The past two seasons could hardly have been more different for Aleksandar Mitrovic.
In 2020-21 the Fulham and Serbia striker endured miserable lows for club and country.
In the Premier League he started only a third of the Cottagers’ games as they were relegated, while it was his missed penalty in a shootout against Scotland that meant his country failed to qualify for the delayed Euro 2020.
But the past 12 months have offered redemption for the 27-year-old.
He broke the Championship scoring record, registering 43 goals in 44 games, helping Fulham to promote for the third time since joining in January 2018.
And it was his added-time header in November against Portugal – his eighth of the qualifying campaign – which sent Serbia to this winter’s World Cup and left a disconsolate Cristiano Ronaldo needing a play-off to reach Qatar.
Yet despite a remarkable 12 months, questions remain about Mitrovic’s ability to cut it at the highest level.
Has he really flopped in the Premier League?
Mitrovic’s three full Premier League seasons – two with Fulham and one with Newcastle – have all ended in relegation.
He scored nine times in 34 league appearances in 2015-16 as a 20-year-old at St James’ Park following a £13m move from Anderlecht.
His first top-flight season with Fulham began with Slavisa Jokanovic in charge and ended with Scott Parker, via a joyless spell under Claudio Ranieri.
Mitrovic was a key part of the team that season, starting 37 league games and scoring 11 goals. That is one goal fewer than Romelu Lukaku at Manchester United, Roberto Firmino at Liverpool and Son Heung-min at Tottenham, and one more than the likes of United’s Marcus Rashford and Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha.
So that could hardly be considered a total failure.
After his goals again helped Fulham to promotion in 2019-20, his last Premier League campaign was a miserable one, starting only 13 times and scoring three goals as he fell out of favor under Parker.
“Although he hasn’t really done it for us in Premier League, he doesn’t take any blame for poor seasons there,” Fulham’s record scorer Gordon Davies explains.
“Players around him, tactics and team play weren’t good enough to see the best of Mitrovic. But now with Marco Silva, we have more attacking players with better quality. So I’m hoping for a much-improved Fulham this coming season .Then, I’m sure we’ll also see a much-improved Mitrovic at Premier League level.
“In the Premier League he has never been in a team from the top 10. He was always fighting relegation. That means two things: that you don’t score many goals, and that you are always defending.
“Parker didn’t play a very expansive game and Aleksandar sometimes found himself up front by himself, with two or three markers. You could put three defenders around Cristiano Ronaldo and he would not score that many. That was exactly the same with Mitrovic.
“Under Parker you could see he wasn’t enjoying it. Under Silva, you can tell the difference by the smile on his face.”
Mitrovic’s style has also evolved dramatically under Silva. Previously more of a target man, now he drops deeper to link play, in a similar manner to Harry Kane at