Newcastle lineup in a 4-3-3 formation and Howe demands his wingers to put in the work defensively. It’s been like that since Howe set foot on Tyneside and it has never changed.
Allan Saint-Maximin, once an integral part of this Newcastle side, has had to watch on from the sidelines through injury and the form of other players in his position.
So where does he fit in? Can Eddie Howe get the best out of the Frenchman?
Regularly, you’ll see Miguel Almiron, Joelinton, and Joe Willock back in the defensive third in a bid to help out their back line. Saint-Maximin was reluctant to track back before Howe arrived on Tyneside, preferring to put in the work further up the pitch. This was excused by supporters and the previous manager, Steve Bruce, as Saint-Maximin (for the most part) carried the whole team for large periods.
This is a different Newcastle now. There are better players available and a plan in place which has seen a more attractive style of play and resulted in Newcastle being more of a threat going forward as a unit.
The Magpies have a great balance on the right with Kieran Trippier helping Almiron. The fullback would overlap the Paraguay international, create space, and thread sharp, accurate passes into Almiron.
The relationship has blossomed and has resulted in Almiron having his best season in a Newcastle shirt to date.
Saint-Maximin looked to be building a good understanding on the left with Matt Targett towards the end of last season. Targett has also found himself out of the side having been replaced by Dan Burn—naturally a center-back. —because of injuries and the great play showcased by the Blyth native.
As fantastic as Burn has been this season, a player like Saint-Maximin needs a natural left-back behind, one that makes overlapping runs to help create space for the Frenchman—Burn simply doesn’t do that enough.
With Joelinton and Joe Willock constantly switching roles on the left, it gives Newcastle a good balance and also makes up for Burn’s lack of ability going forward.
Though Saint-Maximin hasn’t featured as much this season, his team play and defensive work have dramatically improved from last season.
His interceptions per 90 minutes last season were scarily low at 0.22 (8th percentile) whereas this season's per-90 figure has shot up considerably to 0.65 (76th). This shows that he is pressing the opposition a lot more and taking on board what Howe wants from him.
Saint-Maximin has also improved when it comes to ball recoveries: he’s now at 5.87 (84th) compared to last season's 3.53 (11th). That is a dramatic improvement and one that will likely go unnoticed by many. Even his aerial duels have improved from last season; he won 50% last campaign compared to a perfect 100% success rate this term.
Since returning from injury, Saint-Maximin has passed to teammates a lot more, playing the simple ball, and made many runs into space. This, instead of trying to go on a mazy run and do it all himself.
The former Nice player is in a new situation at Newcastle, learning a different system that isn’t solely tailored to his strengths as was often the case in years past. Under Bruce, Saint-Maximin was the main man, given a free role that allowed him to show off his undoubted talent going forward. However, this was to the detriment of the team as a whole as there was a lack of balance.
If Saint-Maximin is to become a regular starter in this Newcastle side, a number of things will have to happen. Saint-Maximin will have to continue to track back, as he has done since returning from injury. But this has to be married with a return to his attacking threat. All things considered, the players around Saint-Maximin will have to learn how to play to his strengths again in this system.
The onus isn’t solely on Saint-Maximin. Two hamstring injuries in a short span of time for an explosive player such as him will undoubtedly knock his confidence down a bit. A run in the side is needed until Saint-Maximin can truly be judged on his contribution to the side. Two 90-minute games in six months are certainly not enough to judge a player.
The Frenchman needs to be loved, and for all Bruce’s faults as a manager (there were many) he looked to Saint-Maximin to change a game. Bruce put his faith in the number 10 and was certainly rewarded with some sparkling displays.
A number of supporters have questioned Saint-Maximin’s body language, coming across as though he doesn’t care or isn’t working hard enough. In truth, though, he’s become far more of a team player and is working harder from a team perspective than he ever has before.
The stats suggest the improvement in Saint-Maximin’s game is happening quickly.
Whether he’s awarded enough time to develop in this system and show everyone the player he can be, remains to be seen.