Moroccan determined to take his second chance in the Premier League with Southampton.
The return of Sofiane Boufal has been a welcome sight for Southampton supporters. Back from loan, the Moroccan admits he’s got things wrong in his Saints past, but is determined to make up for lost time with a new mindset to help him conquer the Premier League…
Having wiped the slate clean after a 12-month hiatus in Spain with Celta Vigo, he’s back at Southampton with a point to prove. He looks fitter, hungrier, more determined.
This interview is no different. Rather than see it as a chore, the maverick Moroccan takes the opportunity to open up, admit his mistakes and explain why he’s so grateful for a second crack at the Premier League.
There’s never been any doubting his talent. Combining that with this freshly-lit fire in his belly makes Boufal one to keep an eye on.
Recently turning 26, the roaming midfielder with the dizzying footwork knows it’s about the here and now. It’s time to unlock the potential.
“When I went away and when I came back… I’m not the same person,” he says, with a steely glare.
“I think I’m a lot more mature and I know exactly what I want. That’s why I work hard, because I don’t want to have regrets.
“I want to put all that I can on my side to achieve my ambitions.”
When pressed on where part one of his Saints career took a negative turn, Boufal doesn’t shirk the question. But his focus soon turns to the sequel – one he hopes will have a happier ending.
“All people make mistakes – the most important thing is not the mistake, but how you react to the mistake,” he continues.
“I think I’ve reacted well. I was looking at what was good and what was not good, and I progressed like that.
“All people make mistakes, but now I am more mature, more calm and ready to smash the Premier League.”
He grins after that last line. It’s a mixture of the old and the new Boufal. For all the intent to do well and eagerness to impress, the cheeky side to him that loves nothing more than to flummox defenders remains alive and well.
He reveals a new outlook: never take anything for granted, never get carried away, never look too far ahead.
"I want to go step by step,” he explains. “For now, I am more focused about the next game.
“I am not focused about the next ten games, or how many goals I need to score, or how many assists I need to make.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on me – I just want to play a good game.
“You always need to be focused on the next game and to keep playing well. At the end, I hope that will be good enough.”
That’s the end, but what about the beginning of the sequel? Boufal reveals there was summer interest that could have ended his Saints career prematurely, but giving up on his Premier League dream was never on the agenda.
“Since the first day I came back here, I knew I would stay,” he says. “I spoke with the club and I had good offers in the summer – maybe two or three times what I earn here in salary – but I didn’t want to go.
“They were very good offers in Europe, but I was focused on staying here. I wanted to stay in Southampton, work hard and be part of the team.
“I am a very ambitious player and I want to show the people who I am. I’m very excited about this season with Southampton.
“I love this club, I like the fans and since I left I always watched the games to see how Southampton is doing.
“The club is still the same. The club is a family club – all the people are very friendly and there is a very good atmosphere here.”
Boufal has only good things to say about his time in La Liga. It’s not that he was desperate to get away from Spain, just that he knew he had unfinished business in the red and white stripes.
“The Premier League is the Premier League – maybe the best league in the world. I love the atmosphere in the stadiums. It’s very good and I’m very happy,” he added.
“I wouldn’t say I missed it, because if I say that I think it would be disrespectful to my last club (Celta Vigo).
“I enjoyed my time there and it was a very good experience. It was a new country, a new philosophy and a new language. I loved my time there.”
What’s clear is the influence of Ralph Hasenhüttl, whose high-intensity approach and pressing from the front may have seemed at odds with Boufal’s natural game.
But this is the new, enlightened Boufal, remember, and this one is desperate to learn and embrace the demands placed on him by the boss.
“The only thing that’s changed between when I left and when I came back is the manager – that’s it,” he says.
“Since he (Hasenhüttl) came, I was watching all the games and I knew a bit about the philosophy.
“The first day I came back here, I spoke with the manager and he showed me some videos and showed me how he thinks about football.
“He wants me to play well and work hard for the team – to press, to counter-press and to play in his philosophy.
“That’s why I work hard – very hard – every day, to be ready physically to do all that he asks from me.
“It is the first time for me playing in this way, but I am very happy. For me, he is a very good manager, and the ideas he has are very good ideas.
“That’s why I do everything to be part of his philosophy and his team.”
New manager, new philosophy, new Boufal. But one thing that remains unchanged for the man with the dancing feet is the esteem in which he is held by the Saints fans.
Their support from afar on social media, he reveals, helped persuade him to knuckle down and try again when many assumed his stay on the south coast would be coming to an end.
Now back in the starting XI, the palpable sense of anticipation when he faces up a defender and the heightened roar with every sidestep are very much intact.
“Of course I feel it,” he smiles. “I think it’s my style of play, because when I have the ball, no one will know what I will do.
“But also I want to have the feeling that when I score all the people are happy. I hope to have that feeling soon.
“For a football player, when you have the fans with you and the fans like you, it’s very important.
“I have always had a good relationship with the fans. I was very happy when I saw some messages on Twitter from people wanting me to come back to the club. That also helped me to stay here.”