Rafa Benitez fought tooth and nail to bring Atlanta United star Miguel Almiron to the Premier League in January amid ongoing doubts over the future of the club both on and off the pitch but – luckily for Newcastle supporters who were surely fearful the Spaniard would quit – the Magpies boss got his man.
Arriving on Tyneside for a club-record £20m fee, the Paraguayan crossed the Atlantic with the hope of the Toon Army on his shoulders, counting on him being the final piece in Rafa’s black and white jigsaw. The former Liverpool boss has found great success with a 5-4-1 system since the new year began but it was painfully evident that the team lacked pace on the counter – enter Almiron.
The defensive setup requires runners in behind when the ball is won back and players who can pick the right pass when breaking into the final third – both of which are rare commodities for the St James’ Park outfit.
On paper, Almiron, who chalked up 12 goals and 13 assists in the MLS last season and whose strengths include dribbling and passing, should bring both to the team; in his first few appearances in the famous black and white he has showed that eventually he will do exactly that.
But the speedster is striving to become the most successful of a number of arrivals from the States – Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Almiron’s new teammate DeAndre Yedlin have all made the enormous step up in the past with varying success – while also managing both the pressure of being a record-buy, as well as the player who should fire the Magpies to safety.
That’s a lot of expectation for one player.
In his four appearances for Newcastle so far, Almiron has yet to net or tee up a teammate but, particularly in victories over Huddersfield and Burnley, he showed real promise. Right now, though, the Magpies don’t need glimpses, they need goals and assists if they are to survive the drop.
The dynamic playmaker failed to build on those fantastic showings against the Terriers and Clarets as he was silenced by West Ham in the 2-0 loss on Saturday, with Hammers Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini stealing the show instead.
For any of the Toon Army who had expected the maestro to solve their on-pitch struggles with a snap of the fingers, that lacklustre showing should serve as a reminder of the huge challenges facing Almiron if he is to eventually transform the side.
Perhaps in terms of on-pitch impact, there may have been better options for Newcastle to make in January with half of the season to go. The 13-cap international has surely, however, somewhat restored the Newcastle fans’ faith in Mike Ashley, or at the very least lifted the mood of a club that felt trapped under a dark cloud.
In fact, since reports of an agree fee emerged on the 29th of January, Newcastle have won three out of six Premier League games. Before that, they’d won three in their previous eleven. Even the 29th itself is significant; that evening, they beat Manchester City.
Prior to Almiron’s arrival, Michael Owen had been Newcastle’s record transfer – a £17m signing that they made almost 14 years ago – so the much-anticipated passing of that mantle was of huge relief to the Toon Army.
The risk attached to the move is extremely enticing, too; rather than splashing eight figures on a likely-overpriced Premier League player, shelling out a club-record fee for someone who is completely the opposite but could prove to be an absolute bargain in years to come is a gutsy move, and one that appeared to catch the imagination of the fans.
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Encompassing all that, though, is the fact that just over three months ago, the Toon Army were surely fearful that everything good about their club was slowly sliding down the drain and the mood was at a real low.
The signing of Almiron has seen the Newcastle faithful’s feelings of defeat and dismay morph to those of optimism and anticipation. Regardless of whether the 5-foot-10 ace can justify his £20m price tag on the pitch this season, he has, without a doubt, gone a long way to repaying that fee off of it already.