Miguel Almirón spent most of his first three years at Newcastle struggling to score but something has changed this season and it could yet propel Eddie Howe’s side into Europe.
The Paraguayan’s fifth goal of the campaign, a sumptuous first-time chip curled over a helpless Jordan Pickford, kept Newcastle sixth in the Premier League while consigning Frank Lampard to a miserable night in the north-east. “You can feel the belief around this stadium now,” said Everton’s manager. “Eddie has a very strong squad now and his team are moving to a new level. They’re ahead of us in their development.”
Lampard was doubtless disappointed to find that Almirón’s discovery of his shooting boots is far from the only recent change on Tyneside. Where the home defence could once be relied upon to be inefficient to the point of generosity, Howe’s rearguard are now the top tier’s meanest having conceded only nine league goals.
Sven Botman’s £35m summertime arrival from Lille has made a big difference and he helped ensure that Everton’s key striker Dominic Calvert-Lewis endured a frustrating first start of the season after recovering from a troublesome knee injury.
Indeed, possibly Calvert-Lewin’s most noteworthy contribution of the night was to collect a first-half booking for hacking down Bruno Guimarães.
Howe’s bleach blond-haired Brazil midfielder dictated that opening period, contributing some gorgeous through passes as Newcastle gained the ascendancy, leaving Calvert-Lewis and co dropping deep and defending for long periods.
As a former Sunderland goalkeeper Pickford was jeered, mocked and taunted by the Gallowgate End all night but it is testament to Lampard’s defenders that the England goalkeeper did not have to make too many serious saves.
Perhaps significantly, Pickford was beaten by only Newcastle’s second real chance of the night but it is hard to imagine anyone having kept out Almirón’s wonderful goal. No surprise that Guimarães was the creator, playing the ball through to the Paraguayan who struck it first time and watched his subtly curving, delicately chipped, shot float through the gap just beyond the goalkeeper’s reach and the crossbar.
“I don’t know that Miguel is doing anything different but he’s playing with confidence,” said Howe, revelling in Almirón’s unexpected status as Newcastle’s leading scorer. “Some of the goals he’s scoring are spectacular but he’s always supplied assists and I’m really pleased he’s getting the recognition he deserves.”
His latest goal was sufficient to clinch a contest featuring a marked second-half improvement from Lampard’s players. “It was hard fought, a real physical battle in midfield,” said Newcastle’s manager. “Everton competed for second balls and asked tough questions but I think we can beat anybody.”
Lampard’s problem – and he is now back under a degree of pressure – is that his players rarely showed any menace in the final third, leaving Nick Pope barely exerted all night. “The performance was OK and I’m pretty pleased with parts of it,” he said. “But considering how much we were able to play through them we weren’t clinical enough in the box. It’s not about Dominic – he needs minutes in his legs – but I’m disappointed.”
It could have been worse for the visitors. Indeed, Lampard had barely stopped protesting that his latest goal should not have stood due to a foul in the buildup when Guimarães very nearly doubled Newcastle’s advantage after meeting Kieran Trippier’s cross.
Instead he dragged his shot wide but at that point Everton had lost their grip – even if they might have regained at least a measure of it had Newcastle’s Joelinton, already booked, not been somewhat fortunate to escape unpunished for clattering into Idrissa Gueye.
Everton’s Anthony Gordon soon collected a booking of his own after claiming he should have been awarded a penalty when Dan Burn nudged him in the back in the box. Tony Harrington, the referee, was not buying it, though, and as a mini-melee of opposing players indulged in a bout of highly agitated finger pointing, Gordon ended up in the book along with Newcastle’s Fabian Schär.
It was Gordon’s sixth booking of a season in which he has only just returned from a suspension for collecting five yellow cards but, in this instance, Lampard defended him stoutly. “For me that’s a penalty,” he said.
His side hinted at a potential second-half revival when Pope denied Calvert-Lewin with his legs and Demarai Gray turned Trippier inside out. The only problem was that Calvert-Lewin had been offside and no teammate was available to meet Gray’s ensuing cross.
This lack of Everton cutting edge explains why, even though Newcastle’s pressing had lost a lot of it early intensity and Guimarães’s game a little of its former stardust, Almirón had already done enough to make the difference.