Sofiane Boufal and the enduring value of physical comedy in football

In Depth

Sofiane Boufal scored an outstanding goal for Southampton on Saturday, but it was not his great dribbling skill that made it memorable. Oh no. It was the slapstick defending of two West Brom defenders.

There’s something beautiful about a breathtaking Premier League goal from an unlikely source.

That’s not to say people shouldn’t appreciate moments of greatness from some of the best footballers in the world, something we are seeing more and more of, but there’s something extra-special when the person responsible isn’t known for that sort of thing.

When Pajtim Kasami found the top corner with his wrong foot against Crystal Palace, or when Alex Tettey slammed a thunderous volley beyond Sunderland’s Vito Mannone, you could be forgiven for scratching your head mid-yelp. Wait, who just scored that?

The same goes for Boufal: the Moroccan might have been Southampton’s record signing when he joined from Lille, and his curler against Sunderland in last season’s League Cup (see below) might have been one of the goals of the competition, but Saturday’s was different.

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When a relatively unheralded player scores a great goal from range like Tettey, or produces an instinctive moment of brilliance like Kasami, all it tells you is that they were in the zone for that moment.

Solo strikes are different. The skill in a run that takes out opposition players, coupled with the composure of a finish at the end of such a run, with adrenaline running high, tells you this guy could be one of the greats. Or could have been one of the greats, depending on the point in their career at which it occurs.

No one looked at this solo goal from Gastón Ramirez (another former record Saints signing) and thought ‘this is where he kicks on’, but it did act as vindication that the talent people saw in him had always been there.

Boufal could well still kick on. Three years younger than Ramirez, it’s fair to say he’s still finding his feet in England and will hope his goal against West Bromwich Albion is the start, not the end, of his highlights package.

The winner (it always feels better when it’s the winner) blended high and low art – something which I’ll elaborate on later – and that’s what gives it a mystique not shared by every goal of its ilk.

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What makes the goal so great is the sheer stupidity displayed all round.

Sure, lesser players couldn’t have scored this goal, but greater players wouldn’t have scored this goal.

When Boufal receives the ball, he runs directly into trouble – if anything, that explains why Mauricio Pellegrino was reluctant to start the winger against a West Brom team very capable of punishing opponents who put themselves under unnecessary pressure.

Similarly, his next decision, to essentially bustle his way through two opponents, followed by another two, is the kind of stupidity that only works in a stretched game against tired legs, and even then the hit rate isn’t the greatest.

In short, it’s dumb as hell, and that’s what makes it all so great.

Well, that and the coup de grace which follows.

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After Boufal escapes the initial throng of opponents, and carries the ball forward, we have the sort of foot-race that screams ‘85th minute’. Or at least we would have done, were it not for one of the most aesthetically pleasing moments of the season so far.

Allan Nyom, chasing back, is straining every sinew. Craig Dawson, torn between continuing to back off and moving towards the ball, opts for the latter.

What follows is a collision straight out of a Road Runner cartoon, as Boufal shuffles ever so slightly and leaves the coyote that is Nyom to run directly into the painted tunnel of Dawson.

You can almost see the stars circling around the Cameroonian’s head as he sits on the turf and tries to regain his bearings, watching on from a distance as Boufal bamboozles Gareth McAuley with a couple of frankly superfluous stepovers before finding the bottom corner.

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Some of the most enjoyable goals are those where the scorer, not content with showing off his own abilities, makes sure to make his opponents look bad in the process.

The kinds of goals where a defender will look back and think: “Fair play, there’s not a lot I could have done to stop that, but I really wish I hadn’t royally embarrassed myself trying.”

Before Boufal’s effort, the best example of recent years came from Eden Hazard against Arsenal in one of those ‘it’s not whether Chelsea will win, it’s how they’ll win’ games.

It was a great display of strength and skill from the Belgian, sure, but would it have been quite the same without Francis Coquelin climbing on him and being shrugged to the ground like a koala trying to hitch a ride on the wing of a transpacific flight? I think we all know the answer there.

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There are other types of glorious slapstick in football, like Gareth Bale scoring an own goal with his face or Santiago Vergini pinging one beyond his own goalkeeper from 15 yards, but none compare to this for pure cartoonishness.

The beauty of the Nyom-Dawson collision comes from how inconsequential it is.

In all likelihood, Boufal isn’t being caught by Nyom and he still scores the same goal, but the physical comedy provides a wonderful backdrop, almost implying telekinesis on the Southampton man’s part. The goal’s so good he can conduct others’ movement around him; like Moses parting the red sea, only with more unnecessary pain.

It’s like an easter egg in one of your favourite films – just because nothing would change from it not being there doesn’t mean its presence doesn’t improve the whole package.

Other great goals can include similar moments of slapstick, as a player stops mid-run or executes a perfect drag-back to leave opponents careering towards one another, and there’s no denying the comedy value of those moments.

However, none of them occur with as much subtlety of Boufal’s, with the moment of impact occurring far enough away from play that it almost ends up out of shot.

Give that man Goal of the Season, Best Supporting Actor and Magician of the Year all at once without hesitation.

By Tom Victor


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