Steve Bruce says Allan Saint-Maximin’s return will be crucial
Steve Bruce is hoping the imminent return of Allan Saint-Maximin will provide his Newcastle United side with the attacking spark that has been so badly lacking in the last few weeks.
Saint-Maximin is finally back on the training ground after an extended break forced by the long-lasting effects of a coronavirus infection, and while he will not be involved in tonight’s game at Arsenal or Saturday night’s trip to Aston Villa, he could feature in next week’s matches against Leeds United and Everton.
His absence has coincided with Newcastle’s worst attacking spell of the season, with Bruce’s side having scored just one goal in their last six matches in all competitions, and the Magpies manager admits Saint-Maximin’s attacking threat is badly required as he looks to get his team’s stuttering campaign back on track.
“No matter who you are, whether you’re Liverpool and you’re missing (Virgil) van Dijk or if you’re missing arguably your most creative player at the top end of the pitch, then of course you’re going to miss him, it’s as simple as that,” said the Newcastle boss.
“He can give you a spark, he can give you a lift. Have we become over-reliant? Well, we’ve been without him for weeks, so I can’t really answer that. But have we missed him? One hundred per cent, yes, of course.
“He can give you something which gives you that spark in the last third. Playing on the counter-attack, we’re not quite the same when he’s not in the team.”
Saint-Maximin’s last appearance came in the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea in late November. A week or so later, and he was one of the players to test positive as part of the Covid outbreak Bruce clearly feels has badly damaged Newcastle’s season.
While some clubs have seen their players return from Covid infections without any long-lasting impact, the Magpies have been hit particularly hard by the effects of so-called ‘Long-Covid’.
As well as Saint-Maximin, who spent some of his recovery time in France, Jamaal Lascelles and Federico Fernandez have both been struggling with fatigue. The defensive duo were forced off at half-time in recent matches because they were unable to cope with the physical demands being made of them, a situation which is of understandable concern to Bruce.
“I’m not getting down about it, but I know how difficult it is to handle players and staff who have had it,” he said. “They are absolutely goosed, some of them. That becomes the problem I’m faced with – it’s a difficult thing to manage.
“All of a sudden now, the canteen is closing, we might be thinking about dressing rooms to close again, and all of this where the protocols are very difficult to adhere to. We can’t have a team meeting, we can’t have a video analysis meeting. We can’t do this, we can’t do that. It becomes very, very difficult.
“The most difficult thing for me is not the protocols though, it is that we were struck down a month ago and we are still suffering. We have still got arguably our best player struggling with it and it’s been seven or eight weeks.
“We’ve got people like Feddy (Fernandez), arguably the best pro we’ve got on our books, struggling with it, still. That’s the difficult thing that people don’t understand. Most people are okay, but some aren’t and it becomes very difficult.
“The captain (Lascelles), for example, couldn’t raise a leg after 45 minutes against Arsenal (in the FA Cup). He was in a state. It has been a difficult situation and that’s what I get down with. It’s not just as straightforward as, you’re getting tested and you’re positive, or you’re isolating for five days and you’re all right.”
Fernandez is not expected to be involved in tonight’s game, but Lascelles and Jamal Lewis should both be available as Newcastle look to spring a surprise. Paul Dummett is also expected to be in contention for a starting spot, but Ryan Fraser is suspended following last week’s dismissal at Sheffield United.