Josh Maja's remarkable season in focus and why he can take scrutiny as a compliment
One chance, one goal.
As James Fowler said, Josh Maja did what Josh Maja does.
Tuesday night’s Checkatrade Trophy clash was fascinating in that it highlighted just how perceptions of this talented striker have changed.
Parts of his performance were frustrating.
There were a couple of eye-catching moments, one reverse pass opening the ptich up for his team and taking a handful of defenders out of the game.
But his hold-up play was mixed and it felt as if he could contribute more.
Fowler alluded to that when he said the game hadn’t quite gone as Maja wanted it to.
Before the goal, that is.
Maja’s game intelligence is superb and it was no coincidence that as Morecambe began to tire, he began to find himself in goalscoring positions.
His goal showed a remarkably advanced ruthless streak.
One of the most remarkable things about it is that it is what we have come to expect.
Tuesday’s starting XI featured a number of Sunderland players making their senior debuts.
Their performances were understandably measured very differently from the rest, including Maja.
Maja, though, is younger than Jack Bainbridge, and not much older than Jordan Hunter;.
That’s not a slight on the pair, who performed well. Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman have both shown you can break through at a slightly later age and forge a career at a good level.
What it does highlight is just how impressive Maja’s rise has been.
So far this season Maja has featured in 19 of Sunderland’s 21 games, scoring ten goals.
If we project that forward (working on the rough guess that they play two more FA Cup games and five more in the Checkatrade), then he would score 27 times in 52 appearances.
Since Sunderland last played in the third tier, only Kevin Phillips has had more prolific campaigns than that (though Lewis Grabban would have run him close had he seen out the full campaign last time around).
Of course, Maja is playing at a lower level, in a team far more attacking that most recent Sunderland sides, and one playing an unusually high number of games.
But it does underline just how prolific he has been so far, and perhaps a better reflection is to compare his goalscoring feats to other teenagers in the Football League.
The next best goalscoring teenager in the top 72 clubs in Doncaster’s Mallik Wilks, who has four.
There are challenges looming on the horizon for Maja.
Jerome Sinclair may not have shown the ruthless knack in front of goal that Maja has, but his performances leading the line have been selfless.
The two goals scored at Port Vale owed much to his tenacity and physicality and it is an option Ross will look to use more often now that the 22-year-old is getting close to match fitness.
Then there is Charlie Wyke, a signing whose significance to Sunderland was underlined by the fact he was the only summer arrival to be a given a three-year contract.
How Jack Ross intends to use Duncan Watmore is also not yet clear and it is not out of the question that his return could add even more competition in the central areas.
If he plays out wide, for example, does Lynden Gooch move infield and play in many of the spaces where Maja likes to receive the ball?
That his performances are the subject of such scrutiny is the biggest compliment he can be paid.
At 19 he has established himself as a player Sunderland look to lift them in tight games. He isn’t assessed as a young player any more but as an established member of the side.
He is not over-awed by that pressure, but seems to revel in it.
It has been a remarkable campaign so far and the areas of his game that still need work should not overshadow that.
Securing an extension (and all the signs are that Maja is keen to make that happen) would be Sunderland’s best bit of winter business.
He may not be the finished article, but what he is doing this season is special.