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FEATURE | Allan Saint-Maximin – the most frustrating French prospect since Hatem Ben Arfa

It finally seems as though Allan Saint-Maximin will get his move away from Nice, months after being linked with a move to AC Milan. With clubs like Newcastle United and Watford now closing in, Saint-Maximin is someone who will lift fans off their seats wherever he goes.

Born to Haitian parents in the South-western Parisian suburb of Châtenay-Malabry, Saint-Maximin has already played a lot of football despite being only 22. From the youth academies of Saint-Étienne and Boulogne-Billancourt to Monaco and now Nice, the winger has seen his stock in French football rise and there is little surprise that interest from abroad has cropped up in the last few months.

Saint-Maximin’s hairstyle, Gucci headband and approach to the game makes him a rather noticeable character. His fashion sense has even attracted the attention of the British tabloids and that is another thing that helps him stand out.

On the pitch, the Frenchman is as flamboyant as a winger can be. There is probably no trick that he does not have up his sleeve and he tries to put them all to good use, often to the chagrin of his team-mates. This past season, he racked up his highest goalscoring tally in senior football and not just that, he added another position to his arsenal by playing at wing-back for the Les Aiglons under Patrick Vieira.

Saint-Maximin had previously played in an attacking midfield position during his time at Saint-Etienne and with Hannover in Germany. The then ASSE boss Christophe Galtier even played him as a striker multiple times and so did Rui Almeida when the Frenchman played at Bastia in the 2016-17 season on a short loan stint.

Under Vieira though, Saint-Maximin has been deployed in a vast variety of positions. From playing wing-back on either side in a 3-4-2-1 shape to being deployed as a second striker in a 5-3-2 alongside Mario Balotelli, this past season has proved how versatile a player he can be when the need arises. This, on top of playing as a right or as a left winger in a regular 4-3-3 formation (his most comfortable positions).

Despite this having been his highest scoring season ever, Saint-Maximin only scored six times and assisted just thrice. This is perhaps indicative of the player that any side would be getting – an infuriating inability to finish or to make the right decisions in the final third.

In the image of former Barcelona youngster and Wolverhampton Wanderers star Adama Traoré, Saint-Maximin racked up the second most number of dribbles in the Ligue 1 this past season – 4.2 per game and that is only second behind the influential Hatem Ben Arfa. At the same time however, he also had the third most bad touches per game statistic last season.

While he was one of Nice’s most influential players when Vieira struggled with getting the attacking combinations right and changed to the 3-4-2-1, Saint-Maximin sometimes only threatens and almost always fails when there is a chance to play a final pass or an opportunity opens up to shoot. His cruciality last season was borne out of a boardroom disagreement over transfers, which left Vieira with no recognised striker following Balotelli’s January departure. He was forced to put Saint-Maximin to use.

He is often seen taking shots from long distances and that does not help his team create more clear cut chances. He is not someone who will hug the touchline and put a cross in for the striker. He likes to cut inside and have regularly off-target pops at goal. He had the lowest number of contributions to goals and assists combined in the list for the top 20 Ligue 1 players who attempted the most numbers of shots per game. That speaks volumes for where the player has to improve.

It is worth noting that Saint-Maximin usually struggles to contribute tangibly in a 4-3-3 shape and is more effective when played in a narrow position. It just shows that he is better off playing closer to goal than away from it, especially because he has a clear distaste for tracking back.

He is perhaps at his best in a free role behind a striker, but for a team that sets up defensively to counter their opposition, he can do an impressive job in taking pressure off a deep-block defence by darting past multiple players to win much-needed territory for his side as a solo #9 too.

Saint-Maximin is only 22 and still has time to rectify his lack of an end product, but to do this he will also have to improve his attitude.

Saint-Maximin had some issues with Vieira when it seemed apparent to everyone that he was looking to leave amid interest from AC Milan. Back in February, Saint-Maximin decided to withdraw himself from the squad the morning of a game, saying that he was ill. But the club later revealed in a statement that the player wasn’t sick and “he refused to comply with his obligations to be seen by the club’s medical staff in order to be judged fit/unfit to travel at the scheduled meeting time.”

When asked to comment on the issue, Vieira said: “He decided that he was ill, yes. He didn’t have a fever, he didn’t have anything. Well… he wasn’t ill. What disappoints me is that he didn’t make the journey… It was his decision, not the doctor’s or the manager’s.”

Saint-Maximin had fired back at his manager’s statement, saying that: “I didn’t train all week because of my ankle. I only trained once with the squad on Friday even though my ankle was hurting and that I’m ill.”

He skipped club’s training in April and that again provoked an angry response from Vieira, who said: “Allan’s problem is that sadly he thinks that talent is enough to go to the highest level. And he needs to understand that he needs to work, to make sacrifices. He needs to suffer. And sadly, he has not yet understood that.”

Saint-Maximin also filmed himself on Snapchat with a bottle of alcohol in hand in April at 05:00 at a club in Monaco in the early hours of the morning after Nice’s disappointing 1-0 defeat to relegation battlers Caen. A defeat that plunged a knife through the club’s European football aspirations.

While these are aspects of his personality that will alarm many fans of clubs who are after him, there is little doubt about the player’s potential ability to make an impact. OGC Nice however no longer believe in that potential. The proof? When he signed, they set a minimum release gentleman’s agreement clause of €60m, believing this would be the least they would fetch for him. Now, they are haggling to get €22m.

For a Premier League comparison, Saint-Maximin is very much like a raw Wilfried Zaha – has all the tricks, less discipline and is maybe even in the rawest sense of term more technically gifted.

If you are looking for flair, to make your fans excited if your team otherwise intends to play defensive football all season, then ASM is your man. If you want results, look elsewhere.

K.P.

 

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