Saint-Maximin’s relentless brilliance brings hope for Howe’s neo-Newcastle


Spread the love

OK, new attacking plan. Actually it’s the same as the old one. Basically, just give it to Allan.

With 87 minutes gone at St James’ Park and Newcastle already 3-1 up Allan Saint-Maximin did what he seemed to have been doing all night, taking the ball in his own half, shrugging away a doomed Everton lunge, then gliding into space, head up, drawing every other element on the pitch into his energy field, blue shirts scattered, another Newcastle attack called into being around this single point of pure attacking will.

A pass at full gallop found Jacob Murphy in space. His shot clanked the foot of the post. By that stage Saint-Maximin had been carried off the pitch by his momentum, holding his head, waving his arms, utterly lost in the moment.

What a player he is. This was not a performance of ethereal attacking craft, or free floating flair. It was hard, calculated, high‑end aggression, relentlessly and ruthlessly applied. By the end Saint-Maximin had racked up 10 dribbles, 52 touches, three shots at goal and disrupted an entire opposition 10 blue shirts drawn into his orbit, spaces freed up, a tight, suffocating game split open by that constant series of cuts.

This was such a vital fixture for both teams, and indeed both clubs. The Premier League’s one real remaining note of drama is the battle to stay in it, to keep hanging on to that rising balloon. And bottom of the table is a fearful place right now, gripped with rising and falling tides, geysers, spurts of hot air, sudden cold draughts.

The early exchanges were adrenal and concussive. For a while Everton looked the more obviously high-end team. There are so many handsome players in this squad: sparkly link-players; upright, striding midfielders, but only in strange, unsatisfying flickers and rarely at the same time.

Everton have assembled a highlights reel squad, something you’d pick based on two hours scrolling through Euro-house soundtracked videos on YouTube. They took the lead thanks to a Jamaal Lascelles own goal made by a fine free-kick from the excellent Anthony Gordon, Everton’s sparkiest player on the night. Lascelles made amends 90 seconds later, meeting a corner with a thrilling thunk of the forehead, the ball bouncing in off Mason Holgate.

And from there Saint-Maximin began to bend the game his way. Leadership in a football is so often bound up in noise and biceps-flexing physicality. The optics work. We understand this. It looks like leadership. But there is nothing braver than allowing your talent to breathe and in seizing the moment.

Allan Saint-Maximin
Allan Saint-Maximin rides a tackle from Everton’s Yerry Mina. Photograph: Scott Heppell/Reuters

Saint-Maximin has been an outlier in this Newcastle team for a while, a ray of light in the grey years, and the most obvious example of a player who should bloom now in that hothoused new era. But it is easy to forget that he was meant to be this good all along. Marcus Thuram talked in this month’s World Soccer about training with Saint-Maximin as a French youth team player, how outstanding his basic talent was even in that company.

Aged 24, he seems utterly in command of it now. In a struggling side he has the most completed dibbles in the Premier League by a mile. Look at Newcastle’s team heat map and, despite taking 40% possession, they still dominate that left flank, Saint‑Maximin country. And here he just kept coming until finally on 55 minutes another burst and a deflected cross led to Ryan Fraser forcing the ball home.

Kieran Trippier added a third with a wonderful free-kick. Joe Willock and Joelinton both put in savage shifts in midfield. And Saint-Maximin remained not just the most influential player on the pitch but the most interesting.

Sometimes sport does seem to be trying to tell you things. Newcastle spent more in the winter window than any other club in Europe. But in Saint‑Maximin they have a player whose bond with this place is organic and utterly authentic. He arrived at Newcastle an unfilled, slightly itinerant figure.

Since then he has dug in, settled in the north-east, struggled against injuries and an unsettled backdrop but revealed himself to be a mature and hugely committed character. For all the glitzy gifts he applies his talent with a cold and ruthless hand these days, aware that if he simply keeps on running at his opponents’ tender joins he will eventually; break the game open.

Sign up for The Fiver, our free daily football email.

It was impossible not to draw some kind of comparison with Dele Alli, who made his Everton debut here, the Jack Sparrow aesthetic trimmed into a ginger‑flecked short back and sides. The sadness of Alli is a strange thing. Where does it come from? Physically he looks the same. No doubt his yardage is similar, his basic movements largely the same. He remains poker faced and rarely speaks publicly.

And yet somehow every run, every missed link and dead end is shot through with a horrible poignancy, with the sense of something vital mislaid. At St James’ Park Saint-Maximin’s brilliance offered hope for whatever Eddie Howe can build from here at the neo-Newcastle; and also a kind of lesson in how to win, how to settle, how to keep on running.


Like it? Share with your friends!

0

Comments

comments