It isn’t long until we see Newcastle United back in competitive action. Although it has been a shame that we have had to have a break when we had built up a head of steam, the time off will have had some benefits. One will be the return to full fitness of Allan Saint-Maximin, who has been missing for a lot of the current season. Eddie Howe will be pleased that he has been able to build up the Frenchman’s fitness organically with minutes given to him in friendly matches.
Against Al Hilal, Saint-Maximin played for 77 minutes, considerably longer than the majority of the other starters. This suggests that Howe is using these matches to build the Frenchman back up, so he can be fully fit when the season restarts. Due to his playing style, it can be dangerous to play him when he is just back from injury and short of match practice. The reluctance to rush him back before the break was obvious.
The question on the lips of many Newcastle fans is where does he fit back in. The team were on a fantastic run without the attacker and he shouldn’t expect to walk back into the team. There are doubts about whether Saint-Maximin would be a help or a hindrance, considering the intense high-pressing system coached by Howe. Although his off the ball work is an area to improve, it has quickly been forgotten that the Frenchman injured himself by sprinting back to defend a late attack from Wolves. There were some clear improvements in this part of his game prior to injury.
There aren’t any stats from the game to draw from, but Saint-Maximin was quietly impressive against Al Hilal. He worked harder off the ball and was playing his part in the press. That said, the Saudi side did have more joy down his side of the pitch.
On the ball, there were a lot of encouraging signs. Saint-Maximin was choosing to release the ball quicker, with some smart passes into midfield. This allowed the team to attack with more chemistry and Al Hilal couldn’t solely focus on the Frenchman. When he dominates the attacks, it becomes predictable and easy to shut down. Howe will have noted this and the messages are clearly going through to his player.
By doing this, space was created for him and he was able to receive the ball in space. It was in these moments that he was most dangerous and he did create some great chances for team-mates. Saint-Maximin is too threatening not to go alone at times, but his problem has always been decision making. Thursday provided encouragement that he was responding well to Howe’s coaching.
Although the team have done well in his absence, Saint-Maximin has very good numbers in the final third when he has played. He has contributed a goal and three assists, with an average of 0.95 goal involvements every 90 minutes. This is nearly a goal involvement every game and this is the best average of any Newcastle player. Callum Wilson closely follows with 0.91 goal involvements every 90 minutes.
As an attacker, we don’t have another player that carries the threat that Saint-Maximin does. Opposition teams are scared of him when he receives the ball. It is why he is so often double or triple marked.
Now we are a much better team under Howe, teams won’t be able to put the same number of defenders on the Frenchman. If they do, the rest of the attack will punish them. At the moment, any team would be brave to give Miguel Almiron too much space.
This should lead to an increase in goals and assists for Saint-Maximin. We need to make him an important member of the first team for the rest of the season. In the summer, we can assess how much he has developed under Howe. I think the seeds of growth are already there to see, but there is more to come from the former Nice attacker.
Saint-Maximin doesn’t need to play every game. We can be clever in the way to use him and manage his minutes to prevent more injuries. There is strength in depth there and the team can win without him. Howe won’t see that as a reason to sideline the French winger. He would rather get the most from Saint-Maximin as he will realise that he can win points for the side.
This is a crucial few months for Saint-Maximin to show that he can grow with the team and hone his playing style to become more effective with and without the ball. In the current stage of our development, there is more value in playing him regularly than selling him.
Nobody else in the current squad can do what Saint-Maximin can.