Deniz Undav was supposed to solve Brighton’s goal-scoring problems. He didn’t, but his form on loan at VfB Stuttgart shows the Premier League club still have a tremendous eye for a player.

Even when Brighton get it wrong, they get it right.

The Sussex club have built a reputation in recent years for unearthing gems from all over the world in the transfer market. Players such as Alexis Mac Allister, Moisés Caicedo, Marc Cucurella and Kaoru Mitoma are examples of those to have been signed for relative peanuts and become Premier League stars, often moving on for several times the money they arrived for.

Such has been Brighton’s hit rate in the transfer market it’s become a running joke that any obscure player they acquire is immediately linked with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United for £100 million+ before they’ve even played a game for the club.

In late January 2022, they struck a deal with Union Saint-Gilloise – helped by Brighton chairman Tony Bloom being the majority owner of the Belgian side at the time – for striker Deniz Undav.

It seemed to make a lot of sense, though Undav returned to USG for the remainder of the 2021-22 campaign on loan. Brighton, managed at the time by Graham Potter, had a talented team that were impressive in most areas, just not at putting the ball in the net.

They averaged 12.9 shots per game in the Premier League that season but scored just 42 goals. Despite finishing ninth in the league, only the three relegated teams (Burnley, Watford and Norwich City) scored fewer goals, while the same trio were the only ones to underperform by more against their expected goals (xG) total. Brighton’s 42 goals came from an overall xG of 47.2.

It was obvious they needed a goalscorer, and Undav had been just that in Belgium. He scored 17 goals in 26 games as USG got promoted to the top flight in 2020-21, before recording 18 in 25 games in the regular season of the Belgian Pro League and another eight in 14 in the playoffs. He seemed to be ideal for Brighton’s needs.

Undav was not exactly a young prospect – he was 26 by the start of the 2022-23 season – and he had only had two years as a professional after previously playing for amateur clubs Havelse and Meppen before moving to USG in 2020. Potter was therefore patient with him, opting to start the campaign with Danny Welbeck up front. The experienced former Man Utd and Arsenal forward was not scoring goals but Brighton were doing well with him in the team, taking 10 points from their first four games.

Undav made his debut in a 3-0 win at Forest Green Rovers in the EFL Cup, getting his name on the scoresheet in the process. However, with Potter leaving for Chelsea soon after and Roberto De Zerbi coming in, Undav didn’t see much playing time, especially with teenager Evan Ferguson emerging as another option up front.

Two more goals came in the FA Cup against Grimsby and Middlesbrough, but Undav was finding it difficult to make his mark against Premier League opposition. By late April, he had made 14 league appearances but accumulated just 266 minutes in total and was yet to score a goal.

Undav xG Brighton First 14 Games

His struggles were somewhat typified in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United when he replaced Welbeck in the 75th minute. With the game finely poised and going to extra-time, Undav had a chance to make himself a hero at Wembley. In his 45 minutes on the pitch, though, he lost possession eight times and failed to have a single shot. He did score his penalty in the shootout, which Brighton ultimately lost, but there were multiple occasions during the game where he was presented with opportunities only to fail to get a shot away, and a more confident player could have won it for his team.

That proved to be a turning point, though. A brace in a 6-0 win against Wolves got him off the mark in the Premier League and was the start of a burst of five goals in 353 league minutes (eight games) before the end of the season.

Undav xG Brighton Last 8 Games

Undav revealed a talk he’d had with De Zerbi that helped him focus his mind and regain his confidence.

“It was after the Manchester United game, I had a conversation with the gaffer – it was a hard one, but it made it click in my head,” he told Sussex Live last May. “Since that moment I have got better and better and I finally scored my goals.

“I knew what he wanted from me then and I was building more confidence than I had in the beginning and that’s credit to him. Because he’s a gaffer who will tell you the truth, he will not speak left or right, he will tell it to your face… He wanted me to give more energy because it looked like I wasn’t 100% into the game because of my body language. I was always like this so it’s difficult for me to change, but I have really tried and I think my high-intensity runs are higher than they were in the beginning.

“He wanted me to be confident enough to use my body and my strength in the game, to run at high intensity, not just jogging, really proper running. I think I have improved when I see clips from the last games compared to the beginning of the season – it’s a different Deniz. I have tried to get better and better every day.”

It was therefore somewhat surprising when Undav was allowed to join Stuttgart on a season-long loan ahead of the 2023-24 campaign. Brighton’s signing of João Pedro from Watford will have been a factor, but it looked on the surface as though the club were admitting defeat in turning the German into their latest transfer success story.

De Zerbi suggested that the player would still have a future with the club, saying: “Last year he was crucial for us in achieving our goals, but he deserves that chance. We wish him well for the season with Stuttgart and we look forward to welcoming him back at the end of the season.”

So, that was it then? Undav was a rare miss in Brighton’s otherwise stellar record of recent signings.

Well, not quite. He has been an absolute sensation in the Bundesliga. He hasn’t even allowed himself to be overshadowed by the astonishing form of strike partner Serhou Guirassy as he has helped Stuttgart to third place after 21 games.

Undav has 14 goals in 18 games (13 starts), while he also has four assists to his name. If he finds the net against Darmstadt on Saturday, he will become just the third player in Bundesliga history to score at least 15 goals in his first 19 appearances in the competition after Uwe Seeler (19) and Klaus Matischak (17).

Undav goal involvements BL 23-24

His talk with De Zerbi coupled with the influence of impressive Stuttgart boss Sebastian Hoeneß appears to have unlocked something in him, arguably the same thing that saw him score goals for fun in Belgium. Undav mentioned his desire to improve his high-intensity running and has been true to his word. His sprints per 90 have gone up from 19.6 in the Premier League last season to 26.9 in the Bundesliga in 2023-24.

As you can see from his heat maps below for Brighton in the Premier League and Stuttgart in the Bundesliga, he is covering more of the pitch in Germany as he plays in a more withdrawn attacking role, and both he and his new team are reaping the rewards.

Undav heat map Brighton
Undav heat map Stuttgart

Undav’s improved confidence in front of goal was particularly on show in last month’s 5-2 thrashing of RB Leipzig as he scored three times. It may not have been considered a ‘hat-trick’ in the German sense of the term (a ‘lupenreiner’ hat-trick requires three goals in one half with no others being scored in between), but in England it would be considered a ‘perfect hat-trick’, with Undav scoring with his right foot, head and left foot.

He has been more involved in Stuttgart’s attacks this season on average than any of his teammates. Undav is averaging 7.8 attacking sequence involvements in the Bundesliga per 90, more than any other Stuttgart player to have played at least 450 minutes. Notably, he is averaging 4.5 shots per 90, suggesting his confidence in front of goal has very much returned.

Stuttgart attacking sequence involvement

Of players to have scored at least two goals this season, only Guirassy (1.50), Bayer Leverkusen’s Nathan Tella (1.47) and Bayern Munich’s Harry Kane (1.40) average more than Undav’s 1.33 goal involvements per 90 in the Bundesliga.

Such has been his impact, Undav was given the Bundesliga’s Player of the Month award for January, another milestone in his development as a player now he’s getting regular games in a team that gives him a clear and defined role.

His aim now is to be a part of Julian Nagelsmann’s Germany squad for the summer’s Euro 2024 tournament on home soil. Undav has never represented his country at any level, but like Borussia Dortmund’s Niclas Füllkrug, he could be a late bloomer who can address Germany’s recent dearth of talent up top.

De Zerbi may wish to give Undav another chance with Brighton next season, though the Italian’s own future remains up in the air with links to the upcoming managerial vacancies at Liverpool and Barcelona.

Reports suggest Stuttgart do have a purchase option in the loan deal that will be dependent on Undav’s performances for VfB, and Hoeneß wants to keep him around.

“[We are] certainly prepared to go to extremes [to sign him permanently],” the Stuttgart boss recently said. “In the end it’s a business but emotions and passion are also part of it. That’s why I have great hope that we can continue with him.

“It’s impressive how he presents himself in the Bundesliga. He does special things on the pitch, but he’s also really cool and positive off the pitch. He’s not a normal guy, in the best sense of the word.”

Whether Undav’s long-term future will be back at Brighton or continuing with Stuttgart, he is finally looking like the player the Seagulls thought he was when they signed him in 2022.

While he may not go down in history as a Brighton great, he can at least be considered another example of their recruitment staff spotting a player who can thrive in a top European league.

Who knows? Perhaps Stuttgart will be the ones who need to block Chelsea’s phone number in future transfer windows.

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