Graham Potter can instantly improve Neal Maupay with this tactical tweak ahead of Leeds
Brighton & Hove Albion have had a lot of bad strikers through the years but it is safe to say that Neal Maupay is not one of them
Even as he continues to rack up a pretty impressive back catalogue of missed chances with the latest additions coming in the shambolic 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United.
Billy Paynter. Leon Best. Chuba Akpom. Craig Davies. Jurgen Locadia. There are four names from the past 15 years or so who were bad strikers. Why were they so bad? Because they did not appear to care.
Paynter, Best and Akpom’s goalless loan spells were goalless because they spent most of their time wandering around half-heartedly. Davies was so unbothered by playing for Brighton that a 3,000 strong away end at MK Dons in April 2009 sung “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” and another chorus of a song which could not possibly be repeated in case there are under 18s reading.
Forget social media abuse which has led football to undertake a blackout this weekend; Davies was on the end of face-to-face abuse from supporters who had finally had enough of players who simply wanted to pick up their wages for minimal effort.
Locadia meanwhile seems to view himself as a musician first, footballer second. He said in an interview shortly after joining that he couldn’t head a ball properly.
Rather than work on it on the training ground, he instead spent most of his 18 months with the Albion releasing new tracks. Not really what you want a £14 million club-record signing to be prioritising his time on.
You could never level this charge of not caring at Maupay. He works hard for the team, he stretches defences with his willingness to run, his link up play is good and he is an intelligent player.
The only thing that lets him down is his finishing. A big part of a centre forward’s game, yes. But if you stop relying on him to be your chief goal getter, then the weakness can be masked and everything else he brings to the party is only positive.
It was hard not to feel sorry for Maupay when he gave his post-match Sheffield United interview and said he knew he would get online abuse that evening.
He should have done better with the three good opportunities he had, but Graham Potter must surely have realised that the French striker struggles with his finishing, so why keep playing him through the middle and putting him in those situations? He is being set up to fail by the Brighton manager.
Maupay’s best game in recent months came in the 3-0 win against Newcastle United. It was the evening when Potter debuted his 1930s-style W-M formation, with Danny Welbeck hugging the left touchline, Maupay the right and Leandro Trossard bursting through the middle.
All three of the Albion’s frontline scored that day. Maupay was excellent on the right and he even popped up with a goal, arriving late in the box to convert a Pascal Gross cross with aplomb.
He is an instinctive finisher who tends to score when he takes chances on early, rather than when he has too much time to think. Popping up in the area from the right hand side rather than awaiting scoring opportunities from a central position plays into that.
A fortnight later at Manchester United, Maupay again filled a wider role. The result? A brilliant ball into the box for Welbeck to score. Maupay should have had a second assist when his low cross looked set to be gobbled up by Welbeck until Harry Maguire pulled Welbeck back.
Remarkably, VAR concluded no penalty, technology colluding with Manchester United not for the first time this season.
It looked like Potter had discovered a way to make the most of Maupay’s attributes by playing him slightly wider, at the same time as removing the burden of expecting him to be Brighton’s leading striker.
Quite why in recent weeks he has now reverted back to using Maupay in a role he has struggled in, only Potter can answer.
What is abundantly clear is that Brighton need a new, clinical centre forward. Not to replace Maupay, but to play alongside him. If Potter continues to think that Brighton can rely on the Frenchman as their main source of goals – or if he still believes he can coach more goals from the Albion’s forwards as he publicly stated was the case last summer - then another season of struggle will be on the cards in 2021-22.
Do not be fooled by the missed chances into thinking Maupay is a bad player. Paynter, Best, Akpom, Davies, Locadia...they were bad players. Maupay offers much more to Brighton than that, as we have seen when he has been deployed as a support striker. Potter just needs to start using him correctly.