High energy, relentless pressing, hurling heritage, and a cute finishing quirk – Liam Tharme highlights the subtlties of Aaron Connolly's game.
Crowned as the Premier League 2 Player of the Season in 2019, Aaron Connolly caught the eye. He netted 11 goals from 54 shots, meaning he converted over 20% of all attempts at goal, scoring on average every 108 minutes.
His breakthrough performance against Tottenham Hotspur last October audaciously suggested that he may be capable of replicating the numbers he showed at youth level in the Premier League. In the early kick-off that day, the then-19-year-old bagged a brace from a total of six shots, five of which were taken inside Spurs' penalty area.
That goal glut quickly dried into a drought. Across all competitions for Brighton, Connolly went 19 consecutive appearances goalless between the brace against Spurs and his third and final goal of the season, a match-winner at Burnley on the final day. You’d think that sort of goalscoring record would point to Connolly not yet being up to top-flight standard, and you'd be wrong.
Despite the unpopularity of it with some, the ever-evolving role of the striker in modern football means they are no longer exclusively seen as goalscorers, particularly for a coach like Graham Potter and in a system like Brighton's.
The Galway-born youngster is archetypal of a modern forward. Brighton considerably stepped up their press last season, averaging a defensive action every 10.4 opposition passes, over 3 fewer than they averaged in the 2018/19 season. Connolly is well-suited to the press: his compact size gives him a low centre of gravity, enabling him to play close to the floor, accelerate quickly and change direction in an instant. Per 90 minutes last season, only Neal Maupay (11.5) averaged more final third pressures than Connolly, who recorded 9. Although he pressed less than Maupay, Connolly did so more successfully. Almost a third (29.5%) of the Irishman’s pressures last season were successful – meaning they led to Brighton gaining possession within 5 seconds – a figure which considerably betters Maupay 26.3% success rate.
Nobody ran more intensely than Connolly, though. He led the Brighton pack in sprints per 90, with his 17.8 impressively eclipsing the Tariq Lamptey in second place (17.4 sprints). In terms of raw pace, his top speed of 35km/h was only trumped by Lamptey and Ezequiel Schelotto last season. Of course, speed in itself is relatively insignificant in football and needs to be channelled into something more productive to be of any genuine use.
Having highlighted how his athleticism enables Connolly to be an effective presser, the same could be said of his ability as an attacker – or, to be more specific, when he has the ball. The youngster draws fouls at a ridiculously good rate; last season he won 2.7 per 90, winning 9 which led to a shot – the most among his team-mates – as well as the team's two penatlies. In fact, only five players won more fouls per 90 than Connolly across the entire Premier League last season. This statistic gains significance when you consider the threat Brighton possess from set-pieces; their 8 goal-creating actions from set-pieces was only bettered by Liverpool in the 2019/20 season. Of the 38 fouls Aaron Connolly won last season, 26 were in the opposition half, and 13 were won in the final third – he doesn’t just draw fouls, but does so in situations which facilitate Brighton’s substantial threat from set-pieces.
Against Everton, he won the free-kick for Pascal Groß to open the scoring as well as the penalty for Neal Maupay to equalise, with Brighton winning the game in injury time. Winning fouls which lead to goals aren’t considered assists by most stats providers. If you were to consider them though, it would triple Connolly’s return last season to 3. When combined with his goal output, it would take him to 6 direct goal contributions, an amount only bettered by Leandro Trossard (8) and Neal Maupay (13).
His ability to cope with the physicality of the league is a virtue Connolly has attributed to his upbringing in Ireland. He played hurling as a youth, a combative sport where players wear no protective padding, and Connolly has pointed to the physicality of the sport as the reason why he can withstand heavy hits from Premier League opponents.
From an Irish perspective, the 20-year-old started both of his country's UEFA Nations League games in September. He'd already made his senior debut a year ago under Mick McCarthy, shortly after his breakthrough game against Spurs. Across those two Nations League games, he played 167 minutes, shot 4 times – 2 of which were big chances, won 11 of the 18 ground duels he was involved in, and drew 9 fouls. The two big chances missed are certainly somewhere to improve; he missed 5 in total last season too. Though, there’s a big positive to glean from those misses, which is that he's capable of finding good positions to score from. Converting those chances is an easier problem to solve than not getting those chances at all.
Like all good strikers, there’s something unique about Aaron Connolly as a goal-scorer. Most like to finish from between the posts, and their scoring patterns typically reflect this. Connolly doesn't, though. The Irishman is particularly deadly in the left-hand half space area – the space between the left channel and the centre of the pitch, as highlighted below.
Again, we can trace the underlying reasons for this pattern to Connolly’s hurling days. In another interview, a former teacher tells that Connolly used to be predominantly left-sided as a hurler. What must be most pleasing for the Irishman is how this scoring zone has remained consistent across his youth career. Going back through the last 13 non-penalty goals he has scored, including the goal against Newcastle to kick-off this season, we see Connolly scored 8 of his 13 goals from that left-hand half space. It's a zone which naturally suits a curling, far-post finish from a right-footer given the wider angle – think the Thierry Henry finish, coincidentally a hero of his – but Connolly has the ability to go inside or outside.
He uses a high-touch approach when in this zone, keeping close control of the ball, forcing defenders to drop. He took 5 touches in 4 seconds for his second goal against Spurs, using the sixth to cut away from Toby Alderweireld and fire into the far corner; the defender was so perplexed by Connolly that he ended up facing his own goal. Against Burnley, he took 4 touches before shooting, moving the ball less than 12 yards in total. Most recently against Newcastle, he took just two touches before scoring, though he did receive the ball in the box, but even this suggests an element of maturation from the Irishman to be able to score in a variety of ways.
Graham Potter clearly rates Connolly highly, having afforded him more minutes than veteran talisman Glenn Murray last season. Murray is no longer at the club, while Connolly has started two of the first three games of this season. There's clearly a trusting and understanding relationship between Potter and Connolly. Above all, the four-year contract that Connolly signed – simultaneously with Steven Alzate – showed the importance he currently holds within the squad.
Watch out for Aaron Connolly this season, particularly in that left-hand half space.