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Opinion

This Allan Saint-Maximin Masterclass Posed More Questions Than It Answered

5 days ago
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From the luxurious David Ginola through to the wonderful but volatile Hatem Ben Arfa, Newcastle United fans have become accustomed to extravagant Frenchmen lighting up the flanks of St James Park.

And whilst stereotyping may be dangerous, each incarnation of talented wide man has been more off-the-cuff, tempestuous and arrogant than the last.

It is the now almost predictable cocktail of confidence, showmanship and edge that makes such players part of one of Newcastle most beloved and long lasting tropes.

The latest Frenchman to ‘step over’ to these shores and cascade the touchline for Newcastle United is Allan Saint-Maximin – the Oxford English dictionary definition of a potentially troublesome yet supremely gifted French winger.

But as with his esteemed forefathers Ginola, Robert and Ben Arfa, Saint-Maximin has had little issue ingratiating himself to the Newcastle faithful, with his on-pitch trickery and off-field charisma, intelligence and love for the area making him a firm fan favourite.

However, it is fair to say that whilst his ability to drop more shoulders than a careless butcher and extricate himself from the tightest of situations has made him popular, Saint-Maximin’s output in a Newcastle shirt has been sadly underwhelming.

Before the Burnley game, I intended to write a piece outlining this matter, describing ASM as possibly the most talented ‘out ball’ in football. Naturally his man of the match performance, in which he was a class or seven above any other player on the pitch, put me well in my place.

However, his performance did beg the question, why does he not play like that more often?

Against Burnley, Allan Saint-Maximin was utterly brilliant. He committed men, drove at the Burnley defence, disrupted their shape and with a goal and an assist won a potentially tight and nervy game for his side. But despite his brilliance and regular displays of skill and dazzling ‘which cup is the ball under’ quick feet, Allan Saint-Maximin has rarely been such a match winner for Newcastle. Demonstrated by many not realising he could backflip until the Southampton win before lockdown.

Saint-Maximin is an elite dribbler. This is not up for debate. Completing 4.7 dribbles on average per game last season put Saint-Maximin in the top five best dribblers in Europe. And in a Newcastle system that is neither attacking, fluid or particularly mobile, Saint-Maximin’s ability to transition Newcastle up the pitch and gain either a set-piece or just territory, make him invaluable to a side unable or unwilling to keep possession and use it effectively.

Sadly, however, Allan Saint-Maximin has been unable to convert his prodigious talent and fleet footedness into actual tangible output. Although many will lambast this data driven viewpoint, arguing that the sheer enjoyment of watching Saint-Maximin is enough on its own, step overs and flicks are far from a real currency in Premier League football. Whilst the joy he brings is refreshing, success and survival are built on actual dimes and cents (goals and assists).

And this is Saint-Maximin’s big issue. This is where the notion of Saint-Maximin as a luxury out ball stems from. Rather than hit a big target man, Newcastle have the option of giving Saint-Maximin the ball and encouraging him to maraud forward, gaining ground and admirers alike.

However, with three goals and four assists in a struggling side last season, ASM struggled to contribute meaningfully despite his undoubted talent.

However, as is often the case, there are several ways to consider this poor outlay from such a talented attacking player.

Some of the blame does go to the Frenchman himself. Although his dribbling and its ensuing chaos was valuable for Newcastle last season, ASM often fails to provide an end-product when in dangerous positions. The maverick winger also struggled to click with any of United’s other attacking “talent”, his relationship with the fans far superior to his connection with the impotent attacking unit of Almirón and Joelinton.

His poor goal contributions and lack of creative numbers mean that despite all his talent, ASM has rarely impacted a game like he did against Burnley. And this is where the wider tactical blue print comes in.

Despite a penchant for running down blind alleys, Saint-Maximin does also suffer from being part of a Newcastle side that rarely keeps the ball for extended periods of a game, with sustained attacks a rarity for Steve Bruce’s side.

The unbalanced and stale football played under Bruce means that Saint-Maximin receives the ball scarcely in many games, putting far too much impetus on him when he does receive the ball. Furthermore, Newcastle’s overtly defensive set up means that ASM often receives the ball deep in his own half, meaning that he must run 60 yards with the ball before being a potential danger. Hamstrung by a side that doesn’t match his style, Saint-Maximin is often forced to do his best work in areas of little goal scoring potential.

But a somewhat baffling and more pertinent phenomena in ASM’s game, might be the key to unlocking his full attacking potential.

It is unclear whether it is instructed or self-enforced, but Saint-Maximin often appears reticent to get into the opposition box. A common sight in Newcastle’s rare sojourns up field, is that of Saint-Maximin beating a man (or two…or five) and then giving the ball to a team mate. Here an elite attacker would bust a gut to get into the box and get a goal or assist. ASM however, lumbers forward appearing reluctant to look for a tap in or close range effort, 0.5 shots per game in the penalty area and 0 in the six-yard box support this claim.

Whether it is a bizarre tactical instruction or unwillingness on Saint-Maximin’s behalf is unclear. And whilst this is partly reflective of Newcastle’s lack of attacking play, it seems odd that an attacking player with such pace and ability would not want to operate in the area of maximum danger. Is Allan Saint-Maximin told to? Or does he simply want to bamboozle defenders and score 25 yard screamers every time he is in possession?

Be it tactical anomaly or self-restriction, either way, a team’s most talented attacking player being unable or unwilling to get into the box has certainly restricted ASM and Newcastle’s potential goal output. Imagine Sadio Mané being content with dribbling past defenders, giving the ball to an attacking colleague and then standing still 25 yards from goal. Flair and innovation are one thing, but sides rely on their attacking talents pitching in with all kinds of goal and assists, not just the beautiful and spectacular.

ASM is supremely talented. But as seen by his lack of goal contributions, there should be a worry amongst fans that he may become slightly one note. A pacey dribbler with no end product might be fun for a while, but both Saint-Maximin and Steve Bruce’s system must unlock his greater potential, starting with getting him into the box and not just operating 40 yards from goal. Adding goals and assists to his searing pace and encyclopaedia of flicks and tricks would put him on the verge of being a truly special player.

Whilst Ginola, Robert and Ben Arfa all have a myriad of positive characteristics in common they all share a worrying flaw. They all underachieved considering their talent. Allan Saint-Maximin without adding a ruthless edge to his game will go the same way and it is up to both Saint-Maximin and Bruce to unlock the Frenchman’s potential.

Hopefully the game against Burnley was the start of Saint-Maximin’s progression from luxury out ball to elite attacking talent.

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