Josh Maja: League One to Ligue 1
Season two of Sunderland ‘til I Die premiered on Netflix last week. The opening three episodes featured a complex sub-plot concerning the contract stalemate and transfer saga of their striker, Josh Maja.
The 21-year-old would score 16 goals for Sunderland in the first half of the 2018/19 campaign, before being poached for £1.5 million by Ligue 1 side Girondins de Bordeaux.
To viewers of the series, Sunderland’s new owner Stewart Donald might have appeared out of his depth during his discussions with various high-profile figures at the club. Donald seemed bemused at Maja’s desire to leave a third-tier football club, 270 miles from home, after scoring 16 goals in half a season. He was perhaps naïve, venturing into majority ownership of a football club for the very first time.
However, what transpired did not occur due to the new owner’s naivety or even poor financial decision-making, of which there was one notable instance. Donald inherited player contracts written up during the previous regime, some of which were bordering on obscene, while others hugely undervalued players now integral to the first-team setup. While it is possible Sunderland could have offered Maja a blockbuster contract, it is understandable that they did not, given their limited budget and cost-cutting measures.
Blame for failing to retain the striker should not be laid entirely at the door of Stewart Donald. He took stewardship of the club at a time when Maja – the club’s burgeoning young asset – had one year remaining on his contract. At that point the player’s representatives have the upper hand in any negotiation, never mind at a club as desperate as Sunderland.
Despite Donald’s protestations that Maja was not considered a big name among Sunderland supporters at the time of his takeover, that was simply not true. Maja, Bali Mumba, Joel Asoro and Benjamin Mbunga-Kimpioka were all highly rated from their days in the Academy of Light. Asoro and Maja had even featured as the club’s two young stars during the first season of Sunderland ‘til I Die.
Maja had been involved in matchday squads two seasons prior, while they were still in the Premier League. He had scored a handful of goals as an 18-year-old in Premier League 2 and subsequently became a bit-part player in Sunderland’s Championship campaign. Amid a downward spiral, for at least two seasons prior to Donald’s purchase of the club it was clear Maja was one of few players on an upward trajectory.
While former Chief Executive Martin Bain nursed his back in a state-of-the-art cryogenic chamber, Maja’s contract wound down to the stage where a 20-year-old striker and his agent could hold a football club with a 49,000-seater stadium to ransom. It may be appropriate to say that Bain had other things on his mind: Darron Gibson’s antics after training or Jack Rodwell’s apparent unwillingness to budge on his £77,000-per-week contract, perhaps. But the latter displayed once again how the running of Sunderland AFC was not indicative of a club with forward planning in mind. This was the club Donald inherited.
And so Girondins Bordeaux benefitted – in fact, they had Sunderland’s pants down, signing Maja at a cut-price £1.5 million with six months remaining on his Sunderland deal, where he was earning less than £1,000 per week. Since joining the Ligue 1 side 14 months ago, Maja has found his game-time somewhat restricted, particularly during his initial six months. It has been reported though, that the London-born striker earns more per week at Bordeaux than he was annually in the North East.
His 2019/20 campaign has borne fruit in more ways than one, with more frequent appearances, even if his starts have been sporadic.
First inspection of Maja’s statistics yield seemingly underwhelming results: eight goals in 24 appearances in all competitions this term. Consider this, though: Maja made an appearance in each of Bordeaux’s first seven Ligue 1 games this season, but featured for just 131 minutes across them. His season has been punctuated by frequent substitute appearances and infrequent starts. He has featured in just shy of 900 minutes in all competitions. This considered, those eight goals and three assists do not look like such a poor return after all.
Averaging a goal involvement every 81 minutes after joining from a third-tier side is no small feat. To do it without a succession of starts is even more impressive. Eight goals in eight starts is an encouraging return for any foreign player operating in their first campaign in a top five league.
What has made Maja so successful in such little time is the combination of his innate striker’s ability and set of impressive technical and physical attributes. The newly-capped Nigerian international is not likely to be challenging Kylian Mbappé any time soon, but he is playing at the required standard at the top level, which should not be ignored. In fact, Maja – seven days Mbappé’s junior – does share some characteristics with the Ballon d’Or nominee: namely his tendency to play on the shoulder of an opposition defender.
Bordeaux’s opening goal against Nîmes Olympique in December exemplified how well Maja times his runs. For someone who plays on the final line of defense, he rarely strays offside. Maja averages 0.5 offsides per 90 minutes for Bordeaux this season, which equates to just one instance every other game. His spatial awareness and game knowledge is good, too.
In this example against Olympique de Marseille, Maja purposefully steps back in front of the defensive line, placing his weight on his back leg before exploding in the moment immediately preceding the pass. Note as well how he positions himself to create the largest separation from his opponent. Not only does it give him the advantage over the defender, who is out of position, but the burst of acceleration allows him to set himself with the ball at his feet a split-second sooner.
