When Miguel Almiron arrived at Newcastle United in January 2019, it felt like a seminal moment in more ways than one.
Rafael Benitez’s long, political stand off with owner Mike Ashley was coming to a head and there were a number of deep disagreements between the pair over how Newcastle should operate, with Benitez joining the fans in publicly, albeit subtly, questioning Ashley’s ambition. That rift would never heal, and in the following summer, Benitez departed.
At the time, though, it was hoped Almiron would represent a breakthrough. He cost the club a record fee at the time, finally lifting one monkey from Ashley’s back and ending the wait for Michael Owen’s transfer from Real Madrid, which occurred two years before he arrived, to be surpassed. More importantly, Almiron would aid Benitez’s plan to turn Newcastle into a counter-attacking machine, because of his frightening pace that matched his dribbling ability. The Paraguayan really felt like the final piece in the jigsaw.
Positivity instantly engulfed St James’ Park on a cold January night, with Premier League champions Manchester City laying in wait. In the build up to the match, the atmosphere was fraught, with suggestions that Benitez was at breaking point and very little noise about Almiron’s impending move, which had been buzzing away throughout the winter. Suddenly, when news broke that it was on, clouds lifted.
Newcastle beat City 2-1 and, with Almiron’s help, went on to become a team built in Benitez’s image: compact, hungry, energetic, dangerous. Relegation was batted away easily, despite no win from their opening 10 league games that season, and there was a buzz about the future. Obviously, it hasn’t turned out the way everybody hoped.
Almiron didn’t score or assist at all in his first half-season on Tyneside, a fact that laid a considerable trap for pundits paid to give an opinion on something they clearly hadn’t watched. Almiron was criticised and dismissed as having a poor impact in English football, failing to step up after years in Major League Soccer with Atlanta United.
The truth was, he became the catalyst for a Newcastle team that proved they could flourish despite all the restrictions placed upon Benitez by Ashley. Almiron worked brilliantly from an inside left position, as part of a three-pronged strikeforce in tandem with Salomon Rondon and Ayoze Perez.
But when Benitez departed, Rondon returned to West Brom after his loan spell and Perez headed for Leicester City. Almiron was left in the lurch as Steve Bruce arrived. He’d been sold a particular vision by Benitez; he had a role which fit him and the team perfectly, linking up with a coach and teammates who spoke his language.
Bruce had to get to know him and he needed to get to know Bruce; the mutual understanding of what he was good at and why he was there offered a strong foundation for success. Now there were no guarantees.
Bruce instantly took a shining to Almiron, admiring his work-rate and positive attitude. It has long been said that the 27-year-old is a popular figure around the training ground because, no matter the situation, his smile is always there and always infectious. Although he still plays whenever he is fit and goals have been more commonplace in the past couple of seasons, he has lost the ‘talisman’ status enjoyed in his early weeks. Allan Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson are Bruce’s key attacking force and, too often, the tactics show that to the detriment of Almiron.
There are records of Bruce stating that Almiron is among his favourite players to manage and it is easy to see why. He always gives his all, he’s always busy and he never complains. But it is as if Bruce has decided those traits are more important that the footballing side of Almiron’s game, his creativity and the way he commits defenders and drives the team on.
In Bruce’s current 5-3-2 set up, Almiron is deployed deep as a midfielder, having previously been used as a wingback, and it is not outlandish to suggest the reason is simply that he will get on with it, allowing Bruce to formulate a cautious approach, hoping that one or two match winners can make the difference.
Arguably more than anything, Bruce’s treatment of Almiron is the biggest disparity when it comes to measuring up against Benitez. While that is an unhealthy thing to do, it lays bare the fact that the current squad is not being utilised correctly. Almiron has been breathtaking to watch at times for Newcastle but it is all too rare and a huge contributing factor to that is the fact he is being played out of position.
If he is to be judged on goal scoring and creation, then it is surely unfair to expect him to have any influence from what is effectively holding midfield in a team that only reacts to the opposition.
The evidence is there for getting the best out of Almiron in a defensive-minded Newcastle side. He is no stranger to his fair share of tracking back, and can be an asset to Bruce. Crucially, though, the manager must learn to look past his lack of complaints as a reason to use him as a square peg in a round hole. There is a system out there that gets more from this team, and Almiron should be at the forefront of it.
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