It’s no secret that Newcastle United fans are not happy with the running of their club. Over the last 11 seasons they’ve only qualified for Europe once and have been relegated from the Premier League twice – with a potential third demotion hanging over them this year. When it comes to players, they’ve seen talents like José Enrique, Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye go almost as quickly as they’ve arrived. For such a big club, it’s nowhere near good enough.
However, in January, hope sprang anew with the arrival of Miguel Almirón from Atlanta United for £20m. A classic number 10, the Paraguayan midfielder has lit up three separate divisions across the Atlantic with his exceptional dribbling and keen eye for goal. With Newcastle managing just 21 goals in 25 games this season prior to Almirón’s debut, his presence in attacking positions could prove the difference between survival and relegation. After all, if his career to date is anything to go by, success and Almirón go hand in hand.
His story began as a 14-year-old at Cerro Porteño, his local side. Based in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, they are one of the nation’s most successful clubs with over 30 titles. After joining such a major force in Paraguayan football, making an impact at El Ciclón was always going to be a daunting prospect for the teenager. As a result, he struggled to dominate his contemporaries in the academy and was almost released at the age of 16.
But Hernán Acuña, a youth coach at Cerro Porteño, saw potential in the youngster. “In November 2010, when the players were getting dropped from the squads, Miguel was among those names to be cut,” Acuna told ESPN in 2018. “So I went to the coordinator and told him: ‘I don’t want that boy to leave’.” The coach had his wish, and Almirón stayed to continue his development.
To help get the best out of his favoured teenager, Acuña deployed a formation that allowed him to flourish as an attacking playmaker, but also made him aware that he could not just be a luxury and had to work hard for the team. Working under this philosophy, Almirón graduated to the senior squad in 2013. Two seasons later, he had become one of El Ciclón’s star players, scoring five goals in 19 games as the club won the Apertura.
As the side turned their focus to winning the Clausura in the second half of the campaign, Almirón’s future lay elsewhere. Buenos Aires outfit Lanús, who had won the Primera División just once in their 100-year existence, had made a bid for the playmaker. Despite their lack of silverware, the club, managed by Guillermo Barros Schelotto – a four-time winner of the Copa Libertadores as a player – had aspirations to become champions of Argentina once again.
Inspired by Lanús’ direction, Almirón signed, and although he spent the rest of 2015 adapting to the league, by the start of the following campaign he was ready to take Argentinian football by storm. Working under Schelotto’s replacement and namesake Jorge Almirón, the Paraguayan scored crucial goals for Granate – including one against local rivals Banfield in the Clásico del Sur – to help them secure a rare title.
Almirón’s triumph in Argentina concluded a remarkable rise to prominence for the youngster. In the space of six years, he had gone from being on the verge of football’s unforgiving scrap heap to a champion in two countries. The dynamic midfielder was now one of the outstanding talents in South American football; yet for some inexplicable reason, he was not on the radar of Europe’s top clubs.
As players like Manuel Lanzini, Gabriel Jesus and Lucas Torreira moved to across the Atlantic, the 22-year-old remained unsold. The closest he got was speculation of a move to English giants Arsenal, but nothing materialised. However, a big opportunity was waiting just north of the equator.
Atlanta United, Major League Soccer’s new expansion franchise, were gearing up for their first campaign in the division. To compete against league stalwarts in the New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy, and defending champions Seattle Sounders, the newbies invested heavily in their squad.
In came former Premier League players Brad Guzan, Tyrone Mears, Chris McCann and Kenwyne Jones; youngsters Brandon Vázquez and Anton Walkes; and seasoned professionals Alec Kann, Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz. The coach, former Barcelona boss Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, required a strong South American contingent. To help their Argentine manager, the club signed Leandro González Pírez from Estudiantes, Yamil Asad from Vélez Sarsfield and Héctor Villalba from San Lorenzo.
But Tata knew that if Atlanta were really going to make an impact in MLS, they needed a marquee signing; an outstanding number 10 who could win games on his own. An expert of his nation’s game and a huge admirer of Almirón, Tata persuaded the club to part with more than $8m for him. “He has an excellent technique and a great vision,” said Martino in December 2016. “He is skilled and one of the best footballers in the First Division of Argentina, which is why we are really happy to be able to count on him.”
