There are a few topics that are off limits in the Newcastle United discourse. One of these is criticism of Allan Saint-Maximin. The Frenchman has been a joy to watch over the last two years and he is arguably our most talented player. Since joining, his contributions have been a huge positive and helped us remain in the Premier League.
However, it is worth remembering that he is a luxury player and there are reasons why he is playing for us rather than a club in European competition. Saint-Maximin has ambitions of playing in the Champions League. He may even achieve that on Tyneside if he is central to the new owners’ project.
Any comments about building the side around the Frenchman come too soon. Saint-Maximin has a lot to prove and he needs to show that he can be a team player. The last two weeks have brought this clearly into focus.
The recent weekend’s draw against Crystal Palace can be looked at as one of the worst performances we have seen from Saint-Maximin in the last 12 months. There was a change of set-up that led to the team being a lot deeper. This increased the pressure on the Frenchman to carry the ball longer distances and he was guilty of losing the ball too easily.
He was dispossessed three times, more than any other player on the pitch. This is a risk of his game, but when we set up like we did, he becomes a liability. Graeme Jones needs his attacking players to be able to hold up the ball and provide some respite for the defence. Saint-Maximin overplayed in dangerous areas and this increased the danger at the back.
Perhaps more damning was his passing numbers. Saint-Maximin completed just six of his 11 attempted passes. He ended the match with a passing accuracy of 46%. At times, the attacker needs to opt for the simple pass to retain possession, rather than trying to do everything on his own.
It was tough for him to influence the game, as he was getting very little of the ball. However, when he did get possession, Saint-Maximin was wasteful and made the incorrect decisions. That is reflected in the above numbers.
Another weakness in his game was evident on Saturday. His lack of work rate out of possession really comes into focus when we set up in the way we did against Crystal Palace. If we are to concede possession and try to counter attack, we need every outfield player to run themselves into the ground.
Regularly, Saint-Maximin chooses not to close passing lanes and is too easy to play around. The wide areas were a weakness at the weekend, with Palace carrying their biggest threat from crosses into Christian Benteke.
Saint-Maximin should have been working harder to support Javier Manquillo at the back, but too often, Palace found it easy to play around the Spaniard and get balls into the box. The former Nice attacker averages 10.46 pressures per ninety minutes. This ranks him in the 13th percentile among attackers, showing that he rarely looks to press opposition players,
To compare this to some of his team-mates, Joelinton averages 17.96 pressures per ninety minutes and Miguel Almiron averages 18.26 pressures per ninety minutes. The South American pair rank in the top quarter of attackers in this metric. Both have a higher work rate out of possession than Saint-Maximin and would be a better asset in this very defensive set up.
It is clear why Saint-Maximin is in the team. He carries a threat that no other player in the squad possesses. He averages 8.76 progressive carries (98th percentile), 4.33 completed dribbles (99th percentile) and 3.75 shot creating actions (93rd percentile) per ninety minutes.
Saint-Maximin is an elite ball progresser and an excellent creator. However, there is a trade off with the issues he causes for the team defensively. Although many would argue he is better in a wide role, this is the position in which his lack of work rate hurts most.
For all of his faults, Steve Bruce did recognise this and used him centrally for most of the season. The issues are brought into focus when we only have 20-30% of possession as the defensive work takes an even greater importance.
There are a few options available to Graeme Jones. The first is to use Saint-Maximin as a partner for Callum Wilson in a 5-3-2 formation. If he chooses this, he should opt for Miguel Almiron as one of the midfield three. Although it isn’t his natural position, he has the work rate to do a job for the team. He also has the pace and ball-carrying abilities to get the ball to Saint-Maximin in more advanced areas of the pitch.
The second is to play a 4-2-3-1 formation and let Saint-Maximin play as the number ten. This is the position that requires the least defensive work. If Joelinton and Almiron are used in the wide roles, there would still be potential for the team to press.
The third and least popular would be to drop Saint-Maximin from the starting eleven. The thinking behind this is that you can continue with the back five, while starting Joelinton and Almiron. This would increase the work rate of the team and make us a lot more difficult to break down. However, we would be lacking creativity.
There would be an opportunity to then unleash Saint-Maximin for 20 minutes and allow him to play at full tilt against tiring defences. If we are able to be more solid at the back, this could be a viable option.
Saint-Maximin is central to our survival hopes. However, he can also have a negative impact in matches. One of the most important tasks for our next manager will be to maximise his threat, while covering for his lack of work rate.