The young Miguel Almiron did not like his nickname.
La Anguila. The Eel.
It was hardly akin to Radamel ‘The Tiger’ Falcao or Arturo ‘The Piranha’ Vidal.
He also resented an unflattering comparison with Peter La Anguila, the rapper behind a viral Paraguayan hit released in 2012.
So when Almiron left Cerro Porteno, his first professional club, he had no desire to take the nickname with him.
Perhaps he was too hasty. The eel is, after all, an intelligent, elusive and deceptively strong animal — qualities Almiron has shown in spades during his breakthrough season at Newcastle.
Almiron’s journey also shadows that of the European eel: born on the other side of the Atlantic, propelled by the Gulf Stream towards the east coast of England, maturing on the journey.
It is a journey by which Almiron sets great store, keeping a thermos flask labelled with the badge of every team he has played for along the way. This is the story of that journey.
Youth career (2001-13)
“A foot-long slither of a fellow, a young eel, greasy grey and wriggle-spined” — Eelworks, Seamus Heaney
Almiron could have quit. Rejected by Paraguayan giants Club Nacional due to his skinny frame, he instead joined his local team, third-division Club 3 de Noviembre, who played opposite his primary school.
He grew up in the San Pablo barrio, a congested neighbourhood in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital. There his father worked as a security guard and his mother worked on the checkout at a supermarket. A job at that store, collecting trolleys to pay his way, had been found for Almiron.
In Paraguay, a country of 6.7million people, top players traditionally come from the countryside, being identified early and brought to the city to develop. Not Almiron. Using money his uncles loaned to him, he traipsed around the city on buses for trials and training, trying to prove that his ability outweighed his slight dimensions.
“We expect players to burst onto the scene at an early age,” explains Roberto Rojas, an American-Paraguayan journalist. “Look at Julio Enciso, a 19-year-old already playing for Brighton. The top teenagers are usually already playing abroad.”
At 18, Almiron was still sharing a room with his mother — the family needed to house seven people in only three bedrooms. He eventually became involved in the youth system of Cerro Porteno, but his coaches’ doubts remained.
“He was skinny,” Hernan Acuna, a youth coach at Cerro, tells The Athletic. “In Paraguayan football, you get lots of knocks — he faced a lot of friction. He was on the verge of being released because in the under-15s category, and then with the under-16s, he practically didn’t feature.
“When he reached the under-17s, where I was technical director, the coordinator asked me if I was going to use him and I replied: ‘Yes’. And so he stayed.”
Acuna gave him five games to prove his worth, playing him as an ‘enganche’ — the Argentine term for a central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system. One thing had swayed Acuna: Almiron’s elusiveness.
“A skinny physique, yes, but he changed directions constantly, which made him very difficult to mark,” he says. “He was a dribbler, brave and fast, linking the midfield with the attack. He spent the entire year as captain.”
Weeks later, Almiron was called up to Paraguay’s age-group teams. One year later, on his return from the Under-20 World Cup, the boy who almost got stuck as a trolley-pusher was finally invited to join Cerro’s first-team squad.
Cerro Porteno (2013-15)
“Young eels are undeterred by weirs or waterfalls” — Graham Swift, Waterland
In Paraguay, Cerro Porteno is known as the people’s club. Based in Barrio Obrero — literally meaning ‘workers’ neighbourhood’ — they have a fierce rivalry with Olimpia, who are the most successful club in the country.
It is estimated around 90 per cent of Paraguayans support one of the two sides. Though Cerro are taunted for having never reached a continental final, their La Olla stadium — now Almiron’s home — was the largest in the Paraguayan Primera Division.
The Primera Division has an unusual structure, in which two different league competitions are played each year: there is the Apertura, played between February and July, and the Clausura, from July to December.
Returning in the summer, Almiron initially struggled to get minutes in Cerro’s Clausura campaign, which they won unbeaten, with rivals Olimpia only coming ninth. His pathway was blocked by the team’s success — but also because Almiron is not a typical Paraguayan player.
“Historically, Paraguay always had teams that like to be very defensive and play on the counter-attack,” says Rojas. “There’s a saying that to win games you have to do ‘centro, cabeza, gol’ — cross it, head it, score it. Miguel is different.”
