Born in the Paraguayan capital, Miguel Ángel Almirón Rejala is a name very familiar among Paraguayan and MLS fans though he is better known just as Miguel Almirón. The diminutive Paraguayan has been described as the heartbeat of the Atlanta United side by MLS veteran Jeff Larentowicz.
This praise by Larentowicz is not unfounded and is proved by Almirón’s statistics in the league since joining Atlanta United in the MLS. In 53 games the midfielder has scored 18 goals and garnered 17 assists which is a goal or an assist every 145 minutes of play. This isn’t elite level contributions across world football but is certainly up there with the top MLS players.
On to this season, Almirón has 9 goals and 9 assists. It isn’t as good as it should be though as across this season Almirón has been expected to score 11 (xG – expected goals) (or 13, depending on who you ask) goals, which is two more than he really has. If he was hitting his xG+xA targets, this would bring him to 11 goals, and 9 assists (xA 8.57 – expected assists) in 25 games (2354 minutes) for 118 minutes for every goal contribution.
King of Counters
Having watched the 18 goals across two seasons, five were penalties. Of the remaining 13 goals, I would say seven of them are proper undeniable counter attacks, two are fast attacks and one is a turnover on the edge of the opponent’s box.
If he doesn’t get these counter-attack opportunities then his shooting is actually fairly poor. Often a mix of bad opportunities for shots, efforts going toward the near post or harmless long-range efforts. Of course, there is always the usual poor finishing or good goalkeeping. Of Almirón’s 110 shots this season, 47 were off-topic and 24 were blocked with 3 hitting the posts for an accuracy of 35%. At 110 shots, only Sebastian Giovinco has taken more shots (118) but no one has missed the target than Almirón.
If there is something Almirón needs to improve upon, it is definitely his finishing ability. A -2 G-xG is poor (goals-expected goals), but not terrible.
What he is proving, however, is that he can be in the position for an incredible amount of chances. His shots are split almost evenly between being inside and outside of the box (53/57) and with such a good xG for a midfielder, we can see he gets into positions to score.
Almirón’s positioning and awareness are evident in his open play goals. He is always looking for an open space to receive the ball and knows where his teammates will be looking to pass. His threat on the counter-attack is invaluable for Atlanta United, but as Larentowicz says, Almirón is the heartbeat of the team.
Often times you will find him dropping deep looking to kick-start attacks. This kind of movement will leave gaps, like the one highlighted below where you would expect to find an attacking midfielder, and gives the opportunity for someone else on his team to exploit it.
The other type of movement we can see from Almirón is dropping off the front line into a pocket of space between midfielders. This is where we can see further evidence of Almirón’s ability to read the game and his superior positioning compared to his opponents.
In the next image, we can see Almirón looking to receive a ball in a gap in the Columbus midfield. Almirón needs to be man-marked or he will find these spaces to enable quick ball progression. If the Atlanta centre-backs can provide him with it, Almirón has the ability to receive the ball on the turn and drive at opposing defences. As discussed earlier, Almirón is exceptional on the counter-attack and is most likely to score with the opposing defence on the back foot and so it is natural he wants to receive the ball like this.
He is often in one of three states and transitions seamlessly between them. Almirón could be looking for a ball in behind the defence into the wide space, hoping to use his acceleration to his advantage. He will also sit between midfielders or between the midfield and defensive line to receive the ball on his back foot and turn quickly. The other option he has is to drop very deep and receive it from his centre-backs as noted earlier.
By reading the game he will decide which is the best option as a situation develops. We see above this exact scenario in the 2018 MLS All-stars game where he tries all three options, starting between the lines before trying to run behind but eventually drops deep to offer a passing option for his centre back.
The Key Player
In Gerard Martino’s Atlanta United side, Almirón provides much-needed depth to attacks. A player ideally will always have multiple passing options available to him while on the ball, and Almirón will recognise which option he should be providing. On the same note, Almirón will know when to try short and intricate passing and when to switch the play, both of which he is adept at.
Almirón’s key pass data indicates he has a healthy mix of different options to use. Across the season, Almirón has provided 15 key crosses, eight key corners, six key through-balls, five key free kicks and 30 regular key passes. Alongside this, 12 could be considered being from a long distance, whereas 45 are from close up.
This to me says while Almirón does drop deep to affect the game, he is absolutely most effective closer to the goal. In order to progress the ball close to the goal, however, you have to move the ball and that is why he needs to drop deep in Martino’s system. Movement out of expected areas can cause static defences issues, and dropping off opposition players can provide enough room for other players to move around you. This is why Larentowicz describes him as the heartbeat of the team. Without him, they would find it difficult to move the ball through each third of the pitch.
Almirón is not a player who can battle against big defenders and so knows he needs to stay away from them. By working hard to roam the left side of the pitch, he can find gaps in which to work. He needs to be on the front foot against defenders to use his pace as he isn’t strong enough to go toe-to-toe but uses his intelligence to move around the pitch instead of physicality. Nothing he does is new, but he does do it very well.
The Leagues Best?
Almirón is often cited as the leagues best player. He gets high average ratings wherever you look, he scores plenty of goals for a midfielder and gets assists. This, combined with his average of 5.1 successful dribbles per game, of which 4.13 are considered as progressive runs is why people love to watch him. He is exciting, and at 24 it is unlikely we have seen the best of him yet.
Will he move to Europe? Time will tell, but it is becoming increasingly likely. It is possible he will get a Winter move to a big European team as is his dream, but it will be a big loss for MLS.