Signing Lanús’ star attacker was a huge statement of intent from Atlanta. Over recent decades, MLS has been generally viewed as a retirement home for the global game’s ageing superstars. Only a handful of top players, such as Sebastian Giovinco, have moved to the US in their prime. By signing one of the Primera División’s biggest stars, Atlanta announced that they were not just there to make up the numbers. They were there to conquer, innovate and change the perception of the American game, with Almirón acting as the focal point of this revolution.
“The perceived wisdom was that you needed a David Beckham or a Wayne Rooney to sell shirts, and I think we definitely put that myth to bed,” Atlanta president Darren Eales told The Guardian in 2018. “We showed that if you had a young, exciting team, and you tell their stories well, that’s how you market players. Miguel Almirón was the number one selling shirt in our first season. Bastian Schweinsteiger [Chicago Fire’s World Cup winner] was number two.”
As his number 10 jersey was selling off the pitch, back on it, Almirón cemented himself as his new club’s first ever legend during his maiden campaign. His nine goals and lethal partnership with Venezuelan striker Josef Martínez, who scored 20 himself, saw him named MLS Newcomer of the Year ahead of his colleagues. Perhaps more importantly, though, he was christened ‘Miggy’ by the people of Atlanta, a nickname which overts affection and joy.
His superb performances helped the team secure qualification for the knockout round of the playoffs. Although they went on to lose to Columbus Crew on penalties, Atlanta had proved that they were good enough to challenge in MLS, persuading the board to invest in more South American talent for their second season. In came defender Franco Escobar from Newell’s Old Boys, defensive midfielder Eric Remedi from Banfield, and attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco from Independiente – the latter for a reported $15m fee.
With the experience of the previous year and fresh blood in their ranks, Atlanta enjoyed an even better 2018. After picking up crucial away wins at LA Galaxy, Columbus Crew and Orlando City to finish second and secure a place in the playoff semi-finals, they beat New York City home and away to make it through to the Eastern Conference final. Here they came up against Bradley Wright-Phillips’ New York Red Bulls, the winners of the 2018 Supporters’ Shield. On paper it seemed a daunting prospect, but they too were easily beaten 3-1 on aggregate.
Once again, much of the team’s success was down to Almirón and his prolific partner Martínez. Given a license to attack by Martino, the dynamic duo notched up 48 goals to blow away the division. Their efforts had helped them reach the MLS Cup final. Standing between them and history were the Portland Timbers, the 2015 champions who were blessed with the talents of 2017 MVP, Diego Valeri.
Yet Almirón and Atlanta were not fazed. They controlled the game from start to finish to secure a 2-0 win and their first title. As Tata brought his Paraguayan superstar off to a standing ovation in the 91st minute, Almirón strolled off the pitch knowing that, at just 24, he was a champion in three different countries. He had conquered the Americas and, after starring in a game televised across Europe, he knew that a career was potentially waiting for him just across the pond.
Speculation as to who Almirón would sign for began to build. There were rumours that Tottenham and West Ham wanted the player, but it was the favourites, Newcastle, who signed him for a club-record fee. “I’m very happy and eager to start and to meet my new teammates,” said Almirón upon signing. “The league is very competitive, this is a historic club, and Rafa Benítez himself were the main reasons why I am here now. I think it is a great responsibility, something beautiful for me, and I will try to offer the best I can to repay the trust the club put in me.”
Although he’s fought the odds to win titles in Paraguay, Argentina and the United States, keeping the Magpies in the top flight will be his biggest challenge yet. But if any player can do it, it’s Almirón. The classic number 10 has the X-Factor; that special something that could spark Newcastle’s season into life. Think Jürgen Klinsmann at Tottenham in 1998, Jay-Jay Okocha at Bolton in 2003, and Carlos Tevez at West Ham in 2007 – Almirón might well be the next maverick to drag his side to Premier League safety.
By Tom Blow @blowsive