The season may only be in its early stages but already we have seen several stand-out performances from Sunderland players, old and new.
One of those that has flown out of the blocks this campaign is Josh Maja. The young centre forward was the only striker from last season to remain at the club and he’s making the most of his well-earned opportunity to lead the first team.
Josh has shown glimpses of quality from the very beginning of his first team debut on Wearside. A graduate of the Sunderland academy, Maja made his debut in August 2016 in the 2-1 League Cup win at QPR. That night he came on in place of fellow youth player Joel Asoro - who has since moved on to the bright lights of South Wales. It would be Maja’s only appearance of the campaign but relegation would see him given a lot more chances in the Championship where he made an impressive 18 appearances after recovering from a troublesome knee injury sustained during pre-season.
He also scored his first senior goal in his maiden campaign, and it was an important one. A late winner against Fulham prevented Sunderland from going a full calendar year without a home win and his clinical finish was worthy of winning any match.
Following the club’s second relegation (a friendly reminder, for anyone feeling numb to the failure of the past couple of seasons) a summer of change at the Stadium of Light saw a mass overhaul of the playing squad - many players fleeing from the perceived sinking ship chasing bigger wages and better opportunities.
Maja’s decision to remain on Wearside and his subsequent inclusion in the side, however, is testament to what kind of player he is. With new strikers coming through the door you could have been mistaken for thinking he wouldn’t get as many first team chances as first thought, but through his own merit - and injury to both Charlie Wyke and Jermaine Sinclair - Maja has been tasked with leading the line in the opening bouts of our League One campaign. To say he’s done a top job would be an understatement.
He makes himself a constant handful and his goals so far this month have been fine examples of the striker’s tenacity, his reading of the game and his eye for goal. Whether or not Maja was close to leaving at any point over the summer should be null and void at this point. He’s continuing to turn out in a Sunderland shirt and, from what has been seen so far during matches and at training, Maja is loving being Sunderland’s main man up front.
Will Maja be able to keep his place in the side when his fellow attackers return from injury?
Obviously, that question can’t be answered with any degree of certainty until Wyke and Sinclair are declared fit again. That being said, Josh Maja has, without a doubt, earned his place in the side this season.
If he continues to do as good of a job leading the line - as he has done so far - then it will be very difficult for Jack Ross to not include the 19-year-old in his starting eleven. And rightly so, because although it might be early days the manner in which Maja plays his game is beginning to remind me of another much-loved striker who captured the hearts and minds of the Sunderland faithful.
The movement for both of young Maja’s goals this season just had a predatory nature about them. The ability to find space, compose himself and dispatch efforts into the farthest reaches of the opposition’s goal is oddly reminiscent of Jermain Defoe. Nobody is suggesting that Maja could be Defoe incarnate, but there’s something there that suggests Maja’s time spent with Defoe has had a positive effect.
Fingers crossed Josh’s form continues!