If the Premier League really plays the most beautiful and sexy football, then its players must be refined artists. More akin to the artist who is focused on the finer details of a piece than a waving hammer that doesn’t stop. There is one player in the Prem that is more hammer than paint brush, Aleksandar Mitrović.
The numbers that Mitrović has put up in the Championship are like Wilt Chamberlain’s numbers in the early days of the NBA. However, the knock on him has always been unable to translate that success into the Prem.
Across his time in England, with both Fulham and Newcastle, the most that Mitrović has scored in a single season is 11 goals. In other seasons, he has scored between 1 and 9 goals which is shocking compared to the numbers that he has put up in the Championship. Last season, he broke the record of most goals in a single Championship season with 43, leaving fans to wonder if he can score at a high level in the Prem.
Mitrović is the ultimate throwback striker, a physical beast who thrives on the tiniest glimmer of a chance. This style is perfect for the lower levels where it’s easier to substitute technical ability for physical gifts, but the Prem doesn’t allow for skill to be substituted. It’s a lock that he will be able to bully players to create chances, but will Mitrović be able to finally mix the technical and physical?
Fulham may go right back to the Championship, so Mitrović will have the weight of the club on his shoulders. If he can finally elevate his game in the Prem, he can easily score 15-20 goals; if not, Fulham will go down and he will go back to bullying weaker talents.
In every sport, there are certain athletes who are able to thrive at the lower level, but can never make it to the next level. It’s a part of sports that will always tarnish some players’ reputations no matter how fair it is.
Mitrović signed with Newcastle United in 2015 after two seasons in Belgium where he scored over 15 goals in both seasons. Hopes were high that he could become the next great striker for the northern club. After nine goals in his first season, fans were mixed as he showcased his exciting raw physical abilities, but he still struggled to find consistency.
However, his arrival at Newcastle coincided with the team’s implosion of the mid 2010s where the worst aspects of Mike Ashley era bear fruit. The club was relegated in his first season and he continued his struggles in the Championship, scoring only four goals. Manager Rafa Benítez saw him as a liability after their promotion and he barely featured in Newcastle’s return to the Prem in 2017.
In January 2018, the Championship came calling in the form of Fulham. In the chaos of the winter transfer window, Mitrović’s loan move to Fulham went under the radar for most.
It’s safe to assume that most Fulham fans, and even Newcastle fans, didn’t expect for Mitrović to become a goalscoring force. Scoring 12 goals in 17 games helped Fulham get promoted and the club quickly made his loan permanent. His goals over the next few seasons continued to define any success that Fulham had, as the club has lived and died by him since.
Every great artist has that one album, film or painting that denotes their arrival to the greatest of stages. For Mitrović, this was his 43 goals last season in the Prem where he scored 43% of Fulham’s goals and was the best player in the Championship. Mitrović was finally on the stage that he felt he deserved and now, the Prem awaited.
Since his arrival in England seven years ago, Mitrović has scored 109 goals and become an icon of a London club. While he has never had sustained success in the Prem, his record in the Championship has always been tantalizing and drawn spectators.
Mitrović’s return to the Prem this season has showcased all that makes him such a unique player in the modern age. A “dinosaur” of sorts, his ancient playstyle will have to finally click at the highest level to avoid relegation.
Virgil van Dijk is a big human being and towers over opponents in the Prem and Trent Arnold-Alexander is a tremendous athlete with incredible technical ability to match. In one game, Mitrović made van Dijk look like twig and Arnold-Alexander a U16 player who can’t defend. Not only was his physicality highlighted, but he showed how much he has improved.
The first goal is a classic target man goal where Mitrovic tracked a cross to perfection to leap like a salmon over a cowering Arnold-Alexander. In drawing the penalty, Mitrović showcased his improvement where he dribbled around van Dijk to force him into clipping the running Mitrović. While Fulham drew the game, they were only in the game due to Mitrović.
In this game, Mitrović proved that he is the most unique striker in the Prem. Not only is he a relic of a past era, but his style of play is somewhat refreshing in this modern landscape.
Target men, like the dodo, have gone extinct in modern soccer where the game now demands all players to be able to play make. Players, like Mitrović, were asked to hover around the box waiting for any cross or pass into the box to pounce on. Relying on their stature, target men substituted pace and skill for just raw power and strength with the hope of overpowering any defender.
Even among other players who have a similar build, like Haaland or Lukaku, Mitrović lacks the technical ability to find any sort of consistency. For the most part, his game has always stagnated in the Prem because he is unable to think of any other way to beat his defender besides his physicality. It’s what has always held him back and for him to succeed in the Prem, he must balance both sets of skills.
As Fulham’s hopes of staying up depend on Mitrović, fans of the London side will have to hope that this relic can finally find success in the Prem. For neutral fans, there is some fascination over Mitrović and whether he can ever put his game together.
Mitrović has always been a fun player to watch, be it in the Championship or Prem, as his lovable play style and attitude makes him a joy to watch. His first game is of course a small sample, it’s one game after all, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep up the scoring. In an age of technical players whose every action is tracked by technology, Mitrović is breaking the trench by throwing it back to a different era.
Featured image: Getty