At the Stadium of Light, Maja was heralded for taking chance after chance. One of Sunderland supporters’ main gripes in the second half of last season was their lack of a potent focal point: a striker who scores goals.
Maja’s eight goals and eight starts in 2019/20 suggest he has only improved in that regard, especially considering he is now playing at a higher level. His current non-penalty goals per 90 figure stands at 0.74 – enough to place him in the 96th percentile of all strikers across Europe’s top five leagues – though his xG figures suggest he is over-performing to some extent. Nonetheless, extrapolating 0.45 NPxG per 90 over the course of a season would theoretically deliver 17 goals – a figure which betters four in five top level strikers this season.
Maja’s high xG output can largely be credited to his intelligent penalty-box movement. It might be an old cliché, but he does create his own chances by positioning himself in dangerous areas. That innate striker’s instinct, knowing where loose balls will drop, remaining alert and conscious of where markers are, make Maja a lurking threat.
At the beginning of this move against AS Saint-Étienne which results in a Maja goal, the 21-year-old has five green shirts between him and the ball.
In a matter of seconds, the ball is in the back of the net. Maja has eluded his marker, exploited Saint-Étienne’s defence, who are all sucked too deep towards the six-yard box, taken the ball down and finished. There are seven green shirts inside the penalty area, and yet the ball falls to Maja.
He is enveloped by green, acknowledging where there is space and where there is not. Despite the congested penalty area, he has a yard or two to himself, his shot unobstructed. Knowing where to position himself in the areas of the pitch where he can be most effective is difficult to quantify, but exceedingly important. Maja finds those spaces time and time again.
The characteristics outlined above suggest Maja is a poacher, a Javier Hernández-type player whose influence on proceedings wanes the further away from the opposition’s goal he is. Despite most of Maja’s successful finishes coming within 12 yards from goal, this is not quite true for the Nigerian.
Statistically speaking, his Expected Assists (xA) value of 0.15 per 90 places him in the top quarter of forwards in Europe’s top five leagues for creativity. His 0.25 assists per 90 indicate he is once again slightly over-performing in this regard, again more than likely due to a small sample size of 725 league minutes.
His creativity has been something to note, and an area of his game which seems to have developed since leaving Sunderland. On Wearside, Maja was much more pre-occupied with playing as an out-and-out striker, being serviced in areas where there is a higher probability of scoring. At Bordeaux, that is changing.
In England, Maja was adept at receiving the ball on the turn, mainly on the edge of the box. By dropping into deeper areas at Bordeaux, he is utilising that for the benefit of counter-attacking phases. Against Nîmes – his crowning performance of the season – he scored his first professional hat-trick, but also assisted Nicolas De Préville. By luring in the defender, and using some neat footwork and body-positioning on the turn, Maja evaded the challenge to play his team-mate through.
Maja’s willingness to drop into less congested areas to receive the ball shows development, but also a further example of his manipulation of space. He is very good at doing that in the penalty area, but it is an entirely different entity to identify space between defensive and midfield lines in build-up.
Strengthening this trait would make him an effective influence as a second-striker, although he would still need to improve his link-up play.
Consider this example: after 65 minutes against Stade Brestois, Maja leaves the forward line to receive from Yacine Adli with his back to goal. When the ball reaches him, he has already scanned the area. Now he has two options, one of which is out wide, where Bordeaux would have an overload on the right-hand side, but not in an area where he could immediately create an opportunity for himself or a team-mate. Alternatively, he could turn inside, but would need to position himself before receiving to seamlessly transition into a carry.
Maja elects to go inside, where Brest’s defenders have begun to drop off and where he is already in behind the midfield line. His immediate turn upon receiving Adli’s pass opens the space for him to take on a shot from a central area.
This combination of ability to turn sharply while keeping the ball under control and awareness of vulnerable spaces is an exciting proposition, and continues to develop of late.
Maja made his name in the Netflix docuseries as a sharp-shooter pining for a bigger move. Painting him as a villain of sorts was almost inevitable considering the story of Sunderland’s season and the widely-held rhetoric of ‘player power’.
Sunderland fans may be bitter or disappointed, but there is some encouragement to be taken. Between the ages of 17 and 20, Maja was nourished and nurtured at the club’s academy into a striker capable of playing at a top level. One saving grace could well be the insertion of sell-on clauses in the deal which saw him make the switch to Bordeaux.
He may be unfairly depicted as a traitor in Sunderland ‘til I Die, but the bigger story is one of a player who successfully transitioned from League One to Ligue 1, a level he will continue to grow into.