The curious case of Aaron Connolly – why this season is make or break for the Galwayman.

As Aaron Connolly blasted a glorious chance wide against Watford, the Brighton & Hove Albion fans in the crowd groaned. They had seen this before.

His balance was off as he wound up the kick, too much backlift, a sign of anxiety. Instead of finessing the ball into the bottom left corner, it was whacked just past the top. His face said it all, right before his hands were clasped into his eyes.

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Contrary to popular belief most elite strikers do not look for the top corner or the “perfect shot”. Messi often jinks past a player and takes a little fake shot which confounds the keeper before he slides it nonchalantly to the left of the static goalie watching on. Look at Harry Kane or Erling Haaland who have a reputation for banging it in, but most of their goals are of the poaching variety. A quick finish to the right or left just as the keeper moves their feet and then has little time to react.

To judge a player on one missed chance seems overly harsh, even the greats have stinkers, but it is the same shot over and over again for Brighton’s number 7. Connolly could learn a lot by studying the elites, and he needs to learn quickly to stay at the top.

Record so far

His pace is undeniable, but so is his lack of composure, fans of the Seagulls will be all too familiar with the sight of him breaking through on the counter to a one-on-one before either scuffing over or letting the keeper save his peppery shot. Connolly regularly popped up near the end of Match of the Day last season blasting over a half-decent chance as Brighton sank to another draw or defeat. Apologising for missed chances on social media has become too regular. He has a reputation now for spurring chances now, and that will be difficult to shake off.

In 42 Premier League appearances he has had 22 offsides, Mason Greenwood has had 9 in 68 for reference. Improving his anticipation and runs in behind is something he needs to work on as these are usually the crucial counter-attacking chances that lead to goals.

The most damning stat though is that he has missed 11 big chances in his time so far. He is getting in good positions but that end product is critical and 0.12 goals per game is not a good enough return to maintain a place as a striker in the Premier League. He has shown potential though, and improving these stats is more than possible because with Connolly the main issue is not necessarily technique, rather the mental aspect of the game.

Last season he produced 2 goals in 17 appearances. A series of injuries though did not help his consistency and this has to be accounted for, but the Premier League waits for no man.

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Attitude

You’ve not quite developed everything that you need to do to compete at the highest level. Most 21-year-olds are not at the maximum of their professional careers, most 21-year-olds are doing other stuff and enjoying themselves.

– Graham Potter

Connolly’s attitude has been questioned on occasion. A Covid breach last season was a sign of his immaturity, though he was not alone in that, it let his team and manager down. Those who follow Connolly on social media will know that he has had distractions over the past year. His private life bled into his performance and took his gaze away from the game. His ex-girlfriend appearing on Love Island has not helped matters after their acrimonious and publicised split. He is a young man, however, and we are all due mistakes at that age. It is how you react to those mistakes though that defines you.

You’ve got to remember that these guys are young people that are still learning about life. As a Premier League team, I can only speak for us, we have to understand that he is developing, that he is going to make mistakes, he’s not quite at his maximum and we have to help him through that.

– Graham Potter

There is a sense that Connolly is fully aware of these misses and that they keep building up in his head. Graham Potter has accused him of being too self-critical and overtly negative. This is surely the source of his anxiety in front of goal and rather than a hairdryer it would appear Connolly needs more of an arm around the shoulder approach. At least this is how his manager sees it.

“It’s important to balance it off for him,” Potter said, as he presumably knows the player needs an ego boost from time to time. Giving him the number 7 shirt may seem a trifle but you can guarantee this mattered to Connolly. It’s a show of faith, a ‘you can be my main man’ statement to the young forward. Potter has stuck with Connolly and now needs to be repaid.

There are plenty of quality aspects to his game which is why the Brighton manager keeps faith in him. Connolly presses well and has a cute demeanor, you get the sense he annoys defenders. His ability to win a penalty is priceless and the Galwayman is adept at this flinching artform. He has an Aguero-type build and should model himself on the Argentinian in terms of runs in behind and acute positioning.

Normally it might seem harsh to judge such a young player so critically, this is just a reflection of the reality of top-level football now. The expectation of a development period has been significantly shortened in the past ten years and players like Connolly will feel its burn by 22. The white heat of top-level football has no time for sentiment and if he doesn’t produce for Brighton this season he might be replaced.

With Ireland, he will be given more leeway, given our lack of depth in attack, and hopefully, these weaker aspects of his game will improve given that current backing at club level and presumably under Steven Kenny who has started him at most opportunities.

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Chance in green

His introduction for Ireland was a flash of excitement as he skimmed past a defender and then blasted wide while taking an extra half a second to check his positioning could have led to a goal. It was a positive sign though in what had been previously been a static attack. We saw the perfect example of Connolly’s strengths and weaknesses summed up in one move.

As Stephen Kenny looks to set up three in attack there could be a permanent place for Connolly on the left-wing as Adam Idah and Troy Parrot are the contenders for the middle.

There are plenty of doubts over Connolly as yet, but he is in an enviable position at such a young age, hopefully, he can prove the doubters wrong. One only hopes he does.

The Author

John McMahon

Sportswriter and self-proclaimed football boot aficionado. John McMahon hails from Co. Laois and covers domestic and European football.

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