Fulham’s attacking style of play is refreshing for a newly-promoted side. In a period where many promoted teams come up to the Premier League with a very conservative way of playing in order to survive, the Cottagers instead have chosen a bolder approach.
For neutral fans, this is an exciting time in the Premier League as alongside Fulham are Wolves who also deploy an attacking approach. However, it is Fulham who have had more goalscoring success so far. Under Jokanivić, Fulham have scored eleven goals in their first nine league games, the highest of the bottom nine sides, and it makes sense with players including Andre Schurrle, Ryan Sessegnon, Jean Seri and Aleksandar Mitrović. Jokanović is clearly playing to their strengths, and integral to their attack over the past two seasons has been Aleksandar Mitrović.
Having watched him score a 90th minute header against Arsenal to earn a draw from 3-0 down when playing for Anderlecht, he has always impressed me. Not only did the goal cement the comeback, but it was very well taken header as he ran across the box and expertly glanced the ball near post past Szczęsny. That season (2014-2015) was his last for Anderlecht FC, where he finished with 22 goals as the top scorer of the Pro League in Belgium.
It was therefore not surprising that in the following summer transfer window he made a move for a bigger league. Newcastle United who paid around £13 million for the Serb, though it is difficult to sum up his time as a Magpie because Newcastle were in a period of big spending (over £80million that summer), and therefore the team had a heightened pressure to perform. Newcastle were also relegated this season. They were relegated after scoring 44 goals, which placed them 13th in goals scored in the Premier League that year. Clearly, there were defensive issues at play here rather than attacking ones, which ultimately led to their demotion from the top-flight.
Even though Mitrović’s debut season was with a relegated team, he scored nine in 22 appearances. The Serbian started 22 times, yet was also regularly used as an impact substitute, 12 times, which is more then he would’ve liked, but perhaps this was a punishment from Steve McClaren/Rafael Benitez as Mitrović picked up several cards and bans in his first season in the Premier League.
In defence of the managers, you do not need to look any further than Mitrović’s Newcastle debut to see his aggressive attitude on the pitch. He was booked just 22 seconds into his substitute appearance after a lunging slide tackle that sent Matt Targett flying into the air as he tried to clear the ball. He draws his feisty playing style from his time growing up and playing in the Serbian leagues, which he utilises to his advantage over defenders. Regardless of his aggressiveness, he was lucky enough to gain his fair share of appearances in his debut season for Newcastle.
Unfortunately for Mitrović, Benitez seemed to lose faith in his Serbian international as Dwight Gayle and Ayoze Perez took the majority of EFL Championship appearances away from Mitrović. There was a lot of pressure on Newcastle returning to the Premier League immediately, and therefore no expense was spared. Having spent over £80 million the previous season, Benitez was granted permission to sign 11 players for £57 million. This included Dwight Gayle who ended up as the joint second top goal scorer in the Championship. Determined to solidify his place in the Newcastle squad, Mitrović stayed on Tyneside the following season, but after an unsuccessful return to the Premier League, he was loaned out to Fulham.
The turn of events that led to Mitrović joining Fulham is a story in itself after he was initially poised to join Bordeaux FC, and after those talks broke down he was going to return to his old club Anderlecht. Once more talks broke down and it looked like he was not going to get his desired loan move until, in truly modern fashion, a conversation took place with a fellow Serb over Snapchat. This fellow Serb was the manager of Fulham, Slaviša Jokanović. Incredibly this moment became what seems the turning point in Mitrović’s career.
This loan move reignited Mitrović’s top flight career and proved that if utilised correctly, he can be a leading number nine. He was particularly fortunate to be among a group of like-minded attacking individuals including Sessegnon, Cairney and Johansen all in midfield. Of course, he was also fortunate to have a Serbian manager. It took him until his fourth game to find his feet at Fulham, where he scored an easy tap-in thanks to a well improvised, outside of the boot, threaded a ball from Cyrus Christie from the right corner of the box. This was the start of an excellent run of form for both Fulham and Mitrović as he went on to score 11 more in 14 games in the league.
An upturn in form undoubtedly facilitated his time with the Serbian national side, as he scored a hat-trick against Bolivia in the final friendly before the World Cup. He then went on to score in the opening World Cup fixture against Switzerland and almost earned a penalty when, after pausing, referee Felix Brych decided to turn down the appeal.
Many Newcastle fans wanted Mitrović back after proving himself in the Championship with Fulham and the Serbian national side. His loan spell ended with 12 goals in 20 appearances after joining them in the January transfer window. Many thought this would prompt Newcastle to regain a much needed prolific striker, however, clearly, Mitrović was thinking otherwise. Shortly after his £22 million move to newly proved Fulham, he stated: “in England, this [at Fulham] is the first time that I really feel comfortable in the system and in the way we play”.
Clearly aiming shots at Benitez’s more conservative playing style, it will be interesting to see if Fulham survive this year. It is evident that Benitez utilised this style to avoid relegation and Fulham are completely contrasting in style, much to the appreciation of the neutral fan.
Yet, their attacking style comes at a price. Fast forward from Mitrović’s impressive display with Anderlecht, scoring to complete the comeback against Arsenal to now playing for the Cottagers at home to Arsenal, it is a very different story. Many would have thought Fulham could put up a goalscoring fight against Arsenal who have generally struggled so far under newly appointed Unai Emery. However, it finished 5-1 to the Gunners, and although Fulham can score goals, they now have conceded 25 goals in nine games. They have conceded on average over 2.5 goals a game, which is appalling for any Premier League side, let alone a newly promoted one. On top of this, they are the only Premier League outfit who have not recorded a clean sheet yet.
Fulham finished the first half with promise as it ended 1-1. But the floodgates opened in the second, and Mitrović’s only genuine chance came in the 73rd minute when Bernd Leno saved his header. These are not the games Mitrović can flourish in and mirrored his performances for Newcastle; nonetheless, Mitrović’s first Premier League season with Fulham so far has been promising. He has scored five and assisted two in nine games. It took him until the 6th of February to record the same goal haul for Newcastle back in the 2015/2016 season.
It is a necessity for Fulham to pick up points in the upcoming games, starting with Bournemouth on Saturday, and no doubt Mitrović will have his part to play. For now, it is time for the Serbian to truly make his mark on the English top-flight, and his fellow Serb Jokanovic will be hoping, if not praying, that the result is Fulham’s retaining their place in the Premier League.