Moussa Djenepo’s infectious enthusiasm made him an instant hit at Southampton – on and off the pitch. Here, the summer signing discusses the highs and lows of his first season in the Premier League...
*Written in February 2020*
Southampton’s Malian winger is the life and soul of the party at Staplewood, joking with teammates and bringing his unique brand of dance moves to the dressing room.
“All the guys love him because he is always positive, creating a fantastic atmosphere and always laughing,” says Saints boss Ralph Hasenhüttl. “He gives us a positive boost every day.”
The tragic news that Djenepo’s mother recently passed away was made more upsetting, for the whole club, given her son’s joie de vivre.
The ever-present teeth-bearing grin had gone, and Djenepo was excused from Saints’ trip to West Ham.
This interview took place before the death of the woman her son describes as “the queen of my heart” who “gave me all the love to succeed”, but the 21-year-old will learn to love life again.
“It’s my personality,” he says. “I’m always happy because I know that if I’m happy in my head, I can do my best on the pitch.
“Outside of the pitch I am happy with my friends and with my teammates.
“I think it’s important to be happy, but when I work I am serious. When I don’t work, I’m happy, I smile and I joke with everybody.”
Djenepo’s English has improved in the eight months since his arrival from Standard Liège in Belgium. It still isn’t perfect, but his expressive character makes it easier to communicate.
He reveals he took lessons to improve his grasp of the language, and credits fellow French speaker Yan Valery as a major influence on helping him settle in Southampton.
“He did a lot for me when I first arrived, taking me around the training ground,” Djenepo explains.
“When I was staying in the hotel, I would go with him to his house to play FIFA. He was very important for me.
“I play as Barcelona. Yan plays as Real [Madrid] or Paris [Saint-Germain]. I always win… but sometimes he won,” he contradicts himself, reluctantly, with a typically infectious laugh.
Djenepo also tells how he received a message of support from Danny Ings before the pair had even met.
Saints’ top scorer, Djenepo says, is the player he loves to joke with the most.
“Danny’s a good guy, I love him. When I signed, the first teammate who text me was Danny,” he recalls.
“He told me, ‘welcome brother. We can do this together’. I was very happy.
“It was motivation for me. For Danny to text me is good for me, because he is a good player who has had many experiences. He can help me and I am happy to play with him.”
A Malian international with 15 caps, Djenepo has been representing the Eagles at senior level since he was a teenager, and is extremely proud of his roots.
Rather than being drawn to potential successes at club level or individual honours, his ultimate dream is to help his country win their first Africa Cup of Nations title and qualify for their first World Cup, recognising the joy such achievements would bring to his homeland.
Djenepo is the 16th Malian to play in the Premier League. The most successful of his predecessors was Freddie Kanouté, formerly of West Ham and Tottenham, whose career truly blossomed as a two-time UEFA Cup winner with Sevilla, but who still left his mark on the English game.
With 43 goals in 144 appearances, the classy centre-forward is among the top 10 most prolific African players in Premier League history.
Nowadays, Kanouté is Djenepo’s agent, determined to help the next generation of Malian players follow in his footsteps.
“Freddie is a good person,” Djenepo says. “I’m happy to work with him – he gives me a lot of advice.
“Before the games he texts me and after the games he calls me. He watches all of the games – he is my motivation.”
Djenepo also points to Sadio Mané as an inspirational figure in his career.
Senegal is a bordering country of Mali, and the current Saint takes confidence from the achievements of a man who once played in his position for the same club.
“I know Southampton produced many good players in the Premier League,” he adds.
“Sadio is a good player with a good mentality. I like that mentality – he is always positive, always ready to help a teammate, family or friend. I like this. My inspiration is Sadio.”
On the pitch, there have been flashes of Mané-esque brilliance – namely his stunning solo goals at Brighton and Sheffield United – but also extended periods out of the side, either through injury or inconsistency.
Djenepo sees 2019/20 as a learning experience and gives himself an eight out of 10 so far.
“For my first year, I think I had to work hard to show my talent,” he says.
“That was my challenge – to show the people what I can do. I believe in my talent, but if I put in hard work, I know I can do better.
“I try to observe, to analyse, to learn. I think I’m in a good way – it’s been a good year for me.”
Another key figure in his progress is his manager.
Hasenhüttl enjoys the challenge of developing players. Rarely in his coaching career has he been presented with the finished article, and Djenepo is a rough diamond the boss is excited to polish.
“Before I signed here, I spoke with the coach,” the youngster thinks back.
“I told him, ‘I am always positive and I am ready to learn because I am young. In my head I am not ready, but if I work hard with you I can be ready’.
“He told me, ‘ok, no problem. You come and we will do our best’.
“I am a young player and I am always learning, and he teaches me to learn many things. He is important for my development.”
Part of his evolution has been embracing Hasenhüttl’s demands “against the ball”.
Djenepo has the skill and ability to dribble past players and has proved he has the end product to score and create, but admits the defensive side of his game comes less naturally.
“Against the ball I think I have worked step by step. The beginning and now are very different,” he says of his progress.
“It’s about pressing, but also after losing the ball to come back to my place and help my full-back.
“Now I am better against the ball, but I am not top. I am middle I think, but I will learn to be at the top.”
Another tactical tweak for the off-the-cuff wide man to consider has been the switch to Hasenhüttl’s preferred 4-2-2-2 formation, which produced such remarkable results for the Austrian in the Bundesliga, leading RB Leipzig to finish runners-up in their first season after promotion.
“It’s different, because in position number 10 you are inside, but if I am a winger I am always outside,” Djenepo explains. “But I watch the games, I learn and I think I can do it.”
Another endearing aspect of his eternal positivity is that Djenepo is aware of some criticism that has come his way from Saints fans on social media.
Most, he says, have shown him support, and he speaks of the lift he gets from hearing his name sung at St Mary’s, but he admits to reading negative stuff too.
“I know some fans – not all, but some fans – say I’m not good,” he reveals, unprompted, as if this is something he would like to get off his chest.
“For me, I never change. If I see some comments on social media I don’t care, but I take this to work as motivation.
“As a football player, you cannot play your best game in all games. I will do all I can for the fans.
“Some games you are not good and sometimes you are very good, but if some people cannot understand this, they come to tell something to you.
“I like to take this to work. I know I can always help my team and I know my teammates believe in me.”
What would have done wonders for his confidence were the two goals that announced Djenepo’s arrival on these shores.
After much deliberation, he chooses the winner at Sheffield United, crowned September’s Premier League Goal of the Month, as his favourite of the two.
“Even before I signed, I knew I could do something in the Premier League,” he asserts.
“I know my teammates believe in me, the coach and all the people of the club believe in me.
“I say, ‘ok, this is for me to work to show my talent’. My goals against Sheffield and Brighton helped me.
“I think I can do better, but I work for this.”