Mitro: The Premier League proving ground awaits

Sean Guest 10th September 2020
© Dara Curran

Our return to the Premier League offers our talismanic Serbian striker a chance to show he’s a force to be reckoned with at the top table of English football. How will he fare? Sean Guest looks into the numbers.

When we secured the services of Aleksandar Mitrović in January 2018, he wasn’t exactly the goal-scoring machine we’ve come to know and love. Over the first half of the 2017/18 season, he made just six appearances for Newcastle United, scoring a single goal. Prior to that, he found the net just 14 times in 65 league appearances on Tyneside, leaving many to question his ability to serve as a primary goal-scoring threat, particularly in the top flight.

His second stint in the Premier League did little to dispel those concerns, as Mitro, like Fulham, failed to hit the heights expected, scoring just 11 times in 37 appearances as the Cottagers were relegated. Now, Mitro is back in the big-time once again, but can he prove once and for all that he belongs there?

Hitting the ground running

As in 2018/19, Mitro is coming off a Championship campaign that saw him dominate defences across the division. During his loan spell with Fulham he scored 12 goals in just 17 appearances. This year, it was 26 in 40, good enough to win the Golden Boot . And while a combination of suspension and injury meant he was largely absent for the final few weeks of the campaign, Mitro will be hoping to get off to a hot start when our season kicks off against Arsenal on Saturday.

Last time around he did exactly that, taking advantage of early fixtures against the likes of Burnley, Brighton and Watford to score five goals in Fulham’s first six games. During that stretch, his expected goals rating hovered around 1.0, while he averaged 4.5 shots and 2 shots on target per game, logging a conversion rate of a goal every 5.4 shots. Like the team though, he soon fell into a funk, scoring just two goals in the next 13 matches. That period saw his expected goals rating exceed a lowly 0.4 just once, in the team’s 3-2 win over Southampton in November, a game in which Mitro found the back of the net twice. Meanwhile, his shots per game average fell to 2.8, his shots on target average slumped to just 0.8 and his conversion rate to one goal for every 18.5 shots.

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Of course, part-way through this stretch of games, Mitro’s fellow Serb, and the man who convinced him to move to SW6, Slavisa Jokanovic, was relieved of his duties. Mitro thrived in Slav’s fluid, possession-based system, which even prompted Cardiff manager Neil Warnock to refer to the team as the “Manchester City of the Championship” ahead of the 2017/18 play-off final, thanks to the fact that they led the league in completion (83.1%) and total passes (24,857). One of the keys to Fulham’s, and by extension Mitro’s, success under this system was Tom Cairney, who led the team and the Championship that season in passes per match in 2017/18 (81.1). Due to a foot injury sustained in just our third game of the season, TC missed seven of Slav’s 12 Premier League games. By the time he returned to action in early November, the team were four games into a six-game losing streak that would cost the manager his job.

A change for the worse

While many, including Eni Aluko writing in the Guardian, felt Jokanovic deserved more time, Shahid Khan disagreed, and appointed a manager he felt would help fix Fulham’s defence, which had conceded a league-worst 31 goals by that point. Although they did improve marginally at that end of the field under the “risk-free and ready-made” Claudio Ranieri, his system, which effectively saw us sit deep for extended periods of games, absorbing pressure and playing on the break, had a negative impact at the other end, particularly on Mitrović.

Under Ranieri, the Serbian frequently found himself isolated for long periods, forced to toil in futility in order to hold the ball up for support that often never arrived. He scored just five goals during the Italian’s reign, while averaging an expected goals rating of 0.3. Interestingly, he still averaged a similar number of touches per game (44) as he had under Jokanovic (40) but those touches often came a lot deeper and a lot earlier in possessions than they had under the Serbian. By the time Ranieri was fired and Scott Parker took over as caretaker manager in late February, the losing culture was so deeply ingrained at the club that Mitro scored just once in the team’s remaining nine games.

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Back in the big time

Thankfully for us, Mitro wasn’t deterred by the disastrous 2018/19 campaign and signed a five-year contract extension with the club last summer. After tearing up the Championship and helping the team secure promotion, it’s now essential that he proves he and Fulham are back where they belong.

Parker could, perhaps, be the manager to help him do just that, as his system closely resembles that which saw Jokanovic bring success to Craven Cottage in 2017/18. With him at the helm, Fulham again led the league in passing last season with 21,844 completed, nearly a quarter of which occurred in the attacking third. The concern, however, is that all that possession only translated to 69 goals (fifth-best), 212 shots on target (fourth-best) and 89 big chances (sixth-best). If we are to maximise Mitro’s potential as a Premier League talisman, we’re simply going to need to create more opportunities in the final third. This will come down to the likes of Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert, whose combined 393 crosses last season resulted in just 11 assists, and more incisive invention from centre midfield, where Fulham’s assist leader was the rarely-used Stefan Johansen last season with four.

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As was the case last time around, if opposing defences are able to keep Mitro quiet, they’ll undoubtedly increase their chances of winning games. That said, we’ll be encouraged by the fact that we succeeded in closing out the season without Mitrović, due to a combination of injury and suspension, and will be hoping that others can again step up when he’s unable to impact games.

Whatever happens, Mitrović has unfinished business in the Premier League and will be absolutely crucial to our chances of survival.