Fulham’s start to the season has been somewhat inconsistent.
They looked irresistible at times in August winning four from five as Marco Silva picked up a manager of the month but since then, consistent form has deserted them. September saw the Londoners pick up only seven points from a possible fifteen and slip out of the automatic promotion places. One of the few bright sparks during this time, has been the form of talisman Aleksandar Mitrovic with the big Serb scoring six goals and assisting another to take his tally to fifteen goals and three assists in 15 Championship game so far.
Mitro’s form at this level is nothing short of phenomenal; he is hit 52 goals in just 71 games, for Fulham, and few would net against him topping the Championship goalscoring charts for a second consecutive Championship season. Having signed a new contract at the beginning of the season, it would take a big fee for a Premiership tam to prize him away from Craven Cottage if Fulham’s promotion bid fails but this is not the only reason top-flight teams may not be sniffing.
Despite being one of the all-time Championship greats and being Serbia’s all-time leading goal scorer with 43 in 68, his record in the English top-flight is less than enviable. Whilst 9 in 34 (Newcastle, 2016/17), and 11 in 37 (Fulham 2018/19) are not bad for relegated teams, a return of three in 27 from the 2020/21 season is nothing short of woeful. After a first-half hattrick against Swansea, BBC Sport asked, via tweet, when he was not on fire. The replies, a beacon of originality, were all in the same vein: when he is in the Premier League.
Is this fair for the big man, though? He only played 89 minutes of a Premier League season that did not end in relegation and he did manage a goal in that time. So, is Aleksander Mitrovic destined to continually fall short in the top-flight, or is it just an exceptional set of circumstances that has led to underwhelming performances?
Style of Play
Mitrovi? is a big man. At 189cm and roughly 86kg, he is more than capable of holding his own as a physical forward. Roughly 20% of his Championship goals have been with his head and with 3.2 aerial duels won this season, of the Championships current top ten goal scorers, only Elijah Adebayo of Luton has a higher stat (4.4). To put it bluntly, Mitrovic ‘can handle himself’ in a physical alteration and being the focal point of an attack is certainly something that he is capable of doing.
To describe Mitrovic as an out-and-out target man, is, however, not entirely accurate. Compared to players that may be described as genuine target men – Millwall’s Matt Smith, Cardiff City’s Kieffer Moore – the number of aerial duels he wins per game is pales into insignificance; all three are averaging over seven per game with a success rate of at least 15% higher than Mitrovic’s. All this with Fulham playing the second highest number of long balls per game (22.7). What makes Mitrovic so difficult to handle for Championship defenders is the fact that he has the ability to drop deeper and bring others into play and then find space in the box like a traditional poacher. Fulham sit third for possession this season with 58.6% and Mitrovic is key to the build-up play. He averages 47.7 touches per game which he turns into 24.5 passes per game, of which 1.1 is ‘key’. Of all the strikers to have scored more than five goals or more, only Coventry’s Viktor Gyökeres betters that (42.1 touches, 15.6 passes, 1.8 ‘key’); the aforementioned target men do not get near these passing stats. Along with this, in averaging 9.9 passes in his own half, Mitrovic is by far the most involved of any clubs top scoring striker regardless of the number of passes an amount of possession other teams have. All of this, coupled with the fact that he averages more shots per game than any other Championship player should dispel any notion that he is just a physical forward.
Mitrovic in the Premiership
Mitrovic’s involvement in team play, this season, is much higher than his previous Fulham ones, Championship or otherwise. So, is this the reason he has so far failed to carry over any sort of consistent form to the Premier League? Is he now playing in a system that suits him better? After all, he has equalled the number of assists he has in 11 Championship games as he did in his previous fifty-seven and clearly highlighted his all-around game more; he has a better goal conversion rate (20% up from 17.5%) and has a goal every 97 minute having previously bested 117.
So, what has gone wrong in the Premier League?
