Karl Darlow, Ciaran Clark, Matt Ritchie and Isaac Hayden all started for Newcastle United in the final game of the Mike Ashley era. Dwight Gayle appeared from the bench.
Those were five of Newcastle’s 12 most-used players in the Championship in 2016-17, appearing for a combined 14,122 minutes. Gayle, with 23 goals, was their leading scorer.
Steve Bruce, in charge against Wolves, regularly cited this longevity as a positive as the team battled relegation.
Like Bruce, though, clinging to his job ahead of his 1,000th career game in management against Tottenham, their stays are highly unlikely to be extended long into the ownership of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which last week purchased 80% of the St James’ Park outfit to become the richest football club owner in the world.
Amanda Staveley, whose PCP Capital Partners bought 10% of Newcastle, has already talked of matching Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, who this year respectively became the first British club to make a £100 million signing and recruited the greatest player in the history of the game.
The mere thought of Jack Grealish or Lionel Messi might make steady, unspectacular centre-back Clark a little dizzy.
“We are in the market to compete for world-class players,” Staveley said in another interview, before generously adding: “We already have world-class players.”
Right-winger-turned-left-back Ritchie certainly cannot be counted in that group. But Allan Saint-Maximin, with a little time and some elite coaching, might yet be.
Key like Kompany
It is easy to imagine Newcastle’s bottomless budget allowing them to cast aside their entire existing XI.
A viral social media post shared by Gary Lineker last week showed a video clip of an alternative Magpies team lining up for the Champions League anthem on EA Sports’ FIFA: Mohamed Salah, Messi, Kevin De Bruyne, Neymar, Erling Haaland, Kylian Mbappe, Son Heung-min, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo, bolstered by N’Golo Kante in goal.
But if City’s 2008 takeover provided the blueprint, it showed how some players already at the club can have vital roles in the years ahead.
In their final game before the Abu Dhabi United Group took charge, Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany both started. Pablo Zabaleta was signed the same day.
Kompany (358), Zabaleta (333) and Hart (308) to this day rank third, fifth and seventh for City appearances in all competitions in the Abu Dhabi era, each sticking around for at least two of the club’s five Premier League title triumphs.
So, who might be the Newcastle equivalents?
“I don’t think anyone has lived up to their potential,” former Newcastle captain Rob Lee told Stats Perform. “You’ve got to be brutally honest and say we wouldn’t be in this position we’re in [19th] if they’d played as well as they can.”
However, he added: “Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson I’d leave out of that.”
Wilson and Joe Willock were both reportedly of interest to Staveley’s group before they were brought to Tyneside, but Saint-Maximin is the genuine jewel in Newcastle’s knock-off crown.
In fact, if not for this takeover, Newcastle fans would have been fearing a January exit for their exciting number 10.
A year ago, Saint-Maximin said: “If the club is developing well, and it’s in line with my desires, staying is a possibility. Afterwards, if things don’t turn out like that, obviously the question of leaving will arise.”
Since that interview, Newcastle have earned the joint-fewest points of all ever-present Premier League teams (41 – tied with Southampton). Saint-Maximin, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength.
Saint-Maximin arrived at Newcastle with a reputation as an entertainer, equal parts exhilarating and frustrating. Across his first two seasons at St James’ Park, he lived up to that billing.
Among players to make 10 starts in that time, the winger ranked third in Europe’s top five leagues for both dribbles attempted (9.1 – behind Neymar and Sofiane Boufal) and dribbles completed (5.7 – behind Neymar and Adama Traore) per 90 minutes, but his end product was too often lacking.
Three goals and four assists in 2019-20 represented a goal involvement every 267 minutes, ranking between Jonjo Shelvey (265) and Matej Vydra (271) in the Premier League. When he reproduced the same figures again the following season, Saint-Maximin improved to an involvement every 224 minutes – just behind Danny Welbeck (221).
However, with two goals and three assists already this term, he has an involvement every 126 minutes, which puts him directly between Bruno Fernandes (125) and Son (130).
Indeed, only seven Premier League players have this season created more than Saint-Maximin’s 16 chances – Ritchie (21) is actually joint-second – which include 15 from open play and four Big Chances.
These attacking statistics are all the more impressive given the role Saint-Maximin is asked to play for Newcastle.
The Magpies start their possessions just 39 metres from their own goal on average – third-deepest in the league – meaning Saint-Maximin, of late playing as a central striker in either a 3-5-2, 5-4-1 or 4-3-3, is tasked with taking the team up the pitch.
And it’s a role he’s fulfilled exceptionally well, often picking the ball up deep and driving into the opposition half. There’s a good directness to his dribbling too. His 99 progressive carries – defined as a carry that moves the ball more than five metres upfield — are the most of any attacking player in any of Europe’s big five leagues.
In total, Saint-Maximin has carried the ball 1,950m, further than any other player in the league, including 1,212m upfield – trailing only Traore (1,267m).
These are also not isolated runs down blind alleys. No, there is true end product now to Saint-Maximin’s dribbling game. He’s fired off a shot himself eight times from a ball carry and laid on a chance a further 11 times. No other play in the league can better that tally of 19 team chances generated. Saint-Maximin is Europe’s outstanding counter-attacking creator, with those 11 chances from carries the most of any player in Europe’s big five leagues.
But he might be even more effective a little closer to goal in a better, more progressive team. That opportunity should now arise on Tyneside. Traore is the sole player in Europe to successfully take on more players (49) than Saint-Maximin’s 33, although only five of the Newcastle man’s 54 attempted dribbles have been in the box – some way shy of Mbappe’s leading 18.
“Imagine what these players must be thinking,” Lee said. “I’d love to be a player at the minute at Newcastle.
“I’d be thinking, ‘If I win something here, there’ll be statues of me everywhere’. That’s what you’ve got to look at. The first people to win something after that long are going to be idolised forever.”
Saviour, then Superstar?
There will undoubtedly be some high-profile, high-cost arrivals to come at St James’ Park. Lee, doing his best Kevin Keegan impression, “would love it” if Newcastle signed Sunday’s opponent Harry Kane – but Saint-Maximin must first lead his side to Premier League safety.
Newcastle are without a victory in seven this season and winless in four at home against Spurs.
But City also found life tough in 2008-09, tumbling into the bottom three at Christmas despite being afforded a single day in September to sign Robinho following the takeover.
Three goals from Robinho across the next two games provided a little breathing space going into January, when City were able to spend again and finish the campaign comfortably in midtable – their form from Boxing Day onwards the seventh best in the division.
For now, Saint-Maximin is the closest thing Newcastle have to a Robinho, who provided a goal involvement (14 goals, five assists) every 139 minutes in that campaign.
Across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, Newcastle won 42.9% of the 42 matches in which Saint-Maximin started, earning 1.5 points per game, versus 14.7% of 34 without him, collecting just 0.8 points a game.
That puts into context their awful start to this season, in which Saint-Maximin has been one of only two Newcastle players – Ritchie the other – to play all 630 minutes, a bright spark in a gloomy stretch.
If the Frenchman can continue to stay fit, he will be key to ensuring results quickly turn in this new era.
“I’d love to see superstars [at Newcastle] – that’s what we all want to see,” Lee said. “‘The Entertainers’ was all about having a very, very good team but also signing superstars, like Alan [Shearer], Tino [Asprilla] and David Ginola.”
Forget Kane, Philippe Coutinho and Mauro Icardi. Saint-Maximin is primed to be this team’s first superstar.
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Design by Matt Sisneros.