Finn Ranson looks at Allan Saint-Maximin’s performance in Newcastle’s 3-0 win against Sheffield United as the Premier League’s restart continues.
Midway through the second half of another soporific June evening in the Premier League on Wednesday, Allan Saint-Maximin provided a moment of genius. In one graceful motion, he pirouettes between two Aston Villa players with a Maradona turn and flicks the ball down the wing with the outside of his right boot. Somewhere, in another world, an electrifying roar ripples through St James’ Park, a crash of cheap plastic seats and feet shuffling expectantly on concrete floors. But here, only huge faces smile down approvingly from big screens. Such is football’s eerie new normal.
Not that Saint-Maximin appears to mind. Unlike much of the league, the former Nice winger has returned in sparkling form and though his opener against Sheffield United was just his third goal of the campaign, he seems more important than ever to Newcastle’s designs on inoffensive mediocrity.
Of the 14 matches Steve Bruce’s side have played without him this season, they have won just one, compared to nine wins in 16 when he features. In a team that lacks invention, Saint-Maximin offers speed and trickery, an unerring confidence to take players on and try the unexpected. Against Villa on Wednesday, he completed 10 dribbles and the effect was clear. When Andy Carroll slipped Dwight Gayle through, four Villa players were within a few yards of the Newcastle winger on the near side, including both centre-halves. It was vintage junior football, but that is Saint-Maximin’s disruptive influence: the threat of the unexpected that stretches orderly formations to breaking point.
Nimble flair players like Saint-Maximin have gone from being luxury items to talismanic figures in the Premier League and matches this season have featured more take-ons than ever before. In 2006-7, when Opta first started compiling the figures, there were just 11.01 completed take-ons per top-flight game, compared to 21.61 before the resumption this season. Never have there been so many talented dribblers in the league, because never has there been such a widespread dependence on counter-attacking football.
In fact since the restart, the Premier League’s best dribblers are shaping games more than ever. In Wolves’ opening two fixtures, Adama Traore made the vital breakthrough, both times bustling down the right flank to curl in a wonderful cross for Raul Jimenez. Steven Bergwijn’s solo effort punished a skittish Manchester United defence, and Christian Pulisic’s weaving runs were a perennial torment for Manchester City. In these unprecedented times, masters of the unexpected rule.
The stark reality is that teams are out of practice. In lieu of slick attacking moves and high-intensity pressing – the finely-tuned exertions of a collective unit – the burden rests on those players with the speed and initiative to carry the ball up field and find those awkward spaces in opposition defences that are not quite so well-drilled as usual. Sheffield United’s depleted rear-guard was repeatedly opened up by Saint-Maximin’s bursts of pace and quick give and goes.
Against the 23-year-old’s dynamism, Chris Wilder’s systematic football which has served Sheffield United so well this season suddenly looked brittle and uninspiring, desperately in need of a similar match winner, or just someone who could beat a man. Callum Robinson looked like he was to be that player at the start of the season, but was shipped out on loan. Only the Blades’ wing-backs, George Baldock and Enda Stevens, feature in Opta’s top 40 for attempted dribbles this season.
Steve Bruce’s Newcastle in 2020 are far from Keegan’s swashbuckling side, but at least they have one entertainer. Without the expectation of a home crowd, Bruce and many other managers will have licence to set up even deeper and can look to their mercurial stars on the break. On early evidence, Saint-Maximin might well feel disburdened without fans, more confident to carry the ball in tight spaces and experiment. As teams struggle with the fundamentals, it is the impudence and the ability to try new things which could make Saint-Maximin and other players like him the stars of football’s strange new world.
Follow Finn on Twitter at @finnbrranson