainly feels like Deja vu.
In Hasenhuttl's 4-4-2 formation, Nathan Redmond has nailed down the spot on the left-wing and playing on the right doesn't suit Boufal. Hitting the byline and whipping in crosses simply isn't in is locker as we saw against Crystal Palace where he began the on the right and was ineffective until he switched to the left.
Boufal made a point after his loan spell about wanting to succeed at St. Mary's. The season might not be going his way, but he will get more opportunities to impress. Whether he is patient enough is another matter entirely, mind.
Should Boufal decide to leave the club permanently there will be no shortage of potential suitors. During the summer, Marseille was interested in landing the 26-year-old as were his former employers, Lille, and they could come for him again this month. Celta themselves would jump at the opportunity of signing him on a permanent basis. Joining a team where he would be valued might be just the catalyst to revive his career.
Four years ago, this was a player who had the makings of a superstar. It hasn't materialised and it's difficult to see it happen in Southampton. Whichever path he chooses, Boufal will have an important career-decision to make soon...