The Bafana star has struggled to make an impact since making his Premier League bow, but may hold the key to the Seagulls’ attack
It is not much of a stretch to state that the most intriguing storyline in the Premier League, aside the increasingly ludicrous dominance of Manchester City at the top, centres on Brighton and Hove Albion.
The Seagulls are presently in 16th place, only three points above the relegation zone, but have managed to stir a conversation around the concept of Expected Goals that rages on still within the footballing punditocracy.
In truth, whether one agrees with the influence that statistical analysis now wields over footballing discourse, the eye test – that most unimpeachable of measure, if the stats-deniers are to be believed – bears out the data anyway. Graham Potter’s side have been struck with a severe case of goal-phobia, and are paying for it by coming away empty-handed from a number of encounters this season where they manifestly created the better, clearer scoring opportunities.
Their latest misadventure, a defeat at the Hawthorns, may have been aided in part by the ineptitude of referee Lee Mason, but it bore all the familiar hallmarks that have defined Brighton’s season: a glut of clear chances created (four, according to Opta), a deluge of shots (15, including a missed penalty), an inspired opposing goalkeeper and a sucker punch against the run of play to condemn them to defeat.
It would be easy, as many have, to train the spotlight on Neal Maupay, but in the Black Country it was Aaron Connolly missing an open goal, and Danny Welbeck only finding the woodwork from the spot.
The malaise, clearly, goes beyond just one man. It could also, ludicrous as the claim may seem, be solved by one man.
How hard of a sell this is comes down to just what one believes to be the talent level of South Africa international Percy Tau.
The 26-year-old has been on Brighton’s books since 2018, when the club snapped him up from Mamelodi Sundowns for around 3 million euros.
In the intervening period, he has been farmed out on a number of loans, all to Belgian clubs, as work permit issues kept him from making his debut. Only in January 2021 did he finally make his bow for the Seagulls, but after making four appearances inside the first month, he has only earned one more since.
South Africa national team coach Molefi Ntseki has quickly moved to allay notions of indiscipline on the part of the player, and insists his lack of playing time is indicative of the competition within the squad.
In fairness, Brighton do have a surfeit of tidy, technical attacking midfielders in the squad – Adam Lallana, Leandro Trossard, Pascal Gross and Alexis Mac Allister all come to mind – and so it is easy to see how a player taking his first steps in the Premier League might need time to settle and find himself in a sea of sameness.
It is a shame, though. Because, while not exactly a prolific goalscorer himself, Tau does have the tools to bring something different to the table for Brighton, and ameliorate their scoring difficulties.
While much of the analysis of Brighton’s bluntness in attack has simply concluded the club has the singular misfortune of recruiting subpar finishers, there is a minority of analysts that has begun to instead look at the type of chance the team overwhelmingly creates.
As football coaching has come to increasingly prioritize efficiency, there has been a rise in the use of cut-backs from (close to) the byline.
While these tend to result in higher quality chances, the data seems to suggest Brighton in particular are poor at converting precisely that sort of opportunity. So, perhaps the solution – albeit an unorthodox one – would be to change their preferred method of chance creation?
For one thing, fielding a 4-4-2 and looking to play quicker into space, while more speculative, would not only provide opponents with a different look, but might actually get the best out of their roster of strikers. Tau, with his movement into the channels and his eye for a through ball, would be the perfect candidate for the second striker role: able to drop off the front and link play, and also possessing the vision and technique to slip the striker in behind opposing defences.
It is arguably the sort of service that would better suit the pace of the likes of Connolly and Welbeck, both of whom make excellent runs, while also getting the best out of Tau in what is his most natural position. Maupay, while less rapid, would also benefit from having through balls to run onto in much the same way as he used to while at Brentford.
As part of a front two, Tau proved capable of excellent performances for Club Brugge, both domestically and in European competition. Turning to him now would be something of a Hail Mary, but it would be quite poetic if Brighton were to, in doing so, unearth the gem that was buried under their feet the whole time.