“I think he can play for a top club”

Thursday, April 7, 2022 at 1:00 PM• Chris Meijer • Last update: 13:04

Aleksandar Mitrovic is having an almost alien season at Fulham. The 27-year-old striker has already scored 38 goals in 37 official games this season, putting his club on course to return to the Premier League next season. The question is whether Mitrogol of the Cottagers to the highest level, because in England one sees in this vintage of football a completely different animal in the Serbian and therefore his name is cautiously already among larger clubs.

By Chris Meijer

Some records are too otherworldly to ever be broken. The odds are slim that a player will ever score more goals on the English pitches than Dixie Dean scored for Everton in the 1927/28 season. With 60 goals, Dean shot the record set by George Camsell on behalf of Middlesbrough a year earlier – 59 goals in just 37 games – from the books. But if Mitrovic continues his current average, he will go a long way. The record number of goals scored in one Championship season – since the second tier of English football was renamed from Second Division to its current form in 2004 – has already fallen: at the end of February, Mitrovic passed the tally of Ivan Toney, who scored 31 times last season on behalf of Brentford.

So far, Derek Dooley (46 goals in the 1951/52 season for Sheffield Wednesday) and Guy Whittingham (42 goals in the 1992/93 season for Portsmouth) have scored even more times in one season at the second tier of English football than Mitrovic, but his extraordinary form does not seem to stop this vintage of football. It is the highest peak in a career with its ups and downs so far. But also a career in which controversy has never been too far away. That was already the case in Belgium, where he arrived in 2013 with a transfer fee of five million euros as the most expensive purchase in Anderlecht’s club history at the time.

“In five, six years I want to be one of the best strikers in the world,” Mitrovic said six months later. Belgium got to know him as someone with bravado, who sometimes caused a stir. For example with his changing hairstyles. Or with his way of cheering, with his tongue between two fingers. “It started as a response to the criticism,” Mitrovic said in an interview with The last news in his way of cheering. “I wanted to provoke a bit and that was the first thing that came to mind: ‘Just cut your tongue off.’ But the supporters apparently liked that, they wanted even more. That’s why I kept making that gesture. It had no perverse meaning at all.”

The way Mitrovic celebrated his goals in the past.

Not only his way of cheering, but also his weight was regularly subject to discussion. That was sometimes too high when Mitrovic returned from vacation or obligations with the national team of Serbia. But that unrest soon died down when Mitrovic managed to find the net again, which happened quite often at Anderlecht (44 times in a total of 90 matches). That criticism persisted when he made the switch to Newcastle United for eighteen million euros and never quite found his niche there. “I just got more muscles,” Mitrovic snapped to the Chronicle as his first season drew to a close. “I am two kilos heavier because I have developed more muscles. My body fat percentage is just right.”

There were more things in his way in Newcastle. That he took two direct red cards in his first season. That it took a while to acclimatize in England and that he was not actually offered that time. That things did not go well with manager Rafael Benítez. And perhaps especially that Newcastle United were relegated. After the relegation, Mitrovic no longer managed to catch up the Magpies regain his starting position. Slavisa Jokanovic liberated his compatriot by bringing him to Fulham in January 2017: initially on a rental basis and after an extremely successful six months in which promotion was achieved definitively for an amount of 25 million euros.

Mitrovic scored 17 goals in 72 games in the Newcastle United shirt.

“He is extremely professional and works hard, he wanted to succeed at Fulham. I’ve never had any problems with him. In fact, he came to me and said, “bossI’m not going to do anything crazy’”, said Jokanovic recently to the London Evening Standard† At Fulham, Mitrovic has now become a true crowd favorite, despite the fact that he was not completely untouched there either. In his second season on the field, for example, he got into a fight with teammate Aboubakar Kamara about a penalty. The argument later escalated during a yoga class to the point where Kamara had to be arrested for inflicting “physical injury and willful destruction.” Kamara had to leave Fulham as a result of that feud – towards Yeni Malatyaspor, Dijon and last summer to Aris Saloniki – while Mitrovic has remained undisputed on the point of attack since then. Although it was close, Mitrovic would have left Fulham behind last summer.

Mitrovic had his worst year at Fulham last season. With just three goals, he could not avoid being relegated from the Premier League for the second time in two years. Although the low point of the season did not even occur in Fulham’s shirt: Mitrovic missed the decisive penalty in November 2020, meaning Scotland qualified for the European Championship at the expense of Serbia. “There’s a lot of pressure and responsibility on his shoulders because he’s the only striker,” said then manager Scott Parker when he put Mitrovic on the reserve bench for a number of games afterwards. “Sometimes it’s good to step out of the arena for a little bit of air and oxygen.”

Mitrovic in England

15/16 16/17 17/18* 17/18* 18/19 19/20 20/21 21/22
Club Newcastle United Newcastle United Newcastle United Fulham Fulham Fulham Fulham Fulham
League Premier League Championship Premier League Championship Premier League Championship Premier League Championship
Matches 34 25 6 17 37 40 27 37
Goals 9 4 1 12 11 26 3 38

* Mitrovic exchanged Newcastle United for Fulham midway through the 2017-18 season.

Not only the choice to keep him out of the starting eleven more than regularly, but also Parker’s playing style slowly but surely increased the frustrations at Mitrovic. Conversely, Parker Mitrovic would not have found the right striker to play a high-pressure style of play. The relationship between the two was so bad that Mitrovic would have left if Parker had remained at the helm last summer. Fulham’s club management decided to replace him last summer with Marco Silva, whereupon Mitrovic signed a new contract until mid-2026. It turns out to have been an excellent choice as Mitrovic is under Silva – like the London Evening Standard it calls – a completely different animal

Under Silva, Fulham would train more regulated, making the team a lot fitter than under its predecessor, also attacking in a more consistent way and simply creating more chances. Mitrovic also gets more freedom in Silva’s team and formation and partly as a result has already scored seven assists, already the highest season total in his career. “He is a very important player for us,” Silva said of Mitrovic. “Everyone is working very hard for him, the other players are creating chances and he is in the right place. For me, the goals are a consequence. But of course a player who has the qualities to score so many goals is of great value to us.”

Under Marco Silva, Fulham are heading for their third promotion in four years: the top two teams are promoted immediately and the Championship leader’s lead over number three Huddersfield Town is 17 points.

“I have a lot of quality around me, many creative players (usually Harry Wilson, Fábio Carvalho and Neeskens Kabano in his back, ed.) who create opportunities for me. I have to thank them for the number of goals I have been able to score,” Mitrovic said of this season’s success. The London Evening Standard called Mitrovic’s fitness a key factor for its unprecedented productivity. Outside the club, he works with a personal trainer, who also has Reece James and Ruben Loftus-Cheek under his wing. And where he experienced his lowest point of last season in the shirt of Serbia, he took appropriate revenge almost exactly a year later. Serbia won 1-2 against Portugal in November with a late goal from Mitrovic and thus qualified as the winner of Group A for the World Cup in Qatar.

Now the question arises what consequences this season will have for Mitrovic’s career. On the one hand, it is argued that the Serbian national team’s all-time goalscorer may be too good for the Championship, but fall short for the Premier League. At the other end of the spectrum, Mitrovic is considered ready for a step up, provided it is at a club that adopts a style of play in which he can thrive. “I think he could play for a top club,” Jokanovic said. “He can play a role like Romelu Lukaku or Olivier Giroud, but he is not a counter-player. He must play in a team that dominates matches so that he can get into the penalty area. That’s the key, he has to play in a team that uses his qualities.”