Claude Puel needs this. Southampton need this. The natives of the south coast became restless, feeling stuck in a rut of less than thrilling football, and the dreaded back-to-back results had turned an unforgiving spotlight on the visit of an improving Middlesbrough team.
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Southampton lost to Crystal Palace the previous weekend, and then crashed out of the Europa League on Thursday evening, after a tepid 1-1 home draw with Hapoel be’er Sheva. It was a sign of emotion among the fans that Puel players were booed off at half-time after another disappointing period.
Enter Sofiane Boufal. The £21 million summer signing from Lille had finished the first half by being booked for booting the ball away in frustration. It installs itself to provide the decisive moment at the beginning of the second and of what it was.
Boufal has been for the purpose of 25 metres and his fizzing left-foot drive flew into the near corner of Victor Valdés ‘ net. It has been Boufal his first premier League goal and his second in Southampton colors. His first was also a screamer 1-0 home win against Sunderland, in the EFL Cup.
It is fair to say that a goal-fest has never been probably. Southampton and Middlesbrough was entered in the competition with 13 goals each of the 15 league fixtures this season, the lowest yields in the division. In addition to that, Southampton had lost Charlie Austin to injury, while Middlesbrough were without Alvaro Negredo and Gastón Ramírez.
The visitors arrived on the back of an encouraging run that had taken in the draws at Arsenal and Manchester City, but they were second best throughout here. When they were invited to respond to Boufal of the goal they had nothing.
Middlesbrough’s intentions were clear: to stay compact and try to nick something on the counter-attack. Aitor Karanka’s central midfield three worked tirelessly, the industry has been embodied by Adam Clayton – and it was clear that the onus is on Southampton to do something.
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The pressure came from the home support, who have seen some pretty disappointing stuff and whose mood has not been helped by the exit of the Europa League.
It was easy to detect the frustration in their ranks since the beginning of the race and there was no shortage of chuntering whenever the ball is on the side or rear.
The half-time whistle brought boos and it must be said that the opening 45 minutes had been difficult to watch. The only moment of excitement before the interval came on 34 minutes and it was when Viktor Fischer has risen to a bad back-pass from James Ward-Prowse.
The ever impressive Virgil Van Dijk, ran in rear of the force Fischer wide and the Middlesbrough winger then did the tour of Fraser Forster before seeing his shot saved on the line by the covering José Fonte. The rebound fell to Cristhian Stuani, whose first effort was blocked by Sam McQueen. He raised the second over the bar.
Southampton had chances in the first half and nothing better than one on 17 minutes when McQueen crossed from the left and Jordy Clasie arrived unmarked only to fluff the finish.
Jay Rodriguez, who led the line at Austin’s absence – it was only his second start of the league season – worked Valdes with a first blow when Ward-Prowse has been out of the target with a free header from Dusan Tadic’s cross.
Boufal provided the moment that sums up the opening period. At the end, he took a heavy touch from Tadic crossfield passes and finished blasting the ball in anger into the stands. It was booked – one of the seven enter Stuart Attwell of the laptop.
Puel necessary to inject a measure of urgency in the second half and he did it with a tactical tweak, in which Boufal moved inside to play off Rodriguez in the centre and Nathan Redmond was introduced on the left. Ward-Prowse went to the right and Cuco Martina has been asked to get forward from right-back.
Redmond has had an impact on his first participation, a cushioned header back for Boufal, whose shot was blocked. Boufal has been initiated, and its goal followed shortly after. He picked up the ball from Ward-Prowse and spun away from Forshaw to buy the space. The technique on the shot was beautiful – a rare moment of quality – and he has flashed past Valdes into the corner.
Could Middlesbrough meet? The answer is an emphatic no. The visiting supporters called for Adama Traoré, the jet-heeled winger, but he could not make any impact in nine minutes, he has been offered.
There is nothing wrong with the organization of Karanka’s team but the lack of quality is clear. It was Southampton who looked the likely scorers of the next goal. The substitute, Steven Davis, headed out of the target, while Rodriguez saw a header saved on the line by Clayton and, in stoppage time, he has somehow lifted over from close range, following Redmond’s low cross-cum-shot. For Puel, a single goal was enough.