Steve Bruce should overlook Joe Willock and hand Allan Saint-Maximin his first start since testing positive for coronavirus when Newcastle United host Southampton on Saturday.
The Magpies signed Willock on loan until the end of the season from Arsenal on Deadline Day, to temporarily end Bruce’s long-running search for a new box-to-box midfielder.
Bruce could not award the 21-year-old his Toon debut during Tuesday night’s defeat at home to Crystal Palace due to his late arrival, but should now wait to introduce the Gunners product into his starting line-up.
Newcastle failed to build on a first win in 12 games across all competitions by losing to the Eagles in midweek, despite taking 21 shots on Vincente Guaita’s goal to the nine efforts allowed thanks to the Spaniard saving four of the five efforts struck on target, per WhoScored.
At one point, Bruce even had three strikers, two wingers and an attacking midfielder on the pitch at the same stage, with Andy Carroll joining Dwight Gayle, Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser, Miguel Almiron and Saint-Maximin in a desperate bid for a late equaliser.
Saint-Maximin had come on in the 63rd minute to earn his fourth cameo appearance since recovering from Covid-19, with the long-term effects of the virus causing the £29m-rated maestro to miss two months of action.
Bruce hinted after the game that the 23-year-old is nearing a state where he can return to the starting line-up, having resisted the temptation to unleash Saint-Maximin on Crystal Palace from the off.
“Well, we obviously hope so,” Bruce said, via quotes by Chronicle Live, when asked if the forward would start against Southampton on Saturday. “We’ll keep protecting him.
“That’s another half an hour now, so he’s had probably four half-hours. He’s getting his fitness levels back up – it’s always that difficult one, but he’s starting to show signs that he’s ready to start.”
The temptation to start Saint-Maximin from the off must now be too strong for Bruce to ignore after yet another defeat and thus should unleash the winger, lauded by former Newcastle star Ryan Taylor as a “bright spark”, on Southampton.
Bruce values Saint-Maximin’s input greatly and will have sorely missed the forward in recent months, having previously described his £20m signing as “our most creative player”. He is also someone who two-time Premier League winner Joleon Lescott claims: “can lift fans out of their seats.”
But starting Saint-Maximin will likely see Willock forced to wait for his first start in black and white, as Bruce will find it impossible to bench Fraser or midfielders Jonjo Shelvey and Isaac Hayden to make space for either to come in. Leaving the heavily criticised Jeff Hendrick as the only man who could make way to free a spot in the line-up.
Shelvey helped Newcastle control the game against Crystal Palace, in a rare fixture where United boasted 61.3% of the ball having averaged a share of just 42.2% in the Premier League this season – only Burnley (41.7%) and West Brom (40.7%) see less, per WhoScored.
Hayden was also his usual defensive self with a joint team-high two successful tackles and an interception, yet further played more passes (102) than anyone else for either side and won a game-high 10 aerial duels – Javier Manquillo (4) won possession in the air the next-most ahead of Eagles defender Gary Cahill (3), per WhoScored.
Fraser was also a creative maestro and unfortunate to end the night without an assist, having created seven goalscoring opportunities to account for almost half of Newcastle’s 15 key balls. He also forced Guaita into action with each of his two shots, while 10-goal top-scorer Callum Wilson missed the mark with each of his four efforts – no one fired wide more often.
So, if Bruce wants to start Saint-Maximin, Deadline Day arrival Willock will be forced to make his Newcastle debut from the bench against Southampton or wait until Newcastle visit Chelsea a week on Monday.