Newcastle United is in a unique position. Most of the time, when a club is taken over by new, megarich owners, the first task is to hit the market in search of a focal star, a name that can captivate the fan base, convince other good players to join, and mark the ceiling for what the new-look team can aspire to. Post-Saudi takeover Newcastle, though, already has its crown jewel: Allan Saint-Maximin. The task before the Magpies is to build a team around the Frenchman that is as good as he already is, because holy hell is this guy good.
Saint-Maximin ran all over Everton in Tuesday’s 3–1 win over the Toffees—though, to be more literal, I should say he ran by and through and past them. Armed primarily with his world-elite dribbling skills, Saint-Maximin repeatedly and with abandon ripped apart Everton’s defense. He succeeded on 10 of 13 dribble attempts in the match. Ten! Of 13! That’s about a 77 percent success rate for a player who often had to pull off his jinks between a thicket of defenders, all of whom knew exactly what he was going to try to do and yet were still powerless to stop him. There are few sights in the Premier League more pleasing than ASM getting on the ball and going to work, and the Everton match was a prime example:
Dribbling of the tight-space, small-touches variety is primarily an exercise in deception. It’s something of a game of cat and mouse. The dribbler points his body a certain way, or lets the ball drift a certain length, or waves his foot at a certain angle, all with the goal of tricking the defender into believing there is an opening for a tackle. Right when the defender takes the committing step or lunge to initiate the tackle, the dribbler instantly reveals that the opening was an illusion and beats feet in the opposite direction. Both the defender and the dribbler are fully aware of the game’s terms. The mark of a great 1-v-1 defender is the ability to resist the dribbler’s deceit and only commit when you are certain the dribbler has erred by accidentally creating a genuine opening. The mark of a great dribbler is being able to defeat even the best lie detectors.
Saint-Maximin is an outstanding dribbler, blessed with many little tricks with which to con opponents. Maybe his best assets to that end are his hips, which have to be two of the biggest liars in the world. The swivels he can manage with those are outrageous. So often you’ll see him run straight toward a defender, and then simply redirect his run a little and somehow leave the defender completely stupefied. Usually the culprits there are his hips, which he uses to totally sell the idea that he’s about to move one way, then swivels them a fraction and goes the other way, all without losing an iota of speed or momentum in the direction change. Then sometimes he’ll do the exact same thing two or three more times just to humiliate the other guy and create even more space! It would be cruel if it weren’t so damn cool.
In terms of the dribbles themselves, nothing about ASM’s performance on Tuesday was new. For pretty much the duration of his two-and-a-half seasons in England, Newcastle’s entire playing strategy has been to sit back in a defensive posture and wait for Saint-Maximin to bob and weave his way into the penalty box more or less by himself. Newcastle’s continued presence in the Premier League over the past couple years owes mostly to Saint-Maximin’s ridiculous dribbling ability, which has made that strategy just viable enough. But if the Magpies are to again avoid relegation this year, and if they want to keep Saint-Maximin next season and beyond, they’re going to need to construct a team that helps him just as much as he helps it.
There were clues in Tuesday’s match that Newcastle is moving in the right direction. New signing Kieran Trippier had an even better game than ASM, dominating his flank defensively from his right back spot and showing off his most refined skill—pinpoint ball-striking—with several perfect crosses and a fantastic free-kick goal. Summer addition Joe Willock was lively, too, and January’s star transfer, Bruno Guimarães, offered in his brief stoppage-time cameo a glimpse of the passing precision he’s expected to bring. And then there was Saint-Maximin himself, who was as irrepressible as ever while running with the ball, and who also demonstrated patience, creativity, and smart decision-making when choosing what to do with the ball and when. He created three chances for his teammates, and sent at least three more balls rolling tantalizingly close to the goal line that no teammate was around to tap into the net.
That Saint-Maximin had not been plucked up by a richer club before Newcastle became the richest of them all is mostly a matter of luck and COVID-19-related austerity. But it’s also because his skill set as demonstrated at Newcastle has been a little limited. He’s dribbled the whole world several times over in England, but in doing so he’s been somewhat single-minded in his approach, and not always made the best choices with the ball, and not produced all that much when it comes time to lift his head and look for a pass or a shot. More than permanent flaws, I’d argue that much of that is contextual. Newcastle hasn’t asked for much nuance or sophistication out of ASM, not when they’ve used him for so long as a one-man battering ram. You’re not going to get much practice hitting through balls when no one else on your team knows how to make a good run inside the box.
With better players around him, Saint-Maximin should find himself in more positions to run but also to think, to incorporate his individualism within and alongside the real talents of his teammates, and in that way amplify his game and the team’s. He only turns 25 next month, so there’s plenty more for him to reveal and develop in his game. Now that the club can pay him enough to keep his eye from wandering, and can sign players with talents to match his, we should see both the best of Newcastle and the best of Saint-Maximin in the very near future.