The Mitrović Conundrum

Image: Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

Aleksandar Mitrović has been a focal point of Fulham’s starting line up over the last few years, but recently appears to have fallen out of favour under Scott Parker’s new-look side.

Since his move to Craven Cottage in 2018, Mitrović has been somewhat of a cult hero in West London, and won the Championship golden boot during the last campaign but he has found first-team opportunities limited this season.

Despite repeated reassurances from Parker, including before the Liverpool game in December, that the Serbian will have a large part to play for Fulham this season, he has started just two games since November’s international break.

In the Championship, Fulham’s attacking set-up revolved around the striker and he thrived in the role, netting 26 times in 41 appearances, while also making three assists.

According to Fbref, Fulham made 972 crosses in the 2019-20 season, with Anthony Knockaert (227), Joe Bryan (189) and Ivan Cavaleiro (166) making the most. Now, Knockaert has gone on loan, Bryan remains second choice to Antonee Robinson, and Cavaleiro has mostly been employed through the centre rather than out wide, further restricting Mitrović’s heading opportunities even when he does feature.

During the 2018-19 Premier League season, Mitrović found the net 11 times, of which six were headed goals, but recently the focus has moved away from probing crosses into the box for the number nine and towards an approach centred around playing the ball on the ground with fast breaks to hurt the opposition.

Against Aston Villa on September 28, Fulham finished the game with 36 crosses from open play, but none were effective as they fell to a 3-0 defeat, which seemed to be the turning point for Parker’s change in tactics.

Arguably, at the start of this season, Fulham did not look like a Premier League side. The season’s opener against Arsenal was a wake-up call, and signified a change was needed for top-flight survival.

Parker started 10 out of 11 players who beat Brentford in the play-off final in August as the Gunners moved comfortably to a 3-0 lead exposing Fulham’s defensive frailties.

However, since then, an entirely new back four have taken their place and much-improved defensive performances have followed. Recent impressive wins at Leicester and draws against Liverpool and Southampton have been based on counter-attacking football and quick passing, with Cavaleiro playing through the centre, while the Serbian has been on the bench. Notably, Fulham have also struggled for goals in this period and their last five games have all been draws, with Parker’s men netting just three goals.

In recent matches, when he has been used as a substitute and during the cup game against QPR, Mitrović has provided a different outlet for Fulham’s attack and his presence is enough to cause problems for many defences.

While he may not be best suited to fast, counter-attacking football, he can hold the ball up, occupy defenders, create space to allow others to play around him, and he can be a useful weapon for Parker, especially in the absence of any other established centre forward.

Despite the focus on quick passing and move away from crosses, the Serbian can still have an important part to play for Fulham this season, similar to the one he held against West Brom earlier in the season, where despite not scoring himself, he provided two assists.

Mitrović may not be the guaranteed starter he was in the Championship but there is no doubt that the former Newcastle man can play a key role in Fulham’s bid for survival. He will, however, need to get used to a different role and the new style of play that has been adopted by Parker.