Allan Saint-Maximin is crucial to our hopes this season, both on and off the pitch. He is a player that creates excitement among the fanbase and will be central in engaging the next generation with the club, an increasingly difficult task.
This is why Steve Bruce needs to find the right role for him in the team.
In recent weeks, the Frenchman has cut a frustrating figure in a central role. It was hoped that he would be able to float freely across the final third and cause chaos. However, the team have struggled to keep hold of the ball and this has led to a lack of opportunity for him to shine.
In the recent loss to Southampton, Saint-Maximin started just off Callum Wilson in a central role. This seemed a questionable decision, with Southampton starting with Jack Stephens at left-back. Bruce should start to be more flexible with the Frenchman and start him on the side with the weaker full-back. Instead, he was expected to operate in positions where Oriol Romeu was and he struggled to keep hold of the ball. He was dispossessed three times. No player in black and white lost the ball more.
Some have suggested that Saint-Maximin is seeing less of the ball in the central role, but the stats don’t back that up. In the last five matches, the Frenchman has consistently touched the ball between 41 and 46 times, regardless of position on the pitch. However, against Burnley and Manchester United in a wide role, he completed 11 dribbles. In the matches against Wolves, Everton and Southampton in a central role, the 23-year-old completed 12 dribbles. It is a small sample size, but in the wide role, he averaged 5.5 dribbles per game. In the central role, it drops to 4 dribbles per game on average.
Those that watch the Frenchman regularly, both Newcastle fans and neutrals will agree that Saint-Maximin is most dangerous when running with the ball. The style of play under Steve Bruce has been very poor at times, but Saint-Maximin makes it worth watching for his dynamism on the ball. He loses a bit of that when used as a support striker. It is also more difficult for him to make up meaningful ground as it is more packed in central areas. On the wing, his dribbling ability is much more effective as we saw against Burnley. It can even be argued that he was threatening in the Manchester United defeat, as he created two or three promising opportunities.
Again the small sample size needs to be mentioned about the following. In the matches against Burnley and Manchester United, Saint Maximin had an xG (expected goals) of 0.10 and xA (expected assists) of 1.23. In the three matches following in a central role, the Frenchman had an xG of 0.58 and an xA of 0.02.
You shouldn’t make assumptions based on these small samples, but the stats have backed up what many have seen with their eye. Saint-Maximin is less effective in the central role, especially when it comes to creating chances. Against Burnley and Manchester United, he made five key passes. In the three matches in a central role, he made a single key pass.
It may be that Saint-Maximin has had a poor few matches unrelated to his position on the pitch. The Frenchman will be frustrating at times and he can’t expect the match-winning display against Burnley to be a consistent level of output from him. However, three poor matches in a row suggest that it could be partially to do with the role. His lower average of dribbles and huge drop off in key passes back that up.
In the coming weeks, we need to move Saint-Maximin back into a wide role. He looks happiest when he has space to run into and the wide role allows him to pick the ball up in deeper areas. It is also a position that he knows well and he can go into direct competition with the opposing full back. Nine times out of ten, he will come out on top of that battle.
Saint-Maximin isn’t the finished product. He will continue to frustrate, but nobody else can turn a game on its head like he can in the current squad.
We need to give him the best opportunity to perform and that isn’t in a central role.