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THE VERDICT | Can Sofiane Boufal take Southampton to the next level?

The news that Sofiane Boufal had completed a move to Southampton should come as no general surprise. After all, Lille, his former club, were under huge financial pressure, even after the sales of Sehrou Guirassy and Djibril Sidibe.

The construction of the Stade Pierre-Mauroy came at great expense to the municipality and the team, as primary tenants, are shouldering a share of the cost to the tune of €7.5M per year.

This, of course, has the knock-on effect of necessitating player sales to a degree that far exceeds that of any of Les Dogues´competitors in Ligue 1. Money was needed, and Boufal´s combination of age and talent made him easily the club´s most attractive asset.

Southampton, though, would seem a peculiar destination. Watford had also been linked, as well as Inter Milan, both clubs seemingly more in need of an attacking player of Boufal’s ilk than Southampton.

Dusan Tadic has enjoyed two fine seasons since arriving from FC Twente, while Nathan Redmond had also arrived at considerable cost. Redmond is more of a traditional winger than is either Boufal or the Serbian, but with Claude Puel having started the team´s season with a 4-3-1-2 to accommodate a raft of central midfielders, how to fit together his attacking players seemed to be a bit of a conundrum.

Boufal is unavailable for the time being, not having played football since the end of last April, having suffered a knee injury that curtailed his summer, making him unable to participate in Lille´s preseason.

But when he returns, fans at St. Mary´s will surely clamor to catch a glimpse of the club´s record signing, so how could Puel organize his team to wring the best out of the Moroccan and the other players at his disposal?

The 4-3-1-2 makes sense for the time being, as Puel has somewhat of a logjam in central midfield, with Steven Davis, James Ward-Prowse, Jordy Clasie, Oriol Romeu all available, as well as highly regarded prospect Harrison Reed and summer signing Pierre-Emile Hojberg.

Nathan Redmond had been deployed as the second striker alongside one of Charlie Austin or Shane Long, but despite the former Norwich City player putting in a great amount of effort, his pace and energy have so far resulted in a poor return, as Southampton have scored just two goals in three matches.

Thus, another attacking option was necessary, but neither Boufal or Tadic is best suited to playing as part of a striking partnership. Although Tadic can do a job there, his talents are also wasted in a central position, given his abilities to cross the ball and cut inside.

A 4-3-3 would thus seem to make the most sense tactically, as Boufal is a more natural fit on the right, with Tadic´s best performances coming from the left. The role of striker is a cause for concern, as Charlie Austin isn´t the quickest, but he does have the strongest track record at the position.

Redmond or Shane Long would offer more movement but Long, while his effort is always tremendous, is far from type of player needed to keep the club up.

Redmond has looked decent enough to date up front, but much of his success has come through using his pace to create space for himself alongside a more stationary centre forward; questions abound about whether he can succeed on his own.

That said, perhaps Redmond would make the most sense; both Tadic and Boufal have shown themselves to be fairly prolific goalscorers, and with all three players having a superb blend of dribbling ability and speed, could do well to create opportunities for each other.

Steven Davis, despite being a bit long in the tooth, is capable of aiding the attack from midfield, with Hojberg potentially linking play and Clasie sitting in front of the back four.

Given the promise shown by Ward-Prowse and Reed, the two youth internationals will need to have their chance, but with a winnable Europa League group and cup competitions, there will be ample opportunity for the two youngsters, especially with Davis turning 32 in January.

Boufal, especially when played alongside two other gifted attacking players, should have every opportunity to shine.

At Lille, he was forced to be the sole attacking conduit, with Eric Bautheac often a non-factor on the wing and youngsters Yassine Benzia and Lenny Nangis still developing. This often led to some frustration, the one cause for concern with the player.

Last season, Boufal was booked twelve times in the league, along with one straight red card. As a result, he missed five league matches, and with no ready replacement, any absence on his part would necessitate yet another tactical shift. Be that as it may, Puel´s judgment of young players is phenomenal, dating to his time at Lille.

With Tadic and Redmond alongside the young Moroccan, that pressure to create and score will be considerably ameliorated. Southampton in this way provides a step up, but one which comes without the immense pressure of one of Europe´s truly elite clubs. If Boufal can embrace this new challenge, there is every chance he could be one of the Premier League´s breakout players this season.

E.D.

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