Newcastle United have some serious problems.
Their 5-0 demolition against Leicester City made it five games without a win across all competitions and leaves them stranded in 19th in the Premier League table with just one victory to speak of all season – look away now, Spurs fans.
You could quite easily highlight a number of flaws in Steve Bruce’s side: Isaac Hayden’s lack of discipline against Leicester, Joelinton not quite hitting the mark yet, or indecision over whether they should play a three, four or five-man defence.
One issue seems to stand above them all, though – the form, or rather lack of form, of Miguel Almiron.
Signed from Atlanta United in January for a then club-record £20m, the Paraguay international was supposed to be the catalyst for Rafael Benitez’s Newcastle to throw off the shackles of their low block and begin crucifying teams with lightning counter-attacks.
And for a time, that was absolutely the case – from Almiron’s debut against Wolves on February 11th until the final day of last season (13 games), Newcastle ranked sixth in the Premier League for chances created with 135 having created just 190 during the 25 games which preceded, the third-lowest number in the division.
The Magpies lost just four of their final 13 games of the 2018/19 campaign after losing 13 of their previous 25.
Almiron didn’t directly contribute a goal or assist himself but he did have an open-play xG contribution of 2.26 and an xA rating of 0.77, suggesting he was heavily influencing Newcastle’s play and probably should have had some stats on the board had he or his team-mates been a little sharper in the 18-yard box.
This season has been a completely different story, with Almiron’s xA and open-play xG contribution dropping to 0.15 and 0.98, respectively. So, why is that?
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Since the appointment of Bruce at St James’ Park, Almiron has been shifted from his favoured No.10 role and moved out to the right wing. On paper, this should work – the 25-year-old has bags of pace and energy, enabling him to get up and down the flank, and is a willing worker for the team.
Bruce himself doesn’t see him as a player who can operate through the middle and sees him more as an “old-fashioned inside forward”.
He said: “He is not an out and out centre-forward or a natural number ten either, he is an old-fashioned inside forward. So we have got to try and get the best out of him.”
The problem is, since he’s been moved there, Almiron’s role has changed from linking the midfield to the centre-forward and spearheading counter-attacks, to becoming a pseudo-defensive midfielder, tasked with sitting deep to cover his full-back with Newcastle seeing a Premier League low 32.36% possession share this season.
Is Bruce right to station him out on the right? Well, the above graphic shows that although Benitez lined Almiron up on the left, he was very much given licence to roam inside, where he can isolate slower midfielders and centre-backs and, as can be seen, he would almost always receive the ball in that space between Newcastle’s midfield and then-striker Salomon Rondon, initiating counter-attacks.
This season, he’s had to drop deeper and deeper as Newcastle surrender the ball without a fight and has actually touched the ball in the opposition box just three times more (14) than the number of tackles he’s attempted (11).
For a player who was so ruthlessly effective as a central attacking midfielder during Atlanta United’s MLS Cup success in 2018, this seems almost criminal.
Throughout his career, Almiron has played in that position 53 times for club and country, scoring 20 goals and providing 18 assists. On the flanks, he has one goal and two assists in 33 games.
Former Atlanta United manager Tata Martino even referred to Almiron as an “atypical No.10″ during their run to MLS Cup last year.
“Miguel has a commitment to the team, I’m talking about his commitment to winning the ball back, pressing, he’s a player that’s always working,” he said.
“He’s an atypical number 10. Because he gives you everything that a number 10 gives you and he probably dispossesses players like a defensive midfielder.”
Almiron isn’t a particularly great tackler and as noted by the Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas, his defensive contribution comes more in the form of his incessant work-rate and ability to press effectively and intelligently. But Newcastle aren’t pressing – in fact, they’re doing anything but that. He’s at his best taking the ball on the turn, when his side are in transition, drawing in centre-backs to create space for his striker, or driving at space himself as the opposition backs off.
At Atlanta United, he never was the best finisher, but the sheer number of chances he had thanks to his raw pace and willingness to commit defenders meant his goal tallies never suffered as a result.
To completely square the blame on Bruce is unfair, as is letting Almiron off the hook. The Newcastle boss is still trying to work out his best team and how to maximise the potential of the likes of Almiron and Joelinton, while the player himself has to start taking care with his final passes and stick away the chances on goal when they do come.
Even so, by taking one of his most important attacking pieces out of position, Bruce has arguably robbed himself of any chance of discovering his best formula and Newcastle United are paying a heavy price as a result.