Friday, 21 December 2012

Craig Mackail Smith: "He scores one in five, he scores one in fiiiive..."

Brighton fans, like football supporters in general, love a scapegoat. If the team isn't winning games the crowds think they should someone has to take the blame.

In years gone by it was the fault of a string of goalkeepers whose main crime was not being Michel Kuipers. Now though the Albion have Tomasz Kuszczak as their number one custodian. And, for anyone who hasn't noticed, he is pretty good.

Up until recently Ashley Barnes had stepped into the breach, generally because, more often than not, he is played away from his most fruitful position.

However, despite winning the penalty which rescued a point for the Seagulls, the recent match with Millwall saw a new scapegoat crowed with the dunce's hat.

Craig Mackail-Smith arrived at The Amex before the start of last season for a club record fee which could eventually rise to as much as £3.25million. That is probably more than the club had spent on players across the entire previous decade.

His first season looked a relative success - particularly with the man he replaced, Glenn Murray, struggling for form at Crystal Palace.

But, despite being on track to hit the 20 goal mark by the end of the season, Mackail-Smith has come in for a bit of stick. Brighton, you see, have found it difficult to turn draws into wins and, as any football fan will tell you, if a team isn't scoring goals it HAS to be the fault of the men up top.

No looking at the wider implications of a lack of creativity in the middle of the pitch. Oh no. That would be too sensible.

January is fast-approaching and the general consensus is that Brighton boss Gus Poyet needs to spend big on a centre forward to somehow rescue his side's disastrous season. A season in which they currently sit nestled just outside the play offs.

Brighton do need attacking reinforcements. That much is certainly true. But perhaps the more pertinent fan would suggest coupling that new arrival with a change in approach.

Against Millwall, Mackail-Smith was up against the man mountain that is Danny Shittu. Such is the size of the centre half, he almost certainly has developed his own gravitational field. A bit like the planets in Angry Birds: Star Wars.

So how did Brighton engineer getting the best out of Mackail-Smith? By knocking the ball up to him in the air, or laying it into his feet with his back to Big Dan.

The result? Mackail-Smith got barely a sniff.

Unfortunately, it is becoming a common story at The Amex. Now Brighton are an established Championship side, teams come south knowing what to expect.

The outfits who have most successfully countered the Seagulls on their own patch have sat deep, allowed the Albion to enjoy long spells of possession, isolated the likes of Gordon Greer and Adam El Abd on the ball and hit the Albion on the counter attack.

Realising this is vital when assessing Mackail-Smith's return. The striker thrives on exploiting the space behind the opposition back four, making runs, stretching central defenders into positions they are uncomfortable, and creating space for advancing midfield players in the process.

It is no coincidence that the Albion's midfield have lacked goals this season, particularly at home. Mackail-Smith is unable to pull the likes of Shittu around meaning less space for people like Andrew Crofts or Dean Hammond to exploit.

Ninety minutes at The Amex can be a lonely and frustrating time for Mackail-Smith.

Nevertheless, he IS still scoring. Ten goals before Christmas is a healthy return. Were other players sharing the load a little more, there would hardly be cause for concern.

One of the main problems is the current success of Murray at Selhurst Park. The former Brighton frontman has scored 20 league goals already this season, at a conversion rate of an impressive 43%. The more Murray scores, the more comparisons will be forthcoming. And on current form, there is only going to be one winner in the Murray vs Mackail-Smith debate.

However, Mackail-Smith's stats for the season are hardly poor. Of his 45 shots, 26 have been on target. He has hit the woodwork twice and has a conversion rate of 22% - representing slightly better than a goal every five shots.

Compare that with Chris Wood, the Millwall striker who notched a brace during Tuesday's 2v2 deadlock and is being widely touted as a January target, and Mackail-Smith actually comes out on top.

Wood has the same goals total, but his have come from more shots. The New Zealand international is currently operating at a 20% conversion rate.

Another mooted target - however unrealistic - is Charlie Austin. He has 18 goals already but that fruitful total comes from a mammoth 75 attempts. His conversion rate of 24% is only marginally better than Mackail-Smith's.

And, according to the official Football League website, £8million Blackburn striker Jordan Rhodes is only operating at 28% despite costing more than twice what the Albion paid for Mackail-Smith. Spending big, it seems, does not always guarantee considerably more goals.

The most shot happy player in the Championship is Bolton's Chris Eagles who has had a team-mate infuriating 96 efforts at goal for just seven goals. That is around a 7% conversion rate. Former Brighton centre forward Craig Davies has eight goals for Barnsley, but boasts just a 13% conversion level.

And looking elsewhere at The Amex, Mackail-Smith does not look too wasteful. Barnes has four league goals from 39 shots (10% conversion) while Will Buckley has five from 25 (20%).

Poyet will look to strengthen when the transfer window opens and you are unlikely to find a Brighton fan who would argue he does not need to.

But, when deciding who needs replacing and who is not pulling their weight, Albion fans might do well to resist the knee-jerk for a more reasoned debate on the merits of the club's existing attacking options.

Selected statistics:

Craig Mackail-Smith

Total shots: 45
On target: 26
Off target: 19
Hit the woodwork: 2
Goals: 10
Conversion rate: 22%

Glenn Murray

Total shots: 46
On target: 29
Off target: 17
Hit the woodwork: 0
Goals: 20
Conversion rate: 43%

Chris Wood

Total shots: 48
On target: 28
Off target: 20
Hit the woodwork: 1
Goals: 10
Conversion rate: 20%

Charlie Austin

Total shots: 75
On target: 46
Off target: 29
Hit the woodwork: 2
Goals: 18
Conversion rate: 24%

Jordan Rhodes

Total shots: 46
On target: 29
Off target: 17
Hit the woodwork: 0
Goals: 13
Conversion rate: 28%

Chris Eagles

Total shots: 96
On target: 55
Off target: 41
Hit the woodwork: 4
Goals: 7
Conversion rate: 7%

Craig Davies

Total shots: 59
On target: 38
Off target: 21
Hit the woodwork: 3
Goals: 8
Conversion rate: 13%

Ashley Barnes

Total shots: 39
On target: 18
Off target: 21
Hit the woodwork: 0
Goals: 4
Conversion rate: 10%

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