As Fulham fans, during the international breaks we don’t often learn a great deal about our team, but undoubtedly this break has served as a reminder to the world as to what a brilliant striker Aleksandar Mitrović is…
He has notched 5 goals for Serbia in the three World Cup qualifying games he has played in the past 6 days, firstly coming off the bench to score a brace that saw off the Republic of Ireland, then getting the first goal that sparked the comeback to earn a 2-2 draw with Portugal before finally helping himself to another double to see off Azerbaijan. I think we can finally put the myth of a loss of confidence to bed once and for all, can’t we?
What does this mean for Fulham then? There are many, myself included, who do not understand why he has been missing from the starting eleven for so long in the first place. Testing positive for COVID aside, where has he been and why have lesser players been playing in his position? Sure, he missed the penalty away at Sheffield United, he missed the penalty that cost Serbia their European Championship place and he missed a few chances for Fulham earlier in the season, but so what? Even the best strikers miss chances, and I don’t think I’m surprising anyone by saying that in my opinion he is the best finisher and the best striker we have at Fulham, and it isn’t even close.
We spent big on him back in summer 2018 because of the integral role he played in getting us out of the Championship whilst on loan from Newcastle, and he still managed 11 goals in what was a frankly diabolical Premier League team during that 2018/19 season. His goals dried up towards the end of that season, but three Managers with very different ideas over the course of a single campaign is never going to help any player deliver their best form consistently. He then went on to surprise everyone by committing his future to the club when he signed a 5-year contract at the end of the season despite relegation and of course Scott Parker was Manager at the time, so it’s not like he has inherited a player he doesn’t want.
So, what has changed? We would not have been promoted for the second time in 3 years last season without his 26 goals, and he achieved this total despite missing a chunk of the run-in and having wingers playing alongside him who favoured cutting in and shooting rather than crossing into dangerous areas. The style we used last season and at the beginning of this had to change – something Slavisa Jokanovic either refused to accept, or wasn’t given time to change last time around – but who would have thought that the style changing would mean leaving out the only player in the squad with a track record of scoring goals at this level?!
I understand that we have this pressing style and that Scott Parker likes to play counter-attacking football, which is better suited to fast players, but what is the point in getting into good positions if we can’t finish our chances? For me there needs to be a happy medium between the counter-attacking style and getting somebody into the penalty area who shows composure in front of goal. I also don’t buy that Mitro is not able to play counter-attacking football; he’s not as fast as some of our other players, but he can certainly sprint into the box when required! As I said earlier, every player misses chances, it’s just part of the game. But whilst the likes of Ademola Lookman and Ivan Cavaleiro show flair, pace and quality in other areas, their strength is not in finishing; the number of good chances they have missed this season has at times been criminal. And by missing chances, I mean actually missing the target all together!
Players’ form can come and go, but when an out of form player is not given a chance to play their way back into form in favour of lesser players who struggle to hurt teams then it really is a hinderance, and a club in our position cannot afford to be starting each game with a handicap.
If we end up getting relegated this season then many will talk about the improvements that Scott Parker made to the side over the course of the season, how we turned a terrible defence into one of the division’s best and curse the fact that the changes weren’t made sooner. But the other argument is that whilst the defence became stingy, the game is ultimately about scoring goals and we just haven’t been good enough at doing that. I for one would forever remember this season as the one where we left out a quality striker for most of the season and accepted that we couldn’t score enough goals, in favour of playing other players out of position in his place. And if we do stay up in spite of this, then I will of course be delighted, but will always think we could have done it much more comfortably.
We have 8 games remaining at the time of writing. Surely Scott cannot continue to leave Mitro on the bench. There are absolutely no excuses anymore, we need those points and to get them, we need goals. Get the big man up front and let him be the hero this season after all!