There were times when managers felt tempted to give up on Miguel Almirón and even the odd moment when he resolved to stop chasing a seemingly futile dream.
After scoring eight goals in 14 Premier League games this season, Newcastle United’s Paraguay attacking playmaker appears on course for all sorts of awards next spring, but it is little more than a decade since Almirón accepted a job collecting supermarket trolleys in Asunción’s heavily populated San Pablo barrio.
His coaches had informed him he was “too frail” to make the grade as a professional footballer and he resolved to begin again at the bottom of the retail business.
“My parents talked me out of it,” says the 28-year-old, who would eventually earn a lucrative contract with MLS Atlanta in the United States before joining Newcastle for a then record £21m in January 2019. “They told me to stick with football.”
Almirón never wanted to abandon the game but simply felt a responsibility to bring money into the modest home he shared with his mother, a supermarket worker, and father, a security guard.
This sense of obligation to pull his weight and give something back is, in many ways, the essence of Almirón’s character – and his football.
If his anointment as Newcastle’s latest “Angel of the North” was confirmed by a stream of spectacular goals typified by the astonishing first-time dipping volley he scored at Fulham in early October, he remains as much about indefatigable industry as inspiration. That combination has made him one of the catalytic components of Newcastle’s rise to third place going into Saturday’s home match against Chelsea.
Typically, Almirón has never complained at being deployed on the right of a front three rather than his preferred role as a classic No 10 or trequartista floating behind a centre-forward.
“Football’s not just about skill and ability, it’s about working hard,” he said shortly after arriving on Tyneside. “And especially not in the Premier League, where the tempo’s so high. To succeed you’ve got to put a shift in.”
Even his harshest critic during those long months when Almirón could not buy a goal never accused him of being work-shy. Despite failing to score in half a season under Rafael Benítez, the Spaniard’s 3-4-3 system showcased his perpetual, kaleidoscopic movement to impressive effect and he conjured openings galore for Salomón Rondón and Ayoze Pérez.
Although he finally broke that scoring duck in December 2019, Almirón’s game regressed under Benítez’s successor, Steve Bruce. Yet if his chronic lack of goals and assists privately frustrated Howe’s predecessor, Bruce admired “Miggy” immensely. Indeed it is impossible to dislike a player who, having been consoled by a ballboy after one particularly glaring miss, invited him to spend a day at Newcastle’s training ground as his guest.
“In 20 years in management I’ve never seen anyone cover the distances and play with the industry that Miggy does,” says Bruce.
Eddie Howe, Bruce’s more attack-minded successor, demanded goals as well as elbow grease and regularly left Almirón on the bench during the early part of his Newcastle tenure, preferring to offer Ryan Fraser a starting slot. “As much as we love what Miggy brings to the team, he’ll be judged on goals and assists,” said Howe. “And there haven’t been enough of either.”
As recently as last spring there appeared a quiet consensus that Almirón would almost certainly be moved on in the summer, most probably to Spain. Had Fraser not pulled a hamstring in mid-April he might well have departed, and the winger’s injury opened a gap that Almirón has never vacated.
When, at the end of last season, Manchester City’s Jack Grealish made crass comments mocking the Paraguayan’s supposed inadequacies, considerable anger was provoked inside the St James’ Park corridors that have frequently been illuminated by Almirón’s 100-watt smile.
By then Howe and his assistant, Jason Tindall, were on a joint mission to unlock a talent Benítez had long been desperate to coach.
It helped that Almirón wanted to listen. A committed Christian whose left arm is adorned with a tattoo depicting a football encircled by the message “El Tiempo de Dios es Perfecto” (God’s timing is perfect) and has a biblical quotation (John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth, the life”) inked on the inside of his right wrist, readily accepted he required more than divine guidance.
Surrounded by housing developments and light industrial estates, Newcastle’s training ground in north Tyneside is, outwardly, not the most uplifting of venues but Almirón drove in every morning increasingly inspired by Howe’s and Tindall’s willingness to work “overtime” honing his game.
Along the way he studied a series of video compilations of the world’s best wide attackers, England’s Raheem Sterling among them, while also spending hours refining his finishing.
Almirón heeded Howe’s advice that, good as he was at pressing, tracking back and retaining out-of-possession positional discipline, he needed to make much more of a wonderful change of pace and stellar technical skills.
Significantly Newcastle’s manager resisted the temptation to over-coach Almirón but instead offered a hitherto seemingly inhibited creator considerable freedom within the team’s 4-3-3 framework.
“Miggy’s scoring a lot of spectacular goals which I certainly didn’t expect him to, but I don’t think he’s really changed – it’s just that he’s confident now,” says Howe. “It’s important that Miggy keeps enjoying his football and just feels free. He mustn’t over-analyse himself. He’s at his best when he plays to his strengths; when he’s all action, high energy and covering every blade of grass.”
Tellingly, Almirón’s metamorphosis has coincided with the Brazil midfielder Bruno Guimarães’s arrival from Lyon, with the pair developing real telepathy, on and off the field. Another Brazilian, Joelinton, is a friend and neighbour in the Northumberland parish of Ponteland where Almirón, his fitness instructor wife and their one-year-old son are so happily settled that he even claims to relish the north-east weather. “I like the cold,” he says. “I like snow.”
If only Howe could clone him. “Miggy’s attitude is excellent, and extremely infectious,” he says. “He gives us a different dimension.”