Brighton’s position in the Premier League table doesn’t really reflect the work Graham Potter has put into his side. The Seagulls have shown glimpses of very good possession-based football that focuses on short-passing in quick succession. While Potter’s impressive coaching has gone underappreciated, some of the players aren’t getting enough attention either. One of them is Irish striker Aaron Connolly.
Currently only 19, the Galway boy grabbed some headlines in Brighton’s 3-0 win over a desolate Tottenham side at the Amex Stadium. He got a valuable brace, scoring on his first-ever Premier League start. While that was against a rather shabby Spurs side and he hasn’t found the net since, the moment was special for the striker.
This has been Connolly’s breakout season. It has come under a period of transition- when the club is getting to grips with playing another brand of football. But this was coming and the time seems right.
Connolly’s rise to prominence hasn’t been abrupt at all. He is the perfect product of the English football development, rising up the Seagulls pecking order over the years. He was on loan at Luton Town last season, but that spell saw him make only two first-team appearances.
But for the Brighton Under-23s side last season, Connolly was constantly getting the goals. He did play in the League Cup for the senior team, but his fodder was the Under-23s side. In all competitions, he played 18 games for the junior side and found the back of the net 15 times in total. He got impressive braces against Man City, Chelsea and Swansea, scoring against Tottenham, Arsenal and even Everton.
That wasn’t the first time that he had got a good number of goals though. In the 2017-18 campaign, he was with the Under-23s at the age of 17 and scoring goals. In all competitions that season, he got nine goals and a single assist. In the last two games of the Premier League 2 campaign, he bagged five goals. This had one hat-trick against Wolves and a brace against Stoke.
In the 2016-17 season, he was only about to outgrow the Under-18s side. In 15 games for the Under-18s side, he got three goals. But on being given a chance in the Under-23s side, he took that opportunity with both hands. Connolly scored three in just two games. For someone who is 16, that isn’t a small task by any means.
This shows that Connolly’s rise was probably coming. Despite a frustrating and injury-stricken spell at Luton, here he is helping his team get a midtable Premier League finish.
The way Potter’s side plays has a role to play in helping Connolly too. His miniature size makes him tough to catch. He has the pace to take defenders and being young, he is fearless. That was evident in the way he played against Spurs.
His technical ability is very good and is developing due to the technical demands of Potter’s system. Against Spurs, he came up with two key passes and had one dribble to his name. Despite being small in size, he won four aerial duels too.
The system involves keeping the ball on the ground as much as possible. It helps Connolly nullify his weakness in the air, focusing on how good he can be on the ball. And quite recently, Alan Shearer spoke in praise of Connolly and his abilities.
The Premier League legend said (via the IrishMirror):
“He was absolutely magnificent. He ran that Spurs defence ragged all afternoon. It was a complete centre-forward performance. It had everything: energy, running in behind. They couldn’t cope with him. His positioning was superb, getting in between the fullback and the centre-half.”
That very much defines Connolly in all regards. He has that enthusiasm that just radiates off him. He is a willing runner and likes to work his socks off for the team. The Spurs performance was only a one-off show. But as time goes on, it will only get better. The signs are there and it just needs patience.