For my sins, I am a Newcastle United fan. Watching them play has been hard graft
for a decent while. Fun things like
going deep in the UEFA Cup
now seem like very quaint memories. There’s renewed sporting optimism up on
Tyneside, with a helping of geopolitical pessimism, now that
the club is owned by Saudi Arabia
(for what it’s worth, the previous owner Mike Ashley, has been
regularly accused of paying staff below minimum wage,
so the human rights bar is already unspeakably low). These sport
revolutions typically involve waves of new players turning up to appease the new
regime and expectations, inevitably taking places off of (mostly) technically
limited members of the squad first. Longer term, the gentrification tends to be
all-encompassing. I wanted to pay tribute to the player that has managed to
light up countless diabolical performances across some forgettable seasons,
while there’s time left to enjoy more.
First, a chart to try and convey the relative anguish that has come with watching the current Newcastle team.
Not only has the xG difference (i.e. the no. of goals Newcastle should have scored, given the quality of chances created, minus the no. of goals their opposition should have scored) been mostly below zero for two consecutive seasons, the actual goal difference has mostly lagged behind this as well. This is characteristic of a low-quality team and upsetting viewing (although it looks like Howe might be moving the team towards average, as of late).
So, why bother? Well, even in the darkest days of Sports Direct FC, there have been glimmers of uninhibited joy to grab with both hands. Once upon a time, Alan Pardew might have treated the punters/streets to a Hatem Ben Arfa cameo. Today, we are pacified by the heir to Hatem’s one-man-dribbling-band-throne that is Allan Saint-Maximin. Here’s a ridiculous scatter chart to help explain the levels.
Given that Adama has now left the league, if you want to watch a jinking winger there is literally no competition. You can tell he’s different from watching him play just a few times, but this hopefully makes clear how different. It’s compounded by the fact that he plays for Newcastle, where the next most dribble-happy teammate is a way off. In fact, the gap to the “second guy” is bigger at Newcastle than for any other PL team.
Attempting to parse this as a fan, I reckon that you get more attached to a player if the supporting cast can’t get close. I’m not even talking about goals specifically (come on, this is Newcastle), but simple moments of hope and beauty. This can come in many forms, but ASM is a specialist who has perfected the craft. Watching him repeatedly pull a defenders pants down is like watching Dave Chappelle circle round to a punchline.
How does he do it, exactly? It turns out that Allan doesn’t really do much of anything useful when the other team has the ball. There’s only one bloke in the league that pressures the opposition less (one guess who).
tired: ASM preserves his running for when Newcastle gain possession and need him to move the team up the field.
inspired: ASM is doing up all your defences like this. NEVER CHANGE