HE has been a central figure at Newcastle United from the moment he walked through the door – now Steve Bruce wants Allan Saint-Maximin to focus his matchday attention on playing through the middle of the pitch.

Having moved to Tyneside from Nice in the summer of 2019, Saint-Maximin spent the vast majority of his first season as a Newcastle player stationed on the flank.

The Frenchman began the current campaign playing on the right-hand side, but having been moved infield during last month’s 3-1 win over Burnley, a game that saw him produce his best performance of the campaign, he has started the last two matches playing alongside Callum Wilson in the Newcastle attack.

Playing as a ‘number ten’, he has been afforded the freedom to roam in the final third, and while he is still coming to terms with his new position, there have been signs to suggest a greater attacking freedom might play to his strengths.

Bruce seems to think Saint-Maximin is more effective playing infield, meaning the 23-year-old will almost certainly start alongside Wilson again tonight when Newcastle travel to St Mary’s to face Southampton.

“I think he played the role very, very well against Burnley,” said the Magpies manager, whose side will climb to fourth in the table if they win this evening. “He wants to play it, which is important. He wants to have the flexibility of being able to go down the middle and go both ways.

“I think he’s done okay with it. He’s made us more of a threat. Of course, it’s a little bit new to him, but he’ll adapt to it, I’m convinced of that, and once he gets the hang of it then when he is down the middle, he can go both ways.

“When you see what he did against Burnley, when he scored the goal through the middle, I don’t think he scores that if he wasn’t playing there. But then when he made the second one (for Wilson), he was on the right, so it gives me that flexibility. Of course it’s a raging debate at the minute, but he’ll be fine.”

While the majority of Bruce’s Newcastle side is fairly rigid, both in terms of tactics and personnel, Saint-Maximin is the joker in the pack, the X-factor performer capable of thrilling and frustrating in equal measure, often in the same passage of play.

There have been times this season, most notably against Burnley, when he has been all-but-unplayable, but there have also been other occasions, as was the case against Everton last weekend, when he has suffered a knock and spent the rest of the game moodily stropping around the pitch.

Bruce, who eventually substituted Saint-Maximin in the second half of last weekend’s game, acknowledges that the Frenchman’s temperament makes him difficult to manage. However, he remains adamant that any downsides are heavily outweighed by the positive aspects of his game.

“As I’ve said from day one, he’s different,” he said. “He can win you a match, but there’s times where you want him to do a bit more. All of those things are in there, but he’s young, and he’s still coming to terms with it all as far as I’m concerned.

“He’s still learning, but you only have to look at last year’s game down at Southampton – he won us the game. We had all the pressure and couldn’t score, but then he popped up with the winner.

“He’s always going to be a difficult one to manage. He’s not like an (Miguel) Almiron or a Callum Wilson – he will test you to the limit. But he’s worth it. We’ll keep on talking about him because that’s what he is.

“He’s a larger than life personality, and he’s enjoyable to watch, whether he’s getting kicked or he’s taking on somebody. Whatever it is, there’s never a dull moment, but of course he tests you and to manage, he’s not easy, let’s put it that way.”

Bruce’s biggest selection dilemma ahead of tonight’s game comes in midfield, where Isaac Hayden will hope top dislodge either Jeff Hendrick or Sean Longstaff from the starting side.

Newcastle (probable, 5-3-2): Darlow; Murphy, Schar, Lascelles, Fernandez, Lewis; Almiron, Hayden, S Longstaff; Saint-Maximin, Wilson.