With five goals and one assist in the league so far this campaign, Josh Maja has shown that he has matured into a clinical young forward capable of playing senior first team football. His recent form has not only earned him recognition from within the Sunderland camp, but also from the EFL who named him the EFL Young Player of the Month for August.
However, moving forward, a lot more pressure will find its way onto our budding striker’s shoulders - especially after the news that Charlie Wyke will miss 9-12 weeks of the season with a troubling knee injury.
Maja must now continue his good form at least into January because, simply put, there is limited depth to our attacking options and we will be relying on our academy graduate to find the goals required in order to keep the team fighting at the top end of the table.
During his press conference yesterday, Jack Ross hinted that he would perhaps have to mix things up somewhat in order that Maja and the rest of the team can rediscover that clinical nature we witnessed during the season’s opening exchanges:
So, we’ve had to be adaptive and flexible in that approach and we’re going to have to continue to be the same and try to be inventive in terms of how we try to win games. I think teams have probably got better in dealing with what we’ve got to offer, so it’s Important that we try to mix that up a little bit and cause them more problems.
Maja will now be Sunderland’s primary attacking outlet, and as such Jack Ross will have to alter the team’s tactical approach to game in order to best accommodate the young forward’s strengths.
Primarily, Sunderland will have to refrain from lumping hopeful balls forward - something the side has been guilty of at times this season. Nearly every team in this league has big, nasty central defenders who are up for a scrap; both fortunately and unfortunately for Sunderland, Josh Maja isn’t the kind of forward to get down and dirty with the opposition’s defence.
Charlie Wyke’s injury means that we are lacking a big, dominant forward capable of making things stick when we need to go direct. However, in Josh Maja we have a predatory finisher that also knows how to get the ball moving on the floor. In an interview with the club last year Maja labelled himself as a player that lies somewhere between an attacking midfielder and a forward; if Sunderland can better play to Maja’s strengths, we could very well see more goals.
I remembered watching a young Josh Maja provide an incredible assist (video below) back in 2015, and much like today, it’s clear to see that in order to get the best out of Maja, we need to play the ball into his feet and allow him to find runner getting past him.
Alternatively, as the above training video demonstrates, giving Maja the ball into feet allows him to either advance toward goal and make things happen, or it allows him to use his flair and skill in order to work a shooting position with his back to goal.
Sunderland need to dominate possession, and our midfield needs to be more effective in transitioning possession into attacking areas if Jack Ross’ side are to find their swagger once more. The focus will fall on the likes of George Honeyman, Lynden Gooch, and Chris Maguire to provide Maja with the quality needed to create goals.
Perhaps the most impressive attribute available to Josh Maja, though, is his level head. His maturity speaks beyond his years, and it will be his ability to analyze this situation and realize his importance to the team that will categorically confirm his quality.
It’s the ability to think critically and look beyond his opening five goals, to understand that this is an opportunity for him to grow and develop as a player, to comprehend how he can best influence the current situation at the club that will set him apart from other young strikers.
Maja reminds me of Jermain Defoe in that finishing comes naturally to him, but also in the sense that Maja comes across as a real student of the game. It’s clear to see he learned an immense amount from Defoe, his ability to make space and find the net is eerily similar to the former England international.
It’s the youngster’s humble nature coupled with his desire to prove himself that gets many excited, and as we journey forth into the rest of the season, Sunderland could do well to tailor their game to incorporate Josh Maja as Sunderland’s main man up front.