There are stark differences in quality between Aleksandar Mitrovic and his replacements at Fulham. That gap is likely to become more over the next month, but it is also a naive ideal to think the chasm should be more bridgeable.
Now that the sentence has been handed down, Marco Silva’s team know that they will face a further seven matches without their top scorer. It could yet be more, depending on the outcome of The FA’s planned appeal, and following a less than inspiring showing from Carlos Vinicius at Bournemouth the clamour for an improved alternative to the Serbian international is likely to grow.
Vinicius has certainly had his moments this season, chief among them, the winner against Chelsea. He also contributed an assist for Manor Solomon’s late winner at Brighton and was involved in the move that gave The Whites the lead on the South coast. But it’s rarely more than just moments, that the Brazilian delivers, and while he may go down as a cult hero for his contribution in the derby, patience will likely wear thin if he does not offer more across 90 minutes in the coming seven fixtures.
There isn’t a lot in the way of alternatives at the moment. Silva has drilled his team expertly, but that drilling has revolved around Mitrovic’s excellent hold-up play, and plugging in a different style of striker has yet to pay dividends. Bobby Decordova-Reid deputised at the Amex, but with little success. Silva remarked after the Brighton win that the team “are really connected to play with a nine”, suggesting that having a less obvious focal point had a negative affect on the team’s performance. There has been an argument that The Cottagers could look to bring in a player who is a potential starter in another position, that can also play through the middle. The problem there is that the head coach clearly has a profile he wants his wingers and attacking midfielders to fit. He prioritises technical ability, dribbling and control in tight spaces, as well as clever movement. The result is a group of players that generally stand 5’7” and below, a stature that doesn’t best suit playing with your back to goal or winning headers against behemoth centre-backs after the the ball is worked wide and crosses are delivered.
Unless Silva is willing to abandon the tactics that have thus far proven successful during his tenure in SW6, then that option is unlikely to be one that is explored further. One could argue that a good head coach should have a “Plan B”, but is it wise to take time away from improving Plan A just to have a secondary approach you may not actually need? Historically, Mitrovic has missed very few games. A rare injury and now a suspension borne out of unique and unexpected circumstances are the only reason this issue has arisen. And Plan A, may have worked so well to this point because of the dedication to it.
Vinicius is the only real option to provide that with Mitrovic unavailable, but his quality has been found lacking on occasions. Silva seemed to suggest he will persist with the Brazilian forward after the loss at Bournemouth, saying “Carlos will get as many moments as we can get him because he is one of our main options to start as a striker”.
So it looks as though, for the short-term at least, Vinicius is next in line. But what of the summer? There have been calls from the fanbase to sign a striker capable of competing with Mitrovic, but that just isn’t a feature of the modern game. A look at some of the biggest clubs in European football reveals that beyond the favoured number nine, there is rarely a ready-made replacement waiting in the wings. Spanish giants Real Madrid have Mariano to turn to in Karim Benzema’s absence. He has played just 57 minutes this season without scoring a goal. If los Blancos can’t convince a striker of pedigree to sit on their bench and wait for their main man to serve a suspension of pick up an injury, what chance does a newly promoted, or even a stable mid table Premier League team have of doing the same?
Taking a look at the domestic top tier, it quickly becomes apparent that very few have a serviceable back up. Until last month, no Wolves striker had scored for a year. Tottenham have been unable to find a suitable alternative to Harry Kane for years, indeed they even turned to the current Fulham incumbent just three years ago. The problem is, is that Mitrovic is so well established that any striker capable of competing with him, is likely to be offered a starting berth somewhere of a similar level. With the exception of Manchester City, Newcastle United and Arsenal, there just aren’t the options within Premier League squads. Manchester United, once home to Andrew Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, all at once, now just has Wout Weghorst (no Premier League goals in nine appearances).
Everton have been without their primary source of goals for much of the last two seasons, and as a result are battling relegation for the second consecutive campaign. Southampton don’t have one striker, let alone two, capable of influencing the game for them. Last season their main striker was a loanee, and with Armando Broja back at Chelsea The Saints have spent much of the season propping up the league table. With Jamie Vardy reaching the end of his time as a feared hitman, and no investment in a replacement, Leicester have fallen alarmingly down the table. West Ham sought to boost their goal options with the signing of Gianluca Scamacca, but a mix of injuries and failure to truly settle means they too, are flirting with relegation.
All of this means that any effective centre-forward looking to make their way in England’s top flight has a wealth of options, and several chairmen and head coaches promising to make them the star striker of their team. The offer of competing with an established fan favourite isn’t likely to be very appealing to Victor Gyokeres or Chuba Akpom.
The point is, it’s hard enough to get one striker to make a difference for your team. Fulham are extremely lucky to have Mitrovic. And while Vinicius may not be the ideal deputy, there simply aren’t many upgrades on the market. Certainly not many that are willing to deputise, when there are plenty of places they can ply their trade at the top of the bill.