Just two years on from the hardest period of his career, Aleksandar Mitrovic is an elite striker in the form of his life. 46 goals from his last 49 league games tells a story of its own, but the goals are just one, albeit a very large, element of what makes the Serbian hitman such an effective focal point for his team, whether that be at club level, or on the international stage, where he has broken records and continues to flourish with Serbia, ahead of the upcoming Winter World Cup.
The evolution of Mitrovic has been a joy to watch, and that it came on the back of a season of great difficulty makes the improvement even more impressive. But even when looking back to a successful season in 2019-20, the numbers demonstrate what the eye test has suggested. In what was a golden boot winning season under Scott Parker in The Championship, Mitrovic made 737 successful passes and 11 successful tackles from 30 attempts. Fast forward two years to Marco Silva’s Championship winning campaign, and Mitrovic made 939 passes and improved his ball recovery to 17 tackles from 30 attempts. And all that before we acknowledge the jump from 26 goals to 43.
His hold up play relieves pressure, and provides a platform to build possession and attacks in the opponents’ half, while his increased tackling rate means his team are winning the ball closer to the opposition goal. The false-narrative that Mitrovic is not cut-out for the top flight seems to finally be abating, and not before time. But it is important to acknowledge the work of his team mates, who have provided him with the opportunity to top the Premier League list for shots, while his own work rate sees him outdoing the competitions other strikers for tackles. This is not merely a classic target man or penalty-box striker.
The current version of Fulham’s no. 9 is simply a more impactful player. When he first joined Fulham on deadline day in January 2018, he proved to be the missing piece in Slavisa Jokanovic’s jigsaw, he is now the centrepiece. But Silva’s tactics, and Mitro’s teammates are also playing an important role in his success. In his most successful premier league season to date, 2018-19, Mitrovic racked up an xG (expected goals) of 16.5, with a return of 11 goals. He is now over performing, having netted six goals from an xG of 4.65. Despite improving his overall game, and spending more time on the ball outside of the opposition penalty area, he is scoring at a higher rate than ever before.
Strikers thrive on confidence, and when full of it, Mitrovic is nigh on unstoppable. The Championship has proven to be a level below his capabilities, as he has dominated the competition on all three of his seasons as a regular starter in the league. But last season he took that dominance to another level. He more than doubled his assists from the previous season in the second tier, laying on his team mates a total of seven times, taking his direct goal contributions to 50. But he was involved in more than just that half-century, often playing the killer pass to release Harry Wilson or Neeskens Kebano on the flank, for the wingers to then play the ball into the penalty area for an onrushing midfielder to finish the move.
While he is yet to record an assist this season, the adaptation of the team’s approach, as well as injuries to what many believe would have been his first choice partners in the Fulham front line has placed more onus on him to be on the end of chances and the furthest man forward. But as Fulham’s fixtures turn somewhat, and with a particular emphasis on front-foot football at Craven Cottage, there is the possibility for more performances akin to those seen when Silva’s side ran rampant through the second tier.
In their first six fixtures, Fulham have travelled to Arsenal and Spurs, while hosting Liverpool. They have also hosted Brighton, with the Seagulls unbeaten before arriving in SW6. Silva has been keen to express that the philosophy that saw his side promoted as champions will not be abandoned. With fixtures against fellow promoted sides, Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth on the horizon, along with visits from Aston Villa and Everton, two teams that have struggled for form at the start of the season, Mitrovic will be looking to continue his scoring form, but also play a role in setting up his teammates for their own moments of glory. If Fulham are to continue to march towards their goal of safety, his off the ball work will also need to be maintained. His work rate is best represented by the fact that he currently leads the league for duels won, with 65, eight more than the next player on the list.
Mitrovic’s scoring has been central to three promotions, while he was the top scorer in the Premier League season when given the opportunity to play. Hitting double figures for a relegated side is no mean feat, and seeing him ostracised on the clubs return to the top flight, having scored the goals to get them there, led to much of the fan base resenting former head coach, Scott Parker. His revival, and record setting season in the Championship has propelled him beyond cult hero status. Having now reached 100 league goals for Fulham, aged 27, Cottagers fans will be hoping that the remaining years of Mitrovic’s peak are spent in by The Thames. If that proves to be the case, his legend will only grow. Leading the team to a first Premier League survival since 2013 will surely cement him as a club great.