Rey Manaj arrived at Sivasspor labelled as damaged goods. After a year in Turkey, he’s transformed into a goal machine, just in time to help Albania attempt to escape a tough group at Euro 2024.

Rey Manaj is a man transformed. After arguably the worst season of his career in 2022-23, he’s just enjoyed his best, and he couldn’t have found form at a better time.

Tell any Watford supporter 12 months ago that Manaj would be one of the most in-form strikers heading into Euro 2024 and you’d have been laughed out of the room; but it’s happened.

Manaj heads to Germany this summer off the back of a sensational campaign with Sivasspor in Turkey and looking to make Albania a surprise package at the tournament.

The 2022-23 season was the worst of Rey Manaj’s career. He was supposed to be the striker to fire Watford back to the Premier League with his goals after signing on a permanent deal from Barcelona.

The only player Watford had previously signed from the Spanish giants was Gerard Deulofeu, and he was one of the most talented players to play for the club in recent memory. The pressure was on Manaj to perform, but he didn’t.

In fairness, injuries got in the way of any potential success, but when he did make it on the pitch he offered little to suggest he had the ability to offer anything positive to Watford’s cause.

After signing in July 2022, the Albanian striker made just seven appearances across his injury-hit spell in England, scoring just once across 274 competitive minutes. Even that goal was dubiously attributed to Manaj following the slightest of slight deflections off his boot into the net.

The nadir came in his final appearance for the Hornets in December 2022, coming off the bench to return to the side after nearly four months out injured in a 0-0 home draw with Hull City. Manaj mustered just 18 minutes before coming off injured again, but not before missing a huge chance from inside the six-year box that would have won the game.

That would be his final action in a sad spell at Watford. Just 211 days separated the announcement that Manaj had signed for the club on a three year-contract and the official club social posts to inform everybody that his contract had been terminated by mutual consent.

Rey Manaj Watford

Watford fans were justifiably irked at the waste of money and time spent on a player who didn’t look anywhere near being the answer. The tone was cruel at times, arguing that he might have been the worst Watford striker ever. When images were published of Manaj training with the club in 2023-24 pre-season in Watford attire, the anger ramped up a level.

Fortunately for Watford fans – and Manaj – he wasn’t returning. The club just allowed him to use their facilities to gain fitness and find another club. Their loss turned out to be Sivasspor’s gain.

Much like Manaj, Sivasspor struggled in 2022-23. They finished just a point above the relegation zone in the Turkish Süper Lig with just three players scoring more than five goals – and all three left in the summer.

Manaj arrived without much fanfare on a free transfer, and after going scoreless in his opening five appearances, finally opened his account in a 3-2 league win over Pendikspor on 7 October. That would be the first of 22 competitive goals in 2023-24 for Manaj, with 18 of those coming in league competition.

His goals helped Sivasspor secure a seventh-place finish in the Turkish top flight, with 54 points taking them near to European qualification – a vast improvement on the season before.

Manaj’s 18 goals were the most ever scored by a Sivasspor player in a top-flight season, while his tally was only surpassed in the league by Mauro Icardi (25) and Edin Dzeko (21) for the top two clubs Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe respectively. Both Icardi (114) and Dzeko (130) were also the only players to play at least 1,800 minutes of action with a better minutes per goal ratio than Manaj in 2023-24 (139).

His importance to Sivasspor cannot by understated. No player’s goals were worth more for their team than Manaj’s (20), while nobody in the Süper Lig scored a higher proportion of their team’s goals (38%).

Manaj’s role in the Sivasspor side was largely to be on the end of passing sequences and be in positions to finish off chances. He was involved in 116 open-play shots in the league last season – 33 more than any other Sivasspor player – with 86 of those seeing his only role in the sequence being the player to attempt the shot. That was 50 more than any other player at the club, while only Dzeko (133) and Denis Dragus (93) had more across the entire league.

Rey Manaj Sivasspor

Unlike leading scorers Dzeko and Icardi, Manaj found goals in a team that didn’t create numerous high-quality chances – something that may stand him in good stead this summer with Albania at Euro 2024.

Sivasspor totalled 37.0 expected goals (xG) across the season from non-penalty shots – only Konyaspor (32.7) and relegated Istanbulspor (36.1) posted lower tallies in the Süper Lig. Despite this, Manaj’s non-penalty xG total of 11.9 was the fourth highest in the entire league and contributed nearly a third of all Sivasspor’s total. If Sivasspor were to get a chance, it was likely to fall to Manaj.

Rey Manaj Goals Sivasspor

He didn’t depend on great chances close to goal, though. He scored a league-high seven goals from outside the box – no player has scored more in any of the last seven Turkish top-flight seasons. Three of those came from direct free kicks, another league high.

After his injury problems at Watford, Manaj got through 2023-24 without any major injury absences, which bodes well for this summer and beyond.

Manaj didn’t feature at all in the UEFA Euro 2024 qualification campaign, with Jasir Asani and Taulant Seferi preferred in attack, scoring five goals between them. However, no Albanian attacking option has had anywhere near the success domestically in 2023-24 as Manaj, so it came as little surprise to see him included in manager Sylvinho’s squad for this tournament.

In appearing on 22 March in Albania’s 3-0 friendly defeat to Chile, Manaj returned to the international stage for the first time in two years, last appearing in March 2022 against Georgia in another friendly match.

Rey Manaj Albania

His last competitive appearance for Albania came in October 2021, so a return at Euro 2024 will end his spell in the international wilderness. Based on his form at Sivasspor this season, they’d be foolish not to take advantage of his hot streak as they attempt to cause a major shock and make it out of a tough group that includes Spain, Croatia and Italy.

Rumours have linked Manaj with a move back to Spain before next season following his exploits in Turkey, with the striker posting an emotional farewell on Instagram at the end of this campaign. That move might further depend on his performances for Albania this summer, with Manaj looking to complete his transformation from zero to hero.

Enjoy this? Subscribe to our football newsletter to receive exclusive weekly content. You can also follow our social accounts over on XInstagramTikTok and Facebook.