Yes, it’s time for that question. Again. It’s sure to be debated heavily. In many quarters it has been already. Talented; mercurial; capable of being brilliant. But a long-term option? Someone who improves the team as a whole? Well, that is a query for the ages.
It’s a moment that will forever be scorched into memories of Newcastle United fans worldwide. The Carabao Cup final, February 2023, 30 minutes in. Following an even, nervy half-hour, Sean Longstaff finds some space on the right and delivers a wicked ball into the Man United penalty area. There should be someone – Wilson – anyone – on the end of it. But there isn’t.
Allan Saint-Maximin picks up the loose ball with Diogo Dalot for close company. He starts moving away from goal, and the chance seems to be gone. Then, in a flash of Maxi magic, Allan shifts the ball and the momentum and manages to disappear from his cul-de-sac and reappear goal-side of the defender, with only the keeper to beat.
The angle is tight, but the Frenchman shifts the ball onto his right foot, arrows an unstoppable drive that beats De Gea, and puts Newcastle into a 1-0 lead, a lead they hang onto for the remaining hour before lifting the… apologies… It would appear my imagination invaded my memory for a brief moment.
As we all know, as we’ve all been playing over and over and over in our heads for countless sleepless nights since that sickening Sunday, Saint-Maximin’s shot was saved, and, moments later, Man Utd had the ball down the other end of the pitch. Then in the back of the net. Then the game was gone.
It isn’t hard to understand the cries of those who believe the Frenchman should be front and centre of this team’s attack – after all, he can do things no one else can. His chance at the half-hour mark of the final was almost entirely of his own making, and what’s more, it was the only save De Gea had to make.
Had it not been for Maxi and that moment of magic, we may well not have had a chance in the game at all. He is the one bright spark in this predictable and formulaic attack, he is our talisman, he is our magician.. isn’t he? Surely imagination isn’t invading again? I mean, how many times have we seen Saint-Maximin conjure a moment of brilliance to single-handedly win us a football match?
Well, in truth, not that often. Actually, not at all this season. And, as it happens, not last season, either. In actual fact, Saint-Maximin has not scored a goal in a match won by Newcastle United since netting against Burnley in a 2-1 victory on 11th April 2021, nearly two years ago. Ok, he’s scored a few undeniably crucial equalisers in that time – but the stat reveals a truth we can’t afford to ignore. We are far less likely to win football matches when Saint-Maximin plays. Especially under Eddie Howe.
With Wembley now nothing but a fading memory, our 17-match unbeaten run already lost to the mists of time, and any pre-World Cup title-charge predictions gently shoved behind the sofa, United find themselves at a season-defining moment. The allergy our attacking players have developed towards the opposition goal has been ill-timed, to say the least, and grumbling fans are becoming increasingly adamant that a change in the front line is needed. Isak is the obvious one, and you can’t help but feel his time is imminent, but the number of people clamouring for our mercurial number 10 to be given a starting berth continues to astound me.
Our current lofty league position is entirely thanks to that 17-match run. In those 17 games, Eddie galvanised the group so that every moment of every match over every blade of grass was fought for. Every player knew their role, stuck to it and performed it brilliantly. And, as a result, his teammate knew where to be and when and why, and chances came, and goals were scored, and none were conceded, and blood, sweat, and tears were spilled by a team who were United in every single sense of the word. They were singing from Eddie’s hymn sheet, and it was a beautiful, brutal, brilliant tune.
Allan Saint-Maximin started two of those 17 games. The final two, both draws, when our form fell off a cliff, and all of the unity, strength and cohesion suddenly evaporated. When you have a collective force that relies on each of its individual elements performing to the maximum, it only takes one weak link for the whole chain to break.
Notably, another player being called out for his recent form is Dan Burn, who appears to be struggling a hell of a lot more now that his marauding left-sided counterpart often leaves him exposed. Another painful stat of realism – Newcastle United have never won a football match with Dan Burn and Allan Saint-Maximin starting at LB and LW, respectively.
So, yes, things need to change. We need to find our scoring boots, and we need to find invention, and Maxi can, occasionally, offer those things. But far more importantly, we need to rediscover the unity and strength as a team that made us so hard to beat. The stats show that when Maxi plays, we are far more likely to look like a collection of individuals, and as has been repeatedly pointed out, this collection of individuals is not of the calibre that their league position reflects.
Perhaps, we should take a lesson from the bastards who beat us to the Energy Drink Trophy in Feb. This time last year, pundits and fans were questioning how Man United could fit their best player – multiple Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo – into their starting lineup. Yes, he was head and shoulders above the rest of the team in terms of his natural ability, but somehow the shape and dynamic of the other 10 players never seemed as cohesive and flowing when he was on the pitch.
The Portuguese Prima Donna wrote his own resignation note at the end of last year and saved his manager a tricky decision, but it seems removing him from the situation was the best thing that has happened to the Red Devils in recent times. Since his departure, they’ve only lost to Arsenal and (hilariously) to Liverpool, and they’ve lifted a trophy at our expense. Moreover, the footballing world has been gushing about their desire, strength, and their unity.
Yes, Maxi is mercurial. He is a wizard. He is brilliant on the ball, and his moment in the final could have been so different. But if we want to be taken seriously at the top of this league and in future cup finals, then we must be honest. We must prevent imagination from invading actual memory, actual fact. Allan Saint-Maximin, in this team, just doesn’t work.
Ted McCrindey @mccrindey