“In this moment, it was my younger self with a beaming smile on my face. When I was small, I played football on the beaches of French Guyana and I would sing the Champions League anthem.”
As the Champions League theme blared at the San Paolo, a joyful grin spread over Allan Saint-Maximin’s face. OGC Nice, and their new lightning winger, had made it. Breakout seasons from both club and player had brought them together to face Napoli for a place in the Champions League group stages. But is Saint-Maximin here to stay or is he, as his childlike smile suggests, just happy to be here?
At just 20, Saint-Maximin’s short career to date has been surprisingly eclectic, his path a potholed one. Born to the same Paris suburb, Chatenay-Malabry, as fellow French wingers, Hatem Ben Arfa and Jérôme Rothen, Saint-Maximin was picked up by the renowned Clairefontaine academy as a youngster. However, his stay was curtailed by a disciplinary issue and he found himself quickly snapped up by record Ligue 1 champions, Saint-Étienne in 2011.
Having signed as a professional with Les Verts before the 2013/14 season, Saint-Maximin made his senior debut that August against Esbjerg in the Europa League, becoming the youngest player to appear for Saint-Étienne in an international competition, at just 16 years old. After intermittent displays off the bench, the young Frenchman made his first Ligue 1 start more than a year later in September 2014, although a significant back injury curtailed his burgeoning development that November. Despite returning to Christophe Galtier’s thoughts in the spring and putting in some eye-catching cameos, Saint-Maximin was allowed to leave the Saints for Monaco that summer, before being instantaneously loaned out to Hannover.
The new arrival did make some headway during the first half of the season, regularly coming off the bench showing his pace, power and skill. However, having dropped out of the squad in what was a struggling Hannover side, eventually finishing bottom, a car accident with a tram, during which he was driving without a license, compounded his exile from the first team, with Saint-Maximin only making four brief appearances after the Bundesliga’s winter break.
Returning sheepishly to Monaco, he was again swiftly loaned out, this time to the Corsican club Bastia for the 2016/17 campaign. Here, Saint-Maximin finally found some stability, rapidly establishing himself as the side’s most dangerous attacking outlet, as the forward’s talent and potential was finally allowed some space to breathe, and as early as the opening day defeat to PSG, it was evident that his direct style and tricky would be a captivating sub-plot for the coming season.
Allan Saint-Maximin is terrifyingly quick. He is capable of repeatedly blowing his full back away with his speed and change of direction, and at his zenith, little can be done to stop him. In May, WhoScored reported that he was the most successful dribbler in Europe’s top five leagues last season with 127 completed take-ons, beating Neymar and Eden Hazard into second and third, with Leo Messi down in seventh with 83. However, it’s what Saint-Maximin does next that is the issue. He undoubtedly possesses an abundance of pace and enough tricks to make him illusive but his decision making, weight of pass, and vision require a great deal of finessing.
To say he is ‘raw’ or ‘unpredictable’ is an understatement. Having breezed past his man, Saint-Maximin is liable to shoot from outlandish distances or tight angles, frustratingly picking the entirely wrong passing option or, should he choose wisely, overhit his cross or cut back. This makes him capable of being astonishingly devastating and criminally wasteful, often within five minutes of each other. This is perhaps best summed up by the fact that, despite his breakthrough season with Bastia, he only contributed three goals and a pair of assists to the eventually relegated side in 34 Ligue 1 outings.
Nevertheless, having been used oddly sparingly for France at the U20 World Cup this summer, Saint-Maximin had begun to truly establish himself as a force in Ligue 1, albeit an often wayward one, as he returned once again to Monaco. There remains some debate over the forward’s best position. His skill-set would suggest that a wide role would suit him best, but he has been used effectively in the central striker role and in what the French would call a ‘nine-and-a-half’; playing just off the centre forward. It was conceivable that, upon his latest return to the principality, there could be opportunities in more central areas following the departure of Kylian Mbappé. Alas, no, but fortunately for Saint-Maximin, he has earned himself a move in a positive direction.
This time, Monaco decided to part permanently with the player, and Nice acquired his services for around 10 million euros, with the player signing a three year deal. This could prove to be a perfect fit for the 20-year old as, despite the obvious departures, the way in which the Monaco squad has evolved with Stevan Jovetić, Adama Diakhaby and Balde Keita all competing to partner Falcao in attack renders it clear that regular starts would be hard to come by. Leonardo Jardim was seemingly unprepared to throw Saint-Maximin in with such a long way to yet progress. While Les Monégasques’ 4-4- 2 hardly suits a player like Saint-Maximin in a wide berth, he is guaranteed regular game time and the opportunity to play with a better standard of players than at Bastia and do so at a higher level with Nice. All this will be under the wily and disciplined stewardship of Lucien Favre.
If Allan Saint-Maximin wants to truly make forward strides this season and realise his undoubted potential, then he must take this chance with Favre’s Nice. Until now, an undulating career, slowed by frustrating disciplinary issues and unfortunate loans to poor sides, has yet to truly gather momentum despite his talent. But with the security offered by Nice and having the Europa League and upper reaches of Ligue 1 to showcase his talents, Nice fans and Saint-Maximin will hope that this time next year, their dreadlocked speedster will be grinning like the boy playing football on the beach once more.
By: Adam White/@FRFootballAdam