Miguel Almiron was hardly a household name, but that didn’t matter. His arrival from Atlanta United last January created a palpable sense of excitement amongst supporters because of what he represented. A break from tradition, and the shedding of an unwanted millstone. It had been 14 years since Newcastle United had broken their transfer record by signing Michael Owen for £16million from Real Madrid. We all know what happened next.
A lot had changed in the intervening period, but not for the better at St. James’ Park, where stagnation has set in under Mike Ashley’s ownership. In many ways Owen belonged to a different era, a statement signing to help Newcastle force their way back into the Champions League. A storied club with a squad of high-profile players turned into a soap opera. A talented yet directionless team continued to underperform.
As Newcastle limped towards relegation in 2009, Owen became a lightning rod for supporter discontent at this wider malaise. He was symbolic of a highly paid group of players whose focus and commitment was routinely questioned. Doubts were raised about whether Owen was willing to push himself for the sake of the team, and his non-involvement in the final match of the season, which sealed their fate, confirmed to many that he didn’t care about their plight.
The same accusation of indifference could never be levelled at Almiron, who’s been nothing less than a tireless and enthusiastic presence in the Newcastle line-up over the last year. His work rate is superb, but quality and composure were lacking in the final third. The Paraguayan would often work his way into good positions only to misplace his pass or shoot erratically. Plenty of chances were squandered.
Almiron retained the backing of the Newcastle fans throughout this long and often arduous spell without registering a single goal or assist. It eventually stretched to 24 games, and although there was evident frustration at his failure to convert promising openings into something more tangible, everyone remained desperate to see him do well.
That much was clear to see in the outpouring of joy and relief that greeted Almiron’s first Newcastle goal, which came against Crystal Palace in December. It was far from a vintage effort but it sparked wild celebrations on the pitch and in the stands. He deserved it for his hard work and unwillingness to hide when times got tough. Steve Bruce should also be credited for sticking with his player, and publicly supporting him, when many would have been tempted to take him out of the team.
Since that goal, which took almost a year to arrive, Almiron’s performances have improved. He’s become more confident and decisive, taking his total for the season to six with a well-taken brace against West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday night. Without that mental burden he’s playing better, and with more freedom. Sometimes it really is as simple as breaking that duck and watching the belief flood back.
He drives half the length of the pitch and slips in Almiron. The Paraguayan finishes with aplomb!
Newcastle have stumbled in the Premier League recently, winning just one of their last ten games, but the FA Cup has provided some welcome relief. Although their progress in the competition has been far from convincing, requiring replays to get past both Rochdale and Oxford United, their performance against West Brom was much better.
Even that comes with caveats given the number of changes Slaven Bilic made to his side, but it was a much-needed boost all the same. Almiron capitalised on the situation, finding the net twice in the first half as Newcastle raced into a commanding lead. A dazzling run and through-ball from Allan Saint-Maximin set him up for his first, calmly tucked beyond Jonathan Bond. The second was fired into the top corner on the stretch as he responded quickest to Joelinton’s speculative backheel.
Almiron was also involved in creating the third for Valentino Lazaro as Newcastle, who were goalless in their last four league games, emphatically rediscovered their finishing touch. Playing lower league opposition in the FA Cup has been useful in this regard and the Magpies are now in the last eight, potentially only 90 minutes away from a trip to Wembley, for the first time since 2006.
Newcastle remain a flawed side, their goal threat drastically reduced since the departures of Ayoze Perez and Salomon Rondon last summer, but Almiron is doing his best to fill the void after an awkward start. A change of formation, moving the 26-year-old infield to the no. 10 role, was a positive development. The FA Cup has now provided four of his six goals and a long-awaited run in the competition could be just the tonic for a troubled club.