Claude Puel needed this. Southampton needed this. The natives on the south coast have become restless, feeling stuck in a rut of less than thrilling football, and dreadful back-to-back results had turned an unforgiving spotlight on to the visit of an improving Middlesbrough team.
Southampton had lost at Crystal Palace the previous weekend and then crashed out of the Europa League on Thursday night, after a tepid 1-1 home draw with Hapoel Be’er Sheva. It was a sign of the feeling among the fans that Puel’s players were booed off at half-time after another disappointing period.
Enter Sofiane Boufal. The £21m summer signing from Lille had finished the first half by being booked for booting the ball away in frustration. He settled himself to provide the decisive moment early in the second and what a moment it was.
Boufal took aim from 25 yards and his fizzing left-footed drive flew into the near corner of Victor Valdés’s net. It was Boufal’s first goal in the Premier League and his second in Southampton’s colours. His first had also been a screamer in a 1-0 home win against Sunderland in the EFL Cup.
It was fair to say that a goal-fest was never likely. Southampton and Middlesbrough had entered the contest with 13 goals apiece from 15 league fixtures this season – the lowest returns in the division. Moreover Southampton had lost Charlie Austin to injury, while Middlesbrough were without Álvaro Negredo and Gastón Ramírez.
The visitors had arrived on the back of an encouraging run, which had taken in the draws at Arsenal and Manchester City, but they were second-best throughout here. When they were asked to respond to Boufal’s goal they had nothing.
Middlesbrough’s intentions were clear: remain compact and try to nick something on the counter-attack. Aitor Karanka’s central midfield three worked tirelessly – the industry was personified by Adam Clayton – and it was clear that the onus was on Southampton to make something happen.
The pressure came from the home support, who have seen some pretty underwhelming stuff and whose mood was not helped by the exit from the Europa League.
It was easy to detect the frustration in their ranks from the early running and there was no shortage of chuntering whenever the ball went sideways or back.
The half-time whistle brought the boos and it had to be said that the opening 45 minutes had been a difficult watch. The only moment of excitement before the interval came on 34 minutes and it was when Viktor Fischer surged on to a sloppy back-pass from James Ward-Prowse.
The ever impressive Virgil Van Dijk raced back to force Fischer wide and the Middlesbrough winger then went round Fraser Forster before seeing his shot cleared off the line by the covering José Fonte. The rebound fell to Cristhian Stuani, whose first effort was blocked by Sam McQueen. He lifted the second over the bar.
Southampton had chances in the first half and none better than the 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 in Austin’s absence – it was only his second start of the league season – worked Valdes with a first-time shot while Ward-Prowse was off-target with a free header from Dusan Tadic’s cross.
Boufal provided the moment that summed up the opening period. At the very end of it he took a heavy touch from Tadic’s crossfield pass and ended up blasting the ball in anger into the stands. He was booked – one of seven to enter Stuart Attwell’s notebook.
Puel needed to inject a measure of urgency in the second half and he did so 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 was asked to get forward from right-back.
Redmond had an impact with his first involvement, a cushioned header back for Boufal, whose shot was blocked. Boufal was primed and his goal followed shortly afterwards. He picked up the ball from Ward-Prowse and spun away from Forshaw to buy himself some space. The technique on the shot was beautiful – a rare moment of quality – and it flashed past Valdes into the corner.
Could Middlesbrough respond? The answer was an emphatic no. The travelling supporters called for Adama Traoré, the jet-heeled winger but he could make no impact in the nine minutes that he was afforded.
There was nothing wrong with the organisation of Karanka’s team but the dearth of quality was plain. It was Southampton who looked the likelier scorers of the next goal. The substitute, Steven Davis, headed off-target, while Rodriguez saw a header cleared off the line by Clayton and, in stoppage time, he somehow lifted over from point-blank range, following Redmond’s low cross-cum-shot. For Puel, one goal was enough.
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