Fulham may have been plummeting out of the league under Slavisa Jokanovic – a 1-0 defeat to eventual bottom placed team all but Huddersfield confirmed this – but Mitrovic was fairing much better on an individual basis. During the first twelve games of the 2018/19 season, Mitrovic had scored five goals in 13 games – he would go on to register only six more in 24 games under Ranieri and Parker. This despite the fact that he was registering only 0.1 fewer shots per game and had an xG of 0.4 per game during each spell.
This was a period that Mitrovic arguably underperformed. Maybe it was a confidence thing, maybe it was an effort thing, either way, Fulham replicated the exact same level of chances both as numerical number and, as xG would suggest, in the value of those chances. The only mitigating circumstances here were the fact that the team were performing poorer on as whole, however, as an individual Mitrovic should have done much better.
The same cannot be said for his stats in the 2020/21 season. Scott Parker was desperate to fix the defensive problems that plagued Fulham’s previous Premier League campaign but he went the other way as far as attacking intent was concerned.
Fulham fans were never really enamoured by his football during their 2019/20 promotion campaign but generally recognised that bouncing back at the first opportunity was the bigger goal. Inspired by a common goal, Mitrovic flourished. He averaged a goal every 138 minutes with a decent conversion rate of 17% from his 3.8 shots per game. He was the Championships top scorer outscoring future England strikers, Ollie Watkins and Patrick Bamford, the latter by ten goals!
On return to the top-flight, however, things took a turn for the worst. Parker and Fulham abandoned any sort of attacking fair and looked to stifle teams rather than dominate as they had the season before (they dropped from an average of 61.4% possession to 49.8%). This affected Mitrovic who averaged only 2.2 shots per game and 0.7 shots on target per game. A goal conversion of only 5% may be poor, but considering he was limited to an xG of a measly 7.35, it is safe to say that Fulham were not creating any chances of value for him.
Another factor in the drop off is the involvement of Ademola Lookman. Fulham’s defensive outlook meant that the option on the break became speed and dribbling as opposed to the controlled build-up that suited Mitrovic in the Championship. Lookman sat fifth for successful dribbles per game with 2.4, two places below teammate Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa with 2.7; Bobby Decordova-Reid, who spent most of the season flittering between RWB and RW, was the top scorer with five, and Lookman topped the charts for goal involvements with eight (four goals and four assists).
It was very difficult for Fulham to get anyone involved centrally, which is evidenced by January signing Josh Maja managed only three goals. He did have a goal conversion of 14.3%, nearly three times that of Mitrovic, but he was averaging 0.8 shots per game fewer and touched the ball on average four times less per game. If we compare the heatmap of the two, we can see that Maja drifted wider to win the ball where Mitrovic dropped deep. This, and the fact that he attempted 0.6 more dribbles per game suggests that his better success was down to mobility and an ability to drop out wide on the break.
So, Can He Cut It At The Top?
Mitrovic will be the first to admit that he had a poor season in the Premier League. A drop-off in conversion rates is to be expected and a team will create fewer chances, but the stats do not look great for the former Anderlecht man. At his best, this Championship season, he is converting one-fifth of his shots, during the 2020/21 season, this was down to 1/20. There is an argument to be made about the value and frequency of chances affecting the total number of goals, but it does not change the fact that Mitrovic underperformed.
Looking at the also unsuccessful 2018/19 season would be much more encouraging for Mitrovic. A goal return of 11 in 37 in a relegated side is okay, particularly when you consider that he could have done much better. For comparison, £90m striker Romelu Lukaku only achieved 12 in 32 that season and Raúl Jiménez, who would go on to grab seventeen the next season, only managed 13 in 38. That is not to say Mitrovic is on the same level, only to say the sweeping statement made by many that he can’t cut it in the Premier League is not entirely fair.
Should Marco Silva’s side achieve promotion this season, it will certainly be done on the back of Mitrovic’s goals and he will be itching to prove that he has not hit his ceiling. Should they make it paying the football that they are, it will be Mitrovic’s best chance to prove just that, the team are averaging 0.7 more goals per game than they did last time they were promoted and are creating an impressive 1.1 big chances per game more. A Premier League Fulham team, led by Marco Silva, may just be the catalyst Aleksander Mitrovic needs to prove the doubters wrong.