With the arrival of Sofiane Boufal from Lille for a reported fee of £16 million, Southampton became the 10th Premier League club to eclipse their transfer record this summer (West Bromwich Albion have since become the 11th, acquiring Nacer Chadli from Tottenham Hotspur).
The highly-sought-after 22-year-old is the Saints’ headline signing this window, and many English football followers will be intrigued to discover what he might bring, given the relatively superficial coverage of the French divisions in this country. Perhaps if fans had better access to other leagues rather than dabbling in in-play accas they may have a better understanding of his qualities.
What position does he play?
Boufal can play as a winger on either side or as a No.10, and while his versatility is certainly going to be useful for Southampton, it is his two-footedness that is his truly distinguishing quality: the Moroccan is naturally right-footed, but scored six of his 11 league goals in 2015/16 with his left. This is partly what makes him such an exciting prospect, because it enables a diversity and unpredictability in his game that is rarely seen at any level of football, and is undoubtedly one of the reasons why he is comfortable in several positions.
As a central attacking midfielder, this ambipedalism increases the angles available to him as escape routes in an area of the pitch that is usually congested. If he is deployed on the flanks, it gives him the ability to run on the outside or the inside channel of his opposing full-back. In a world of inverted wingers, where wide players so often attempt take the most direct but predictable route to goal, the variety of skill at his disposal makes for a refreshing and, for the opposition’s defenders, befuddling change.
Where has he come from?
Boufal began his career with Angers SCO’s youth team, and there were early concerns that he would never make it as a footballer due to his small and slight physique. However, his raw talent was enough to convince coaches to persevere with his development, and he made his first team debut in 2012, aged just 18. In 2014/15, his exceptional form attracted interest from Ligue 1 clubs and, though he would trade the west of France for the north in January, his four goals in 16 appearances during the first half of the season contributed to Angers’ promotion from Ligue 2.
51 games in all competitions for Les Dogues yielded 15 goals, and comparisons from club captain Rio Mavuba to a former adopted son of Lille, Eden Hazard. Should he acclimatise as well as the Belgian has to the Premier League, Southampton will be the great benefactors.
Where will he fit in?
Claude Puel has lined his team up in a 4-3-1-2 diamond shape, with newly-signed Nathan Redmond playing as a striker alongside either Shane Long or Charlie Austin in each of the season’s first three league games, with Dusan Tadic just behind. What will be interesting is whether he changes formation once Boufal is up to speed, as there is only one position that truly suits him in this system and, ideally, Puel would like to unite the artistry of both him and Tadic in the same side.
Redmond is trained as a winger, whereas Tadic, like the Moroccan, can play in any of the three positions behind the centre-forward in a 4-2-3-1. As a trio, they would enjoy the space created for them with somebody like Shane Long, who loves to push defenders back with his pace and keen running, spearheading the attack.
It is a tantalising thought, and Puel will hope that his new club can continue their now-annual tradition of somehow coming back stronger from high-profile departures of playing staff and managerial upheaval. If this is to occur, Boufal will probably be decisive – the record-signing possesses the tools to invigorate an underwhelming start to the campaign.