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How Grealish spurred on Almiron

Jack Grealish was intoxicated and in the throng of his first Premier League title celebration at Manchester City. He wasn’t thinking about how he looked or sounded, but staring down the lens of a camera, he uttered a sentence that would go viral, and inadvertently inspire one of the most potent runs of form this season.

Riyad Mahrez initially appeared the target of his jibe. When talking on an Instagram Story with Bernardo Silva, the England playmaker mocked Mahrez for his performance in the title-winning 3-2 win over Aston Villa on the final day of the season. But in it, he brought somebody else into the equation, namely Newcastle’s Miguel Almiron. From that moment, a friendly joke between teammates became something else entirely. Given his lack of connection to Almiron, Grealish’s comment came appeared crass and disrespectful. Newcastle fans leapt to the defence of their player on the basis of tribalism, but also because the Paraguayan playmaker is one of the most likeable members of Eddie Howe’s surprise, his running stats only bettered by the number of smiles on his face.

But the saddest part of the entire saga was, although he is popular with everybody at the club, Almiron’s goal output and key moments in terms of end product was lacking. It meant that the defence from Grealish’s cruel comment only went so far. Given Newcastle’s relatively new-found wealth and apparent lack of ceiling, at least according to Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp, there was a point where it seemed like Almiron’s exit was only a matter of time.

But because work-rate is such a huge part of Almiron’s game and personality, he could never be fully written off. And now here we are, with Almiron making all of his critics look silly by his recent performances. Grealish has never publicly commented on or acknowledged the incident, but the fact Almiron has scored five Premier League goals this season, more than he has in his entire career, means he is unable to escape mocking aimed at him by Newcastle fans, who have adapted and changed the meaning of the phrase ‘play like Almiron’ to reflect his current impact on the team.

Only Almiron himself will truly know how direct a correlation there is between Grealish’s joke and his form this season. But from Newcastle’s perspective, it is far from the only factor. While their huge transfer outlay in the first two windows since the takeover has aided their rise from relegation certainties to European contenders, Eddie Howe’s work with players he inherited has also been lauded and rightly so.

The transformation of Joelinton from failing striker to midfield powerhouse has garnered the most attention, but the way he has improved the likes of Fabian Schär in defence and Joe Willock in midfield hasn’t gone unnoticed either. If he keeps this form up, though, Almiron could prove Howe’s greatest achievement yet. Newcastle are seeing the benefits of that work on Almiron’s output and confidence. His childlike enjoyment of playing football has always been intoxicating from the moment he arrived for £21m from Atlanta United in January 2019. Despite not scoring or assisting a goal in his first season, under Rafael Benitez, his energy and attitude really helped transform the team’s fortunes and helped them finish safely in midtable.

With his electric pace, he was always going to be a potential threat, he just needed tactical direction. Benitez offered that in droves, so his departure that summer harmed Almiron as it did the whole of Newcastle. It was under Steve Bruce that both the player and club began to drift; he was not utilised properly and played within himself. But the Bruce era did that to a lot players, just as Howe has reinvigorated the entire place, and it wasn’t all his doing. Newcastle are a different club these days in almost every way. There was a consensus in the fanbase that Newcastle needed a right winger in the summer. That need should be felt even more keenly with Allan Saint-Maximin out injured, but Almiron has taken his game to a new level and helped maintain Newcastle’s excellent start to the season.

The Champions League may be a tall order from here for Newcastle, but it won’t be forever. If they reach Europe this season, they’ll have done so with players who have grown and developed with the club, including Almiron, who keeps making a mockery of Grealish on a weekly basis.

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