Aleksandar Mitrovic has swapped Newcastle’s battle to stay in the Premier League for Fulham’s bid to win promotion – but has Rafa Benitez blundered in allowing the bustling Serbian to leave?
“He shouldn’t be playing in this division,” said Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder, shaking his head. “He is an outstanding player who is going to the World Cup. He has made the decision to drop down a division but he should be playing in the Premier League.”
Wilder was talking about Aleksandar Mitrovic. Sheffield United had just been beaten 3-0 by play-off rivals Fulham at Craven Cottage, but the match as a contest was over by half-time thanks to two goals from the Serbian centre forward.
Mitrovic had bagged five goals in four matches since arriving at Fulham from Newcastle, where he was deemed surplus to requirements by Rafa Benitez following the January arrival of Islam Slimani from Leicester.
Four days after the Sheffield United victory, Mitrovic scored another brace in a 2-1 win at Preston, taking his overall tally to seven goals in nine league games for Fulham. Islam Slimani meanwhile – the man supposedly brought in to replace him – is still waiting to make his Newcastle debut.
Mitrovic has scored nine times in all competitions this year after netting twice for Newcastle in August, while Newcastle’s first choice striker Dwight Gayle and his deputy Joselu have managed just nine goals between them.
A closer look at the stats won’t make comfortable reading for Benitez. His Serbian outcast has found the net every 96 minutes on average for Fulham and every 97 minutes for Newcastle, whereas Gayle takes 289 minutes to get on the scoresheet. Mitrovic has scored as many goals this season as Gayle and Joselu combined, but he’s managed it in 2,195 minutes fewer on the pitch.
So why has Benitez exiled a player with exactly the kind of goal scoring habit the Newcastle frontline looks so devoid of? And why has Mitrovic flourished at Fulham but floundered at St James’ Park?
One answer can be found by analysing the playstyles of both sides.
Rafa Benitez is one of the most pragmatic managers in the Premier League- Newcastle are 13th, four points above the dropzone despite having the lowest average possession in the division at 42.9%. Fulham, by contrast, have the highest average possession in the Championship with 57.3%.
Rafa is a meticulous planner- he will have a points tally in mind that spells survival for Newcastle, and he will prioritise the matches where Newcastle are most likely to pick up points. This is best illustrated by the graph below, tweeted by FourFourTwo’s James Maw, which shows Newcastle picking up 25 of a possible 36 against sides in the bottom six. They only have 32 points in total.
— James Maw (@JamesMawFFT) March 13, 2018
Newcastle under Benitez know their limitations. They aren’t going to take the game to superior opponents, as proven against Manchester City in December when Jonjo Shelvey smashed the ball out of play immediately from kick off.
Come and break us down was the message, and a certain type of striker is required to play this way. Dwight Gayle may have only netted five times this season, but his running is relentless. He will shut down every avenue with unsettling hustle and bustle until Newcastle have grinded out another point. That is why Benitez trusts him.
Mitrovic is different though as he needs the ball to be effective. He’s reliant on plenty of service from creative players as he lacks the mobility to carve out chances for himself.
If he’s isolated and ignored he gets extremely frustrated. And any manager who has seen a frustrated Mitrovic charging around a football pitch with lips curled and elbows flailing should start preparing to see out the rest of the game with ten men.
His pedigree though is undoubted. The striker was voted player of the competition at the U19 European Championships in 2013 and was named in the team of the tournament alongside the likes of Bernardo Silva, Anthony Martial, Adrien Rabiot and Hector Bellerin. The striker has also scored important Champions League goals against Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund.
He bagged another two goals for Serbia against Nigeria last night and as Wilder rightly says, he will lead the line for his country at the World Cup in the summer, playing against Brazil in Group E.
Before he arrived at Craven Cottage, Mitrovic was set for a permanent move away from Newcastle amid interest from Bordeaux, Anderlecht, Partizan Belgrade and Crystal Palace.
He has the potential to play at a much higher level than that though, and a strong performance on the World Cup stage could earn him a second chance with another big money move to a top European club. Let’s just hope they keep the ball.
By Jake Evans