Sometimes you watch a game of football, away from writing duty, and the words continue to throw themselves in front of your face. Whether it be a controversial referee decision, a world-class goal or some intricate tactical manoeuvring, there are often aspects that cannot be ignored.
Whilst watching the second-leg Champions League play-off tie between Nice and Napoli, I experienced such an epiphany in the form of the French 20-year-old, Allan Saint-Maximin.
I’d originally tuned into the match to take a glance at several other key aspects of the match. The fluid attacking play of Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli, the return of Wesley Sneijder and the potentially Barcelona-bound Jean Michael-Seri were all on the agenda, but my attention was immediately turned.
A dazzling performance
A swash-buckling winger with short dreadlocks flying in all directions was relishing the opportunity to grab the limelight. Although Nice’s attacking play was starved by Napoli’s eloquent dictating of play, Saint-Maximin was a constant live wire. Whenever the ball broke from an attack from the Italian side, the young Frenchman picked the ball up and ran with it.
As tackles came, he rode them confidently, oozing self-belief and exhibiting a raw blend of physical power and intricate footwork. Experience heads in Kalidou Koulibaly and Elseid Hysaj were taken for a ride, as Saint-Maximin appeared to work his way through every obstacle. As the game went on, the 20-year-old moved centrally from the left, and was just as, if not more, effective as he tried desperately to create advance his side up the pitch.
By the end of the match, Napoli’s defenders were taking cheap fouls to stop the humiliation. Both Koulibaly and Raul Albiol were culpable of thug-like challenges on Saint-Maximin, as they struggled with the consistency of his take-on attempts. After 180 minutes of the 20-year-old, they had had enough and were forced to take matters into their own hands. From experienced defenders, the compliment couldn’t be bigger.
(Team) Work to be done
His manager, Lucien Favre, was cautious in his post-match praise of the electric talent, saying:
“Allan Saint-Maximin was strong with his individual runs, but it’s easy when you only play with the ball. He has to work very hard, because playing as part of a team is another matter.”
In a sense, Favre is not wrong. As with many potent dribblers in world football, Saint-Maximin finds it difficult to know exactly when to stop. Whilst his talent leads to a high take-on success rate – 71% for Bastia last season – it can be frustrating when a productive pass is sacrificed for the greed of a one-on-one victory. That being said, his only option in an isolated Nice attack last night was Mario Balotelli who, even by his standards, put in a woefully petulant performance.
Who is Saint-Maximin?
Saint-Maximin joined Nice from AS Monaco this summer, having spent time out on loan with Hannover and, notably, with Bastia last season. He only made one appearance for the Ligue 1 champions, as a substitute in their opening game of the season, yet was surprisingly deemed as surplus to requirements.
The 20-year-old’s spell in Corsica, with Bastia, last season was a breakthrough one for the winger. Saint-Maximin caught the eye with the statistic that he completed more take-ons (surprise, surprise) than any other player in Ligue 1 last season, with 144, and was fouled 63 times. On the flip side, he was dispossessed on more occasions than anybody else, losing the ball 4.1 times per game.
The problem comes with the rest of his game. Saint-Maximin has scored four goals in four years of professional football; that is pretty terrible, even for a teenager. He did make 46 key passes last season – the 20th highest in the league – but for a player that gets himself into so many promising positions, it’s a figure that should be higher.
Saint-Maximin has been loosely compared to Middlesbrough’s Adama Traore over the last season. The two raw wingers both love taking-on their defenders – a trait which, admittedly isn’t as common as it should be – and yet have been subject to criticism of their overall productivity.
However, in my opinion, the Frenchman shares many more similarities with Sadio Mané during his time with Southampton. Yes, the goal statistics are varied but, looking at the table below, other figures are very similar…
|Take-ons||Key Passes||Chances Created||Shots Taken||Shot|
If we bear in mind that Saint-Maximin was playing in a Bastia side that finished bottom of the Ligue 1 table and scored the fewest goal in the league, then the statistics only gleam brighter on the winger’s CV.
Personally, I think it’s surprising that AS Monaco let Saint-Maximin go. With Kylian Mbappé potentially close to moving to PSG, the principality side are losing their headline act and the player that gets fans off of their seats. That’s what Saint-Maximin is capable of and, with the platform of a top French team in Nice, this season is all set for the 20-year-old to take his game to the next level.
Watch Allan Saint-Maximin's stunning performance for Nice against Napoli last night.
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