Around this time a year ago, Miguel Almiron was busy leading Atlanta United on a playoff run that resulted in an MLS Cup title and the fulfillment of a goal to deliver a championship to a city that made him feel like one of its own.
And the MLS Cup conquest opened the door for Atlanta United to entertain the international interest in Almiron's services. The winning bid belonged to Premier League side Newcastle United, which broke its own transfer record (which had stood for well over a decade) to do the deal in January. The reported $27 million fee received by Atlanta United was the largest in MLS history.
The deal represented a landmark moment and Almiron was equally enthused, describing his move as “something beautiful.” And the excitement surrounding Almiron’s arrival was palpable among the Newcastle faithful.
The Paraguayan international made his home debut in late-February against Huddersfield Town and was a width of a post away from his first goal when a chipped effort clipped the woodwork. Almiron’s season ended early due to a hamstring injury, but during the 10 games he featured for Newcastle the club maintained good form: winning five games, tying two, and losing three.
Despite failing to record a goal or assist during that period, his impact was undeniable.
Against Bournemouth, he earned a free kick that produced Newcastle’s opener. Showcasing the type of devastating speed and control in transition that under the high-octane system implemented by Tata Martino propelled Atlanta to MLS Cup, the Paraguayan had run some 60 yards from the edge of Newcastle’s box before eventually being fouled.
Yet any optimism generated by Almiron’s performances quickly became overshadowed by concern over the future of the coach who brought him to England's northeast, Rafa Benitez. Confirmation that Benitez would leave the club arrived in late-June as his relationship with controversial owner Mike Ashley reached an impasse.
Steve Bruce was later hired to succeed the Spaniard. Bruce’s record in the Premier League is statistically poor, and his tactical approach lends itself toward English old-school man-management. In contrast, Benitez was detail orientated and planned the team’s tactics meticulously.
Bruce said he wanted to install a more "expansive style." In doing that he has selected a handful of formations this season and used Almiron as part of a front two and more often than not in an unfamiliar right-wing role.
When playing as a striker Almiron is tasked with bringing the ball into the final third from deep and combining with new-signing Joelinton, but that role often leaves the pair isolated as teammates could not get up and provide support. When playing right-wing, Almiron looks uncomfortable, and his over-reliance on his left-foot becomes pronounced and stops him from going down the outside. Bruce recently admitted his attempts to change the team’s style have been unsuccessful, and he will revert to the one implemented by his predecessor.
Whether that will see Almiron return to his freer, more familiar No. 10 role is unclear. Under Benitez, Almiron played as part of a front three with Ayoze Pérez and Salomón Rondón. Almiron’s role was to transition the ball from defense to attack. The benefit of Benitez’s system was that the defensive structure of a back five and two industrious central midfielders often invited the opposition to overcommit and helped create counter-attacking opportunities.
This meant Almiron could charge into open space before trying to link up with Pérez and Rondón. The fact he quickly established a rapport with the Spanish-speaking pair also helped matters, with all three players complementing each other.
That same connection has not been present with new signings Allan Saint-Maximin and Joelinton. The Brazilian arrived for a club-record fee from Hoffenheim this summer, but he appears unsuited to the target man role that Rondón thrived in.
The Venezuelan’s ability to hold the ball up allowed for his teammates (including Almiron) to join him in the final third, while his aerial ability encouraged crosses into the box from the likes of the former Atlanta man (Newcastle are averaging six fewer crosses per game this season compared to last).
There is also the issue of the player himself. To be frank: Almiron, who rarely appeared without his trademark smile in MLS, seems sapped of confidence. The 25-year-old has found himself in good scoring opportunities several times this season, but a mix of hesitation and overthinking have caused him to waste those chances. Last Saturday against Chelsea, passes that Almiron regularly made when he starred in MLS were also going astray.
The club has now played nine league games this season, and Almiron is still yet to record a goal or assist. To his credit, he is contributing in other ways, with his pass initiating the attack for Newcastle’s winning goal against Manchester United earlier this month.
That said, an occasional pass in the build-up is not why Newcastle paid those many millions to pry him away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Instead, the hope is that he can soon find that elusive spark and bring "something beautiful" to Tyneside.