In his debut piece, John Moretti ponders whether our Serbian hitman can recreate his fearsome reputation in the top flight.
With Aleksandar Mitrovic recreating and even surpassing the fearsome form that he has previously shown in the Championship and for Serbia, he is loving life at the Cottage and the Fulham faithful are loving him. However, the question in the back of our minds is whether he can finally make the step up to the Premier League once and for all.
After a play-off defeat in 2016/17, Fulham’s form was starting to pick up as we pushed towards the play-offs for the second season in a row under Slavisa Jokanovic. However, there was an issue in the team; Portuguese striker Rui Fonte (signed from Braga in the summer for a fee in the region of £6m pounds) was struggling for goals and would go on to finish with just three all season. January brought mixed feelings, with the loan arrival of Aleksandar Mitrovic, but he quickly settled in, and his 12 goals in 17 games helped fire us to promotion.
Two years later, there was worry among Fulham fans that Mitro would leave the club following our relegation from the top flight. However, he penned a new contract and carried us to promotion, earning himself the Championship Golden Boot with 26 goals. This season, he has soared to new heights, bagging 21 goals in just 18 games so far and striking terror into the hearts of Championship defences far and wide. From his three spells with us in the Championship, his pedigree at this level is evident and he has often been labelled as “too good for the league”, a statement that is strongly backed up by his phenomenal goal-scoring record.
Premier League – a mixed bag
Following on from our promotion in 2018, Mitrovic’s loan move was made permanent for around £25m as part of our spending spree that summer. He had a average season, enduring some dry patches in a fairly poor season for the club, but came up with some big goals in close games (including both games against Brighton as well as Southampton and Brighton at home).
He finished the season with 11 goals in 37 games. This total was OK (especially for a relegated side) and put him in the same ballpark as Salomon Rondon, Chris Wood, WIlfried Zaha and even Heung Min Son that season. These players (except for Son) were all fairly average Premier League attackers who were key attacking options for average to lower half Premier League teams.
The real criticism of Mitrovic’s Premier League credentials stems from his performance last season, where he netted just three goals all season. However, he started just 13 games (with seven of them coming at the beginning of the season) and was largely disregarded by Scott Parker as the now-Bournemouth manager sought to implement a more counter-attacking style with Ivan Cavaleiro and later Josh Maja being featured up top.
Can Mitrovic really be fully be blamed for his poor record last term when he was in and out of the side and playing in a system that didn’t particularly suit him? It is a shame that many football fans have short memories and so remember this poor season far more clearly than his 11-goal season a few years ago.
Why will it be different this time?
If we do go straight back up this season, there are a couple of reasons that I believe that Mitrovic’s Premier League form has the potential to be better than ever.
Under Silva, Mitro is very much the focal point of the attack once again. The focus of the wingers and fullbacks once they get into the final third (with the possible exception of Harry Wilson) is to put a quality ball into the box for him.
As well as this, his overall contribution has grown this year. His finishing looks more efficient and assured and he has eliminated a lot of the misses in front of goal from his game. Not only this but he seems to have greatly improved his build-up play and added more assists to his game; he has five assists (the latest being his one-two to set up Fabio Carvalho against Barnsley) already this season compared to just two in the whole of his last Championship season.
Finally, although he’s the focal point and the top scorer, he’s not as relied upon as in previous years. In the 2019/20 season, the next top scorers after Mitro’s 26 were Tom Cairney with eight goals all season, followed by Bobby Decordova-Reid and Ivan Cavaleiro with six each. This season, Harry Wilson already has six goals, while Fabio Carvalho (who’s played less than half of our matches) and Neeskens Kebano each have four. If Mitro’s supporting cast can keep this up and if other players can chip in with goals from the central midfield and full-back areas, our team will be much more balanced in terms of goal scoring this season – leaving us in a much healthier place as a squad going (hopefully) into the Prem.
Whilst Mitro is clearly a proven entity in the Championship, his patchy record in the Premier League leaves a lot to be desired but, if he continues to be the main man and the focal point of our attack, I strongly believe that he can better his previous 11-goal total and contribute, while not on the level of production of a top Premier League striker, on the level of an average starting Premier League number 9. This, hopefully, will finally allow him to dispel the notion that he’s not up to the level of the Premier League and prove his doubters wrong once and for all.