As Rafael Benítez took his seat to speak to the press ahead of Newcastle United’s clash with Arsenal he will have, rightly, been feeling pretty pleased with himself and his team.
The Magpies are one of the Premier League’s form sides. They’ve only lost one of their last six, have scored more goals in that period than the likes of Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, and have eased the threat of relegation from the top flight significantly.
Yet in life, there is always someone ready to bring you down. Someone who will find a negative from a positive. Which is perhaps why Benítez was asked about Miguel Almirón’s lack of goals since joining the club at the end of the winter transfer window.
“I don’t see any anxiety just because Miguel is not scoring,” the Newcastle boss calmly replied. “Perhaps if you ask him if he needs a goal he would say yes but he is happy and you can see that in matches. He is doing OK and mentally he is ready for the next challenge.”
Almirón arrived on Tyneside at the end of January from Atlanta United for a club-record £20million. The 25-year-old had blossomed into MLS’ finest player, one who could score and create in equal measure.
During the 2018 campaign, he struck 13 goals and registered 13 assists as Atlanta went on to clinch the MLS Cup against Portland Timbers on December 8.
That was the Paraguayan’s final competitive fixture before he was introduced as a late substitute for Newcastle against Wolverhampton Wanderers on February 11. He first start for the Magpies came 12 days later against Huddersfield Town and Almirón produced a livewire display during which he struck the post with a delicate chip.
He has gone on to start Newcastle’s following four Premier League fixtures – no easy feat given he hadn’t had a pre-season to get up to speed – and Benítez’s side have taken seven points from those matches.
During their upturn in form, Salomón Rondón and Ayoze Pérez have taken the majority of the plaudits, and understandably so. Yet Almirón’s impact on the Newcastle side shouldn’t be underestimated.
Since his arrival in the Premier League, only eight players can better his 2.24 open play key passes per 90. Meanwhile, he averages the most tackles per 90 (2.65) and is second for interceptions per 90 (1.02) among Newcastle’s attacking players.
Then there is the intangible of Almirón’s pace, something which Newcastle lacked in the final third prior to his arrival. Few players, especially with the ball at their feet, are as quick as former Atlanta star. It’s why when he receives possession, his first instinct is to drive forward, to try to create.
This explains, in part, why Newcastle’s Football Whispers team persona has slightly changed since Almirón’s arrival at St James’ Park. While the framework of Benítez’s side hasn’t been altered, the Magpies have become more dynamic in attack.
Does this guarantee better results? Of course not. And it would be foolish to claim Newcastle’s form has been transformed by Almirón given they have steadily improved throughout 2019.
However, he has very quickly become a vital component in Benítez’s starting XI, and that is exactly why the Magpies boss isn’t fussed about his lack of goals.