Acuna believes this tactic is down to the poor quality of Paraguayan pitches, which has led to a dearth of technical players. But then came an event that gave Almiron his opportunity: Paraguay failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, having reached the previous four tournaments.
The federation reacted, changing the league rules in an attempt to bring more young, talented players into domestic senior football. Now, every side had to select at least one Paraguayan player under 20. Almiron was the beneficiary.
“Cerro got this new coach called Roberto Torres,” remembers Ralph Hannah, an expert in Paraguayan football. “He had been coaching in the reserves and knew all about the young kids.
“And in 2015, Cerro won the Apertura title, playing all their youngsters. Almiron became the key player, running, scoring goals, and setting them up. He didn’t really have that defensive awareness he has now — he was just sprinting down the left wing.”
Dani Guiza, who played 21 times for Spain between 2007 and 2010, was at Cerro on loan when Almiron became ‘La Anguila’. “He was the first one to notice this kid was special,” remembers Fede Perez, a Paraguayan commentator.
Less than two years after his first appearance, it was already time for Almiron to move on. A stepping stone was needed.
“An eel never tries to rush; it prefers slithering sideways, which creates a kind of undulating resistance” — Patrik Svensson, The Gospel of the Eels
Lanus is not so much a town as a brief stop as you crawl out of Buenos Aires through its sprawling southern suburbs.
Drive out of the city through La Boca, home of the world-famous Boca Juniors, and get on the 205. Here you will drive past the homes of Racing Club and Independiente, situated just a few hundred yards apart. You will also see signs for Banfield — the club where James Rodriguez made his name — before you enter Lanus.
So out of one rivalry and into another: this was the winding path taken by Almiron, more than 1,000 kilometres south of Asuncion.
“I wanted him to leave for Argentina,” says Acuna. “The dynamics suited him and it was much more competitive. It was a chance for him to break out.”
Historically one of the smaller teams in Argentina’s Primera Division, Lanus found themselves with money to spend after a move for goalkeeper Agustin Rossi fell through.
“Alejandro Maron, the president, gave me a video of Miguel to watch,” then-head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto told MLS.com last November. “It was an hour-long video, but I only watched for five minutes.
“I called him back and said, ‘Alejandro, this is the young player we need to get. Get him now. He’s the Paraguayan (Angel) Di Maria’. The next day the president went to Paraguay to get him.”
For a price of €800,000 (around $868,368 or £703,558), Maron also returned with Almiron’s father, Ruben, who accompanied his 21-year-old son to avoid homesickness. The pair stayed together for the duration of his spell in Argentina.
“He was signed as a bet on the future,” says Julian Fernandez, a journalist covering Lanus. “He was not important when he arrived, progress was gradual.”
It could have been a blow when Schelotto’s contract ran out at the end of the 2015 season, with the club not able to afford its renewal. But Schelotto’s replacement, namesake Jorge Almiron, a veteran of the Argentinian league, had a plan for his young Paraguayan.
The coach played him centrally, as an attacking midfielder, to try to form a partnership with Jose Sand, perhaps Lanus’ greatest-ever player. The veteran striker, still playing aged 42 in his third spell at the club, led Lanus to the 2007 title, their first-ever league trophy.
Nine years later, Sand and Almiron’s relationship gave them another opportunity.
“Sand was the scorer, with 15 goals, while Miguel was the creator,” explains Fernandez. “The fans nicknamed him Miguelito. They loved him.”
He was truly adopted after a derby against local rivals Banfield. With Lanus top of the league, having just defeated giants Boca Juniors 2-0, the match was seen as a test of the team’s credibility. Desperately defending a 1-0 lead, with both teams down to 10 men, the ball spilt loose in the final seconds after Banfield had thrown players forward in search of an equaliser.
Almiron has a tattoo: “God’s timing is perfect.” On this occasion, so was his.
He collected the ball, drove for 50 yards, and lobbed the goalkeeper from outside the area, pounding the Lanus crest in celebration. The goal all but ensured Lanus would top the league table.
The structure of the Primera Division meant the side still faced a final against San Lorenzo, who won the other conference, for the right to be called league champions. It was little more than a speed bump: Almiron scored the second goal in a 4-0 rout, before Sand added the third, to give Lanus their second title.
“All Lanus fans knew then he would have to leave,” says Fernandez. “For the transfer money, for his own development — there was no doubt he would end up in a big European league.”
— Club Lanús (@clublanus) December 18, 2016
That transfer duly came in December. The Lanus ultras stayed to wave him off after his final game, a rematch with San Lorenzo, though it was not yet time for Europe…
“Trying to hold an eel is like trying to hold a handful of water” — Richard Schweid, Natural History Magazine
At the end of 2016, Atlanta United were trying to form a team.
The latest expansion side in MLS, Atlanta had a newly built home stadium to be shared with NFL side the Atlanta Falcons, but CEO Darren Eales, now at Newcastle, was not just missing half a squad, but a head coach.
They also needed three designated players — star performers who would not count against the salary cap. Having watched Lanus’s triumph that season, Atlanta’s hierarchy thought they had found their man.
“We were literally piecing the club together,” says a senior source at Atlanta, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships.
“We’d identified Argentina as a place we could take players on from, showcase them, and move them on to Europe. We just felt that with his physicality and style of play — on the front foot and pressing — that he would be the perfect fit.
“During (Almiron’s) recruitment, Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino was announced as our coach. He was a former Paraguay, Argentina and Barcelona manager. That was almost the clincher for bringing him on board.”
Martino, who also managed Cerro when Almiron was a nine-year-old fan, was a disciple of the Marcelo Bielsa school of football. Signing the energetic Almiron would complete a squad filled with South American talent, including fellow Paraguayan Hector Villalba and Venezuelan striker Josef Martinez.
The $8million outlay was the second-largest fee paid by an MLS side in history, only $1million less than Clint Dempsey’s move from Tottenham Hotspur to the Seattle Sounders three years earlier.
“We knew he was a big signing,” Michael Parkhurst, Atlanta’s captain back in 2016, tells The Athletic. “So we all watched him on YouTube. But then he showed up, and we were thinking: ‘Oh my god — he’s going to get crushed’. He looked like he only weighed 130 pounds (59kg).”
The first game in Atlanta history was at home against the New York Red Bulls, a flagship franchise. Atlanta lost 2-1, but not before Almiron almost scored a replica of his derby goal against Banfield, bursting through from behind the halfway line, but failing to put enough air on his chip.
He made up for it in his second game, scoring twice against Minnesota United, before a hat-trick against Houston Dynamo in May showed Almiron was moving up — and quickly.
“I’ve never seen someone who is faster with the ball than without it — except Miguel,” says former Sunderland striker Kenwyne Jones, a team-mate at Atlanta. “I can see why they called him ’The Eel’. Yes, he’s very wiry, but that helps him slip between people whom he has no right to. And he was electric.”
Jones also noticed that Almiron had begun to arch his back when he ran, making him even more slippery. Parkhurst, meanwhile, had reconsidered his assessment.
“That ability to elude defenders, that ability to manoeuvre his upper body,” he laughs. “It was incredible. Physically, before reaching MLS, he was just relying on that ability, but he began to spend a lot of time in the gym, before and after training. Doing core work, upper body work, just trying to increase his strength.”
Parkhurst, a centre-back, was also grateful for Almiron’s defensive work.
“He’s not a typical No 10,” Parkhurst says. “Sometimes he ran so much that we said, ‘Hey, Miguel, save yourself a bit. We’re willing to do extra running to help you out, so you can do your thing offensively’.” And it wasn’t just on matchdays — Parkhurst remembers Almiron sprinting past him in training, laughing, and muttering, “Old man, old man.”
“I now coach Atlanta Under-16s,” says Kevin Kratz, who played with Almiron in the first-team midfield. “Tata and his coaching staff, they recorded the training sessions, so I downloaded a few.
“I have one clip that I use to show my players what work ethic looks like. It’s a possession game with two players chasing in the middle — me and Miguel. He’s just chasing the ball, then, when he gets it, passing and moving. It’s non-stop. I tell my players to remember Miguel, and see where he is now.”
Players point to Martino as the progenitor of that defensive work, with the coach himself admitting that he had “a special weakness” for Almiron.
“Miguel had a desire to pay back Tata after he was recruited for this big transfer fee,” explains Parkhurst. “Tata stuck his neck out. And Miguel took ownership of that debt.”
“He’s a phenomenon,” said Martino last year, while preparing Mexico for the World Cup. “He’s a professional who works as if he is the least-experienced player on the team.”
Martino encouraged Almiron to shoot more but also developed his positional versatility. After his first season, Almiron was named in the MLS Best XI and won Newcomer of the Year.
“Tata was very good at exploiting the opponents’ weak zones,” explains Kratz. “Miguel grew into that role, with Tata giving him more freedom. For example, if the opponent played with one No 6, he stationed him there. Some young players might have found it difficult, but it’s what you need to grow, right?
“He played with such certainty. I remember when we were building, 30 yards away from our own goal, he would let the ball run through his legs, dummying it, turn around and sprint for the return pass. I could never have done it.”
Fun to play with on the pitch and funny off it, Almiron’s limited language skills meant he was always closer to the Spanish speakers — though the consensus within Atlanta is that he knows much more English than he lets on — but his personality still shone through.
“He’s naturally quiet, but you realise he can be vocal,” says Parkhurst. “And then we started a squad WhatsApp chat; that’s when we saw him. He was always throwing in these random GIFs and funny memes, even for simple messages like what time dinner was served.
“You’re like, ‘I never knew Miguel had a sense of humour like this’.”
In just their second year of existence, Atlanta came full circle. The side became league champions, with Almiron contributing 12 goals and 11 assists, and he again was named in the team of the year.
Three clubs, three championships: Almiron was ready. It was time for his journey across the Atlantic.
Newcastle United (2019-)
“The eel is a creature of metamorphosis” — Brooke Jarvis, The New Yorker
In north-east England, Rafa Benitez was halfway through his final season, deeply frustrated with the under-investment in his squad. Almiron was a long-term target, and the Spanish manager wanted to complete the deal early in the window.
It took until deadline day for his wish to be fulfilled. It was a difficult negotiation, with Mike Ashley still in charge at Newcastle, while Atlanta, having paid a near-record fee, wanted a similar commitment from their buyers. Clubs from across Europe, especially in Italy, were also interested.
When a fee was eventually agreed (£21million), it was the most ever paid for an MLS player and, at the time, a record outlay for Newcastle.
Just as he did at Atlanta, Almiron raced through on his full debut only to narrowly miss out on scoring, hitting the Huddersfield Town post. Despite a lack of goals, the Paraguayan impressed in his first season, partnering with Ayoze Perez behind fellow South American Salomon Rondon.
But when an exasperated Benitez left that summer, Almiron found life difficult under successor Steve Bruce. He failed to score in his first 26 Newcastle appearances and, before this season, had never managed more than four league goals during an English campaign. That famous Jack Grealish comment duly followed, in that “playing like Almiron” was used as a pejorative.
Bruce’s system often ended up with a default back five, relying on Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin to carry the ball forward from deep. It was a very different system to Atlanta, where Almiron was a defence-stretcher rather than ball progresser. At Newcastle, he was also frequently asked to change positions.
While Almiron’s versatility was an asset under Martino, many are not surprised that he struggled when Bruce made similar demands.
“I don’t think he was the right kind of manager for Miguel,” says Jones, who also played under Bruce at Sunderland in 2009-10. “Bruce is a bit more old school, different characters suit different players. His struggles didn’t surprise me.”
Under Eddie Howe, Almiron has reforged a connection with his coach. Howe and his staff have worked on the minutiae of Almiron’s positioning, particularly on his interplay with Kieran Trippier and Bruno Guimaraes.
“Eddie Howe inspired me to get into coaching,” says Jones. “He’s an incredible manager and, under him, Miguel has a chance to be one of the best there is.”
Those goals are now coming, and what goals too: the volley against Fulham, outmuscling Tottenham’s defence, scrambling home in front of Grealish.
Against Leicester City in the Carabao Cup, he laid on a perfect assist for Joelinton — a pass that garnered special acclaim from Howe — to send Newcastle into their first semi-final for 18 years.
His almost goofy, earnest demeanour, has earned him cult status on Tyneside — but now that he is scoring and the team is flying high, he no longer seems so goofy. His 4,000-mile journey is at an end. The Eel has arrived.
(Additional reporting: Chris Waugh, Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero, George Caulkin, Ed Malyon)
(Top photo: George Wood via Getty Images)
Read the full article here