Life after Josh Maja: An in-depth look at how Sunderland and the star youngster have fared since his Bordeaux switch
It was the January 26 that Sunderland lost their top scorer.
Weeks of protracted tension and heated debate came to an end surprisingly swiftly as Bordeaux wrapped up a deal for Josh Maja.
The League One table that day makes interesting reading.
Sunderland were six points off Luton Town in first position, with two games in hand.
Two points behind Barnsley and four behind Portsmouth, with one game in hand on both.
In short, a situation not too dissimilar to what Sunderland face now, with five matches to play.
That departure felt like it could be a critical moment in the promotion race for the Black Cats, particularly as the days passed with a replacement increasingly difficult to find.
A bumper deal for Will Grigg changed that in the dying moments of the January window and put most fears at ease.
Grigg was the most obvious replacement for Maja in terms of finishing record in the third tier, though the pair have proved to be very different strikers.
So 14 league games on, are Sunderland a better side with or without Maja?
What the numbers say
Not long into Grigg’s Sunderland career, Jack Ross made an interesting observation.
Though Grigg had endured some high-profile misses, the Black Cats boss felt that his side were better balanced for the Northern Irishman’s presence.
It was not a criticism of Maja necessarily, just a recognition that the youngster’s instinct had always been to drop a little deeper, to get the ball to feet and make something happen on the edge of the area.
Ross wanted someone to stretch the game and play off the shoulder of defenders, something that came instinctively to Grigg.
That was certainly the case in the games following his arrival, though the statistics offer a mixed view on how Sunderland have fared.
In the 14 league games since Maja left the club, Sunderland have taken 27 points from 14 games.
In that time they have also scored 27 goals, an average of 1.92 goals-per-game and points-per-game.
In the 22 league games that Maja started this season (it can be easy to forget his place wasn’t always guaranteed), Sunderland took 45 points and 41 goals, an average of 1.86 goals-per-game and 2.04 points-per-game.
The difference, then, has been marginal.
Sunderland scored slightly fewer goals with Maja but took slightly more points.
Perhaps that is a reflection of Maja’s exceptional finishing ability, and also Jon McLaughlin’s form during an impressive winning run.
Delver a little deeper, and the point Ross makes stands up to scrutiny.
Sunderland’s Expected Goals tally has improved since Maja’s departure.
In his 22 starts, Sunderland’s average XG was 1.39 per game.
In the 14 games since Maja left, that has jumped to 1.61.
Again the difference is relatively small but does suggest that the Black Cats are getting in better attacking positions more regularly.
The difference between Maja and Grigg’s attacking output, is, interestingly, absolutely marginal.
Maja averaged 2.22 shots-per-game in League One this season; Grigg 2.02.
Maja 3.82 touches in the box, Grigg 3.42. Maja’s XG 0.4, Grigg 0.32.
The only difference is that the 20-year-old has the edge when it comes to converting those opportunities into goals, Grigg well short of match fitness when he did arrive.
The raw numbers, then, suggest that Sunderland have managed the transition to life without Maja relatively comfortably, even if his exceptional finishing has been missed.
Making sense of the numbers
The main issue for Sunderland has of course been that Grigg has rarely been at full fitness.
Despite scoring against Burton Albion last week, his output was unusually low across two incredibly open games when a significant amount of chances were created by both sides.
For the most part his all-round contributions so far compare favourably to his hugely successful campaigns in League One with Wigan Athletic.
It underlines an easy and successful transition, skewed by some unusual misses.
Grigg has since gone on to show his finishing ability with superb goals against Bristol Rovers, Walsall and more.
With Grant Leadbitter excelling as a deep-lying midfielder, Sunderland looked as powerful and as balanced as they have done all season.
Grigg, though, arrived recovering from an ankle problem and it appeared to worsen as he missed international duty just before the Checkatrade Trophy final.
Despite a superb goal against Accrington Stanley, his training and gametime has had to be carefully managed and with Charlie Wyke returning to form, it leaves Ross with a big dilemma.
The pair have hinted at a promising partnership in an attacking sense and the increase in their chance creation since Maja left demonstrates that.
The downside has been that at home, when the pair have started together, Sunderland are yet to win and have looked too open.
It’s here that perhaps Maja has been missed.
Despite his exceptional quality in front of goal, fitting Maja into the side was often a dilemma for Ross and his backroom staff.
Particularly on the road, his physical struggles against the defence and his tendency to drop deep often left Sunderland struggling to get out of their own half.
It was not uncommon for him to start games from the bench or be hooked long before the final whistle.
It’s for that reason that Ross, while insistent that he would have Maja back in a heartbeat, felt Sunderland might have got better since he left for Ligue 1.
There were signs nevertheless that Maja could be a hugely effective foil for Wyke.
In one of Sunderland’s best away performances this season, the pair dovetailed well in a 1-0 win over Blackpool on New Year’s Day.
Maja thrived on Wyke’s hold-up play and it was the same story days later when the Black Cats travelled to Charlton Athletic.
Had Wyke taken one of his big chances in the first half of that game, Sunderland could have been out of sight.
Maja seemed to enjoy being able to play in more space, almost as a No 10 who could link up play and look for opportunities near the box.
With Chris Maguire sidelined, it’s unquestionably an option that Sunderland have missed in the last week.
It’s to Grigg’s credit, particularly given his injury, that Maja’s absence has not been felt more keenly.
Sunderland paid good money for that luxury, of course, but there is no doubt that should he return to full fitness, Ross will far the better for it.
Maja’s Ligue 1 stint so far has been a frustrating one.
Bordeaux looked like outsiders for a European spot when he joined but their form since then has been poor and they have subsequently changed manager.
Maja has struggled for minutes but in a typically composed recent interview, spoke of his determination to make a success of his spell abroad, underlining that he had made a four-and-half-year commitment.
Certainly, it is too early to tell whether this was the right move for his career.
For Sunderland, fears that his departure could derail their season have at least been allayed.
Their form has remained steady and between them, Grigg, Wyke and Aiden McGeady have just about filled the void.
Still, it is worth dwelling on just how good Maja’s finishing was in the first half of the season.
He remains in the League One top ten top scorers, despite not taking penalties.
His 15 goals came, remarkably, from just 46 shots.
Compare that to Doncaster Rovers’ John Marquis, whose 19 goals have come from 117 shots. Or Plymouth Argyle’s Freddie Ladapo, whose 16 goals have come from 102 shots.
The Black Cats have managed the transition impressively but with five crucial games to go, it is hard not to miss a player who frustrated, excited, and established himself as the best finisher in the division by quite some distance.
All stats courtesy of wyscout.com.