Get out of the entertainer? Allan Saint-Maximin was the crowd-pleasing anomaly at a bleak time for Newcastle United. The excitement they offered in Steve Bruce’s unapologetic era of largely dull, defensive football came from the charismatic Frenchman and his fascinating solo careers.
Now, at a time when Newcastle supporters have started chanting about going to Barcelona and Bayern Munich, apparently Saint-Maximin won’t. He was omitted from the preseason friendly against the Rangers and, coach Eddie Howe said, he is unlikely to join them on their preseason tour of the United States. Apparently, Saudi Arabia attracts the man who seemed the most prized asset when Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) bought 80 per cent of Newcastle.
The winger’s departure would be a move with three strands, each reflecting broader trends in the transfer market and Newcastle in particular. United has acquired the title of richest club in the world; Whether accurate or not, they may have unlimited wealth, but their purchasing power is limited by regulations. “FFP [Financial Fair Play] it’s a new dynamic that’s come to light,” Howe said; Chelsea must be well aware of this, and Manchester United and Arsenal must be aware of the final figures for their summer business.
Newcastle’s coup of signing Sandro Tonali also brought their spending under the new regime to around £300m. He has recovered very little in that time. “Player trading is a key part – if you can’t make it, you don’t trade,” Howe added. His squad falls into two categories: those that, whether purchased or converted in the last 18 months, might command high prices but seem priceless to Howe; and those who might be available, who have the look of relegation fighters or championship footballers and were signed at a time of lower expectations and spending. The problem with buying a league foot club is that many of the existing players are not worth much. Then there’s Saint-Maximin, who, in a season that saw Newcastle finish fourth, played a bit of a minor role, making 12 league starts and a solitary, albeit spectacular, goal.
The second facet is the contentious part. Al Hilal, partly owned by the Saudi PIF, look like the suitors for Saint-Maximin. It seems convenient, to say the least: at a time when Newcastle need to bring in money to keep spending, an offer from Saudi Arabia materialises. Some may note that United has already agreed to a jersey sponsorship deal this summer with Sela, a Saudi events company. He might be more suspect if a big Saudi offer for Ryan Fraser, Paul Dummett or Isaac Hayden arrives than a footballer of Saint-Maximin dons, but he might still not be liked by many if the high-caliber signings are financed through a sale to the Middle East.
Newcastle is entitled to argue that large numbers of elite players from Europe’s top divisions have been targeted by Saudi clubs this summer, that Chelsea have been much more active in trade with Saudi Arabia, and that Saint-Maximin, at a price discussed of £40 million. – would bring in less than what Wolves got for Ruben Neves. Liverpool can also win more with Saudi Arabia, but with the significant difference that losing Jordan Henderson and Fabinho was not part of the plan and would have a detrimental effect.
Conversely, the Saint-Maximin change could suit Newcastle. Howe drowned him in praise: “We all love him… if we lose him, it would be with a heavy heart,” but they’re a stylistic mismatch. Saint-Maximin doesn’t press with the stamina or reliability required in a team that can be exhausting just to watch; workaholic Joelinton sometimes took his place on the left wing last season, and January signing Anthony Gordon produces defensive stats that Saint-Maximin cannot match, even though the Frenchman is a far more convincing solo back. Despite playing around a third of the minutes last season, Saint-Maximin did the most dribbles; however, he was ranked 16th in his squad for counter-pressure action. That Newcastle can spend the proceeds from the Saint-Maximin game on Harvey Barnes is an indication that they want a fast winger; just one with different characteristics.
Think of Saint-Maximin in a Newcastle shirt and the image that comes to mind is of him scooping the ball into his own half, apparently intending to take on an entire defense on his way to goal. It was partly a tactic under Bruce. Now Newcastle play higher up the pitch with Howe. If then practically everyone concentrated on defense and he was left almost alone in attack, now there is a shared bet, with collective plays that produce goals and with forwards that recover the ball. Newcastle’s collectivism has worked for Howe, but it has left the fate of Saint-Maximin as the death of the maverick, the end of the wild card.
Perhaps, as Newcastle face crowded defenses more often this season, they will wish they still had someone capable of providing the X factor. They did not sign James Maddison, a former target and a player who, in very different ways, You can make something out of nothing. Saint-Maximin belonged to a tradition of Newcastle-style players, lighting up an otherwise gray team. However, if the era of individual inspiration is over, the other elements behind a likely move to Saudi Arabia feel very modern.