The Time is Right

Image: PA via Evening Standard

This was the best window for Fulham to sell Aleksandar Mitrovic…

After a summer of back and forth between The Cottagers and Al Hilal, a reported refusal to play from Mitrovic and then an impactful return to action against Everton that offered brief hope of reconciliation, the Serbian striker has made the move to the Saudi Pro League and their millions. But if Mitrovic was going to leave Fulham, this was the best time for the club to cash in on their prize asset.

In previous years, summers at Craven Cottage have been turbulent for other reasons. Most prominently, preparing for a season in a different division from the campaign before. Finally Fulham have stuck the landing and established a starting XI capable of competing well in the Premier League. While losing Mitrovic is a blow to that XI, the other ten players have never been better placed to cope without him. To lose Mitrovic after he had fired 43 Championship goals to lead the team to a second-tier title would have felt like a death knell to any survival hopes. Not only did he set up a teammate for seven additional goals, but he played in 44 of the 46 games. All starts. A Fulham line-up without Mitrovic was almost unfathomable in the summer of 2022. Especially if we were to have any hope of surviving among the elite of English football.

Even after relegation under Scott Parker, when the target man wasn’t fancied for much of the season, Fulham fans hoped a new manager would reinvigorate him, such was his importance to yet another promotion push. Following his exploits in the second tier both under Parker and Slavisa Jokanovic before him, Mitrovic was clearly a Championship cheat code when utilised effectively. To lose him was not an option.

This off season was different. Mitrovic missed 14 matches entirely, was substituted early against Newcastle due to injury, and came on with the team already ahead against Southampton on his return from an eight-match suspension. He still contributed hugely to the clubs success, but they did not crumble in his absence. The players in this squad know that they can compete and win points without their former focal point in attack. He will need to be replaced, but others already here are capable of stepping up to help win matches in a different way.

Marco Silva has rarely had such a prominent figure leading his line. He has often deployed a physical target man to help build his team’s attacks, Troy Deeney at Watford and Dominic Calvert-Lewin at Everton, but they have not been the primary source of goals. At Watford Abdoulaye Doucoure led the scoring with seven goals. Only two of those came after Silva’s January departure. Richarlison, playing from a wide position also contribute five goals with Silva at the helm. He did not score again after the Portuguese left in January. Deeney, for his part, only scored twice while starting up top for The Whites’ current head coach.

When Silva went to Everton for the 2018-19 season he took Richarlison with him, and playing off of Calvert-Lewin, often from the left, the Brazilian matched Gylfi Sigurdsson, who scored thirteen goals from no.10. Calvert-Lewin, playing as the target man contributed six league goals.

All of this demonstrates that Marco Silva does not rely on his striker to score his team to success. Others will be expected and coached to step up in this regard. Silva does like a physically strong frontman, but that frontman does not have to be prolific. Much like when Ross McCormack left the club in 2016, leaving us without a recognised goalscorer, this could free others to show their own goalscoring talents. Silva has been vocal about his desire to see Andreas Pereira add more goals to his game after netting four times in the Premier League last time out. 

There is also the likelihood of new arrivals before the window closes, with the potential for more goal scorers to join the club. A winger is a high priority, so a player coming in to provide goals in a similar way to Richarlison has in the past for Silva, is a distinct possibility. Another reason the timing of the Mitrovic sale is relevant, is that he is at the peak value of his career. A goal scoring Premier League campaign behind him, 28-years old and Saudi suitors means the fee for Mitrovic is significant enough to help the club invest well in the squad. Of course having the money, and how it is spent are two separate issues, but getting a reported £45 million for the Serb represents good business and provides an opportunity to reinforce the squad with the required quality.

Who the club choose to take on the mantle of Fulham’s no.9 will be an interesting, if anxious, process. Silva may want a similarly built target man, but there are some attractive options that don’t necessarily fit that mould, and with the Portuguese tactician yet to commit his long-term future to the club, how much input he has on a big investment may not be what it once was. Folarin Balogun appears to be the hottest property on the market, but is a different type of striker. A young goalscorer with potentially high sell-on value may appeal to the number-crunchers at the club, but the initial outlay is also likely to be high, limiting the potential to invest elsewhere in the squad. 

A more financially appealing option could be a striker currently out of favour, such as Mitrovic’s compatriot Luka Jovic. Struggling for form it would require a trademark Silva reclamation project to reap rewards, but it has been done before where the talent is evident. 

The club could see this as an opportunity to give Silva the assurances he needs to put pen to paper on a new deal, giving him a large say in the next incumbent in his front line. Countryman Beto has been touted as an option to provide the physical output of the previous striker, if not the goals. He managed 10 for Udinese in Serie A last season, including netting his one penalty for a 100% conversion rate.

The truth is, Fulham will be linked with every seemingly available striker over the next 11 days, and some that aren’t available. Some will be of genuine interest, others will be clickbait stories not based on reality. What we do know is that for the first time in nearly six years, Fulham will have a new first-choice striker this season. Mitrovic has gone at the best possible time, it remains to be seen if that is capitalised on by the club or not.