Can Djenepo really save his Southampton FC career?

I’m going to be totally honest. I did not see this coming. I imagine if we are all being honest, then none of us saw this coming. And that is totally understandable.

It would have seemed almost laughably unlikely just a few months ago, but Moussa Djenepo could well be on the path to saving his Saints career.

In a pre-season full of surprises, Ralph Hasenhuttl has completely ignored his trademark 4-2-2-2 system while defensively Saints have actually looked rather solid – a sharp contrast to the last two years. But nothing has surprised more than the revitalization of Djenepo.

Not since the halcyon days of his…first month in England have we seen Djenepo be anything close to an essential part of this team but when Saints needed an injection of something at half-time on Wednesday evening, trailing Monaco 1-0, it was Djenepo who was summoned.

Granted, much of his introduction was due to Romain Perraud only being able to play 45 minutes after returning from the broken foot he suffered at the back-end of last season, but still, the game changed in one moment. And that moment was the arrival of Moussa Djenepo.

Now, it’s important that we don’t let emotion get in the way of facts. Djenepo has at no point been able to consistently perform in Saints shirt since arriving in the summer of 2019 and one positive pre-season campaign doesn’t change that.

Daily Echo:  Djenepo celebrates with Adam Armstrong after the latter's goal against Monaco.  Image by:  Stuart MartinDjenepo celebrates with Adam Armstrong after the latter’s goal against Monaco. Image by: Stuart Martin

So before we get into the present, let’s talk about three years of disappointment.

A real statement signing when he joined the club for around £14m, Djenepo initially and immediately lived up to the heavy expectation on his shoulders, scoring twice in his first three Premier League appearances. But that was as good as it got.

A number of niggling injuries saw the winger make a total of just ten starts in his maiden campaign and in the 54 games since his impressive opening month, the Malian is yet to match that Premier League goal tally of two – adding just one more.

Last season appeared as if it might present the renewed opportunity he needed. But after starting five of his side’s first eight matches, Djenepo became a total afterthought, failing to make Hasenhuttl’s starting XI again all season.

A total of 25 minutes of action in 2022 – 18 of those coming on the final day against Leicester City – suggested Djenepo’s Saints career was fizzling towards a mundane ending – particularly after reports stated the club would listen to offers for the inconsistent attacker.

READ MORE: Djenepo on ‘family’ environment at Saints

But ten days before the start of the new campaign, Djenepo is still at Southampton. And it looks like he might actually have a role to play – potentially (and we’ll whisper it for now) – quite a big one. At times he has been just about the only bright spark in an often dark and dreary attacking team so far in pre-season.

After such a fall into the abyss, it was always going to take something pretty drastic for Djenepo to work his way back into Hasenhuttl’s plans and it seems the switch to a back-five is exactly the drastic measure he needed.

Largely wedded to his 4-2-2-2 system in his managerial career, it now seems a near certainty that Saints will start with a back-five on the opening day of the season against Spurs.

The final remaining question mark was whether Hasenhuttl would continue with his pre-season experiment once a natural left-back in Perraud returned and that was answered on Wednesday night. When the team news was released it initially appeared as a 4-2-2-2 but it ended up being the same 5-3-2 with Nathan Redmond at right-wing-back and Perraud on the left.

This is great news for Djenepo.

Daily Echo:  Djenepo pictured in pre-season.  Image by:  Matt Temple:Djenepo pictured in pre-season. Image by: Matt Temple:

Lacking the discipline and consistency of Stuart Armstrong and Moi Elyounoussi, it’s clear Hasenhuttl doesn’t trust Djenepo on the wings in his 4-2-2-2. Somewhat counter-intuitively considering the expected defensive pressure as a wing-back, playing behind the strikers in the 4-2-2-2 actually often requires more concentration and discipline than this new wing-back role.

Hasenhuttl required his wingers in the 4-2-2-2 to prioritize diligence, coming inside to help build up play while also making sure to track back and be crucial members of an oft-stretched defense. That profile sounds like Armstrong and Elyounoussi, it doesn’t sound like Djenepo.

In the 5-3-2, Hasenhuttl wants his wing-backs to cover the length of the touchline, sticking wide and making sure to either put crosses into the opposition box or be there themselves to attack balls from the other side. This sounds much more like Djenepo.

Frequently this pre-season, Djenepo has been spotted as the highest Saints player on the pitch while the increased space in the wing-back role allows him to run at defenders and utilize his long strides and dribbling ability without being forced into the tight areas where his often less than stellar close control lets him down.

Below is one example from Wednesday evening, showing both wing-backs as the two furthest forward Saints players.

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Running full speed with the ball at his feet and with space to drive into, Djenepo is incredibly tough to stop. This new position has allowed him that freedom. At his best, Djenepo is a chaos machine, his unpredictability and directness something that defenders simply have to address.

You can in theory give someone like Elyounoussi space or a moment on the ball as the Norwegian is more likely to choose a conservative choice. You can’t do that with Djenepo. Given any kind of encouragement at all, Djenepo will drive at the defense and try to make something happen.

It doesn’t always come off. In fact, it mostly doesn’t come off. But the way he plays and his ridiculously progressive attitude forces action from defenders and opens up space for his teammates.

Here is one example from the second half against Monaco. Just outside the box, Djenepo has as many as four defenders eyeing him while Elyounoussi and Ibrahima Diallo are left free.

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And below is another example from slightly later in the half. Djenepo picks up the ball just inside Monaco’s half and immediately drives into the space in front of him.

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Eventually, the Monaco defenders converge on Djenepo, leaving him free to play into Oriol Romeu running through the middle in acres of deserted space.

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The build-up to Saints’ second goal against Monaco was another great example of the kind of havoc Djenepo can create. As soon as he picks up the ball, his immediate thought is to drive into the box. His marker isn’t quite as reactive, giving up just enough room on the byline for Djenepo to wriggle through and cross.

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It’s this speed of thought – or lack of thought – that makes Djenepo both so effective and so frustrating. At times, it seems that even the player himself is unsure of what he’s going to do next, instead of just doing whatever comes naturally. This means that he makes a lot of bad decisions. But it also means he’s very tough to mark and defend against because you have no idea what you’re about to face.

The truth is we need to see Djenepo do this when it really matters before we can fully discuss any sort of resurrection. This is pre-season and that is a massive caveat on his performances. But it’s also important to remember that he’s still just 24 years old. He has time and older players have turned their careers around. It is possible, even if it is still quite unlikely.

On a human level, it’s hard not to pull for him. Seemingly with a giant smile imprinted on his face from the moment he arrives at St Mary’s, Djenepo radiates positivity – despite barely playing over the last few years and he is clearly a popular member of the squad.

Speaking to the Daily Echo after last weekend’s 0-0 draw with Watford, Djenepo was typically effusive.

“They (the new signings) come here and immediately we show them we are a good family and welcome them to the group.

“It was good to be there in Austria, it was good working together like a family. That is what is needed in the team, we need to be all together.”

Now offered a half-chance, Dejenep has taken it and run. It’s hard to ask much more than he showed in pre-season. Second chances aren’t particularly forthcoming in football and on the rare occasions, someone is given one, they need to take it. Their manager needs to see them take it. Otherwise, there certainly won’t be a third chance.

Full credit to Djenepo, he has taken his chance and clearly his manager is pleased.

Speaking to the Daily Echo about players who have helped their case in pre-season, Hasenhuttl answered:

“This is always what I ask of the players. If you know me as a manager or as a staff we are always keen to see good performances or seeing players developing what we’re asking for.”

Saints have needed an attacking facelift for a long while now and a few good pre-season cameos can’t change the fact that Djenepo has had a thoroughly underwhelming Southampton career. He probably isn’t the answer to Saints’ goalscoring problems. He’s at least not the full answer – more work in the transfer window is an absolute requirement.

But as long as Djenepo is at the club, he’ll rock up each day with a smile on his face and play at the all-action 100MPH speed that only he knows how.

Is the Djenepo renaissance real? Probably not. Do I want it to be real? Absolutely.

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