By Guy Wilson
When Newcastle coughed up 18 million euros for Allan Saint-Maximin at the beginning of the season, many supporters barely lifted their heads in acknowledgement. Pre-season optimism on Tyneside was at a dangerous low with the appointment of alleged ‘Championship manager’ Steve Bruce. Only the prior £40m splurge on Brazilian striker Joelinton was deemed worthy of a raised eyebrow.
In the space of 12 months, Joelinton has halved in market value. Meanwhile, Newcastle fans have been surprised in many other ways. Steve Bruce is a decent manager. Federico Fernandez is one of the first names on the team sheet. Javier Manquillo is far from useless. And Saint-Maximin is shaping up to be one of the greatest Newcastle wingers of all time.
The Frenchman has been near unplayable all season long. Electric pace, trickery, balance and power have been abundant since his arrival, while his commitment, defensive work and decision-making have developed exponentially over the course of the season – culminating in a player teetering on the world-class category.
Glamour statistics do Saint-Maximin no justice. Three goals and four assists in 22 Premier League appearances is not headline-grabbing and seems feeble in comparison with the league’s big-shot wingers – Sadio Mane has 16 goals and seven assists this season. One statistic, however, does point to his influence. Of the 19 Premier League games in which Saint-Maximin has played, Newcastle have won 10, a 52.6 percent win rate. Without Saint-Maximin, Newcastle have won one of a possible 15 games – that’s a win percentage of just 6.6 percent.
To a Newcastle fan who has watched every second of their season, this mindboggling equation makes perfect sense. Saint-Maximin draws defenders, runs at them, tires them; he even toys with them – all while giving his teammates valuable respite and moving them up the pitch.
Newcastle teams of recent years have cowered deeper and deeper into their penalty area, with not enough forward positivity to launch so much as a pacey counter-attack. Under Rafa Benitez, a ruthlessly organised, resilient back four and a shot-stopping goalkeeper kept them doggedly afloat, but ambition and the confidence to take the game to the opposition was always a distant and unforeseeable idyll.
Perspectives have been revolutionised this season, and only so much of the credit can be awarded to Bruce. Saint-Maximin has injected energy that must not be underestimated — as Thomas Sorenson told Optus Sport’s Gegen Pod: “He is the sort of talisman Newcastle have been looking for for a long time. A young player who has the charisma and the flair to inspire them.”
When’s he not on the pitch, the team loses Saint-Maximin’s electric charge of self-esteem. Instead, they shirk responsibility, don’t offer themselves to receive the ball and go backwards from the restart – the sort of defeatism that saw a comprehensive 5-0 away defeat to Manchester City in midweek.
Saint-Maximin’s season has been punctuated by moments of genius, often at crucial times. Episodes of brilliance include a stunning extra-time winner in the fourth-round FA Cup tie against Oxford, a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque leaping header in an away win against Sheffield United, a glorious last-minute assist in a smash-and-grab 1-0 win over Chelsea and, most recently, a hat-trick of assists away at Bournemouth.
Steve Bruce’s calm and measured nurturing has been indispensable to his progress. Saint-Maximin said recently in an interview with BBC: “[Because] he trusts me, I want to do everything for him”.
That trust was not established between Saint-Maximin and former manager Patrick Vieira, who scolded him in the media for a lack of work ethic. Vieira’s no-nonsense, disciplinarian style of management didn’t sit well with the young French winger and didn’t bring out the best in him.
The right balance of paternal support and demand from Bruce has made him into that one teacher that the talented French student is desperate to make proud. As Saint-Maximin himself has said, “You want to help him, to fight, tackle”.
Bruce has learnt from modern managerial experience that affection and belief in a player of this kind must come first, followed by demand and expectation – I think of today’s top managers and the immovable arms of reassurance Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp place around the shoulders of their exciting youngsters. The results in Saint-Maximin’s case have been truly remarkable.
Back-to-back man of the match awards against Sheffield United and Aston Villa earned him high praise from experienced Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp. Redknapp, always level-headed and insightful, envisages a “big future” for Saint-Maximin — but his prediction begs the question as to how much of that future will play out at St. James’ Park.
Amidst Saint-Maximin’s glowing praise for his new club in the BBC interview, including a recognition of Newcastle’s status and history, his vision for the future was clear: “I know if I develop [in the Premier League], I can go anywhere [afterwards]”.
Since the victory over Bournemouth, the Daily Mail have reported interest from Spurs and PSG and, flattering as the interest may be, Saint-Maximin can aim even higher if he is able to push on at Newcastle next season. He has the raw talent of an Adel Taraabt or a Hatem Ben Arfa, but an extraordinary will to learn and keep improving which will take him to heights the former never attained.
Excitement when seeing him receive the ball has become expectation. His consistency is such that you know he will reach the byline, dribble out of a tight space, find a teammate or get a shot away. The Achilles heel of both Taraabt and Ben Arfa was precisely that you didn’t know because of their inconsistency – and for that reason they never managed to reserve an extended spot in the world-class category.
As a Premier League full-back, you know Saint-Maximin will be at you for 90 minutes, while for his teammates, he’s a constant outlet. “Get the ball to him” is the get-out-of-jail-free half time team-talk that every manager wants to be able to give – the player who will do damage when given the chance. Very few Premier League managers enjoy that luxury outside the top six – perhaps with the exception of Gerard Deulofeu at Watford, Wilfried Zaha at Palace, Jack Grealish at Villa – but none boost their team to the same effect.
Beyond scintillating football ability, the Frenchman is becoming a brand. The Gucci headband and distinctive hair give him an endearing individuality on the pitch, and his exuberant fashion sense and humour give him a prominent social media presence off it. Wherever he is, kids will want his name printed on the back of their shirt and fans will pay serious money to watch him.
Saint-Maximin should be on Real Madrid president Florentino Perez’s radar. The ageing of Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale and the frustrated pursuits of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe put pressure on the development of Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo. In the next two years, Saint-Maximin will get better and better and, by 25, his market value is likely to exceed £70m — a fee which the European big boys won’t hesitate to pay.
Yet for me the aura of Real Madrid remains mystical and superior – why else did Toni Kroos and Hazard give up pivotal roles at Bayern Munich and Chelsea respectively so that they could play at the Bernabeu? Madrid will surely be Saint-Maximin’s preferred destination, if and when he attracts their interest.
Besides that, he seems to be a perfect fit. He has the ability, the charisma, the showmanship and the style to become a marquee signing or a ‘Galáctico’, provided he continues to grow his reputation over the next several years.
Fortune-telling is always dangerous, no more so than in football. We get carried away with the Theo Walcotts and the Ravel Morrisons, and no one can seamlessly predict a player’s projection. TV pundits are haunted by their misguided predictions which Instagram doesn’t forget. I have the luxury of a non-existent media presence which lets me liberally prophesise without consequence.
Yet spare me a touch of optimism and tuck away that cynical scepticism for just a moment — and forgive me for using this article as a platform for an apparently personal hunch. I hope at least that you believe me when I say that Allan Saint-Maximin has a very bright future. Maybe soon you’ll believe me when I say that he is a future Galáctico.
Photograph: Ruben Lamers via Wikimedia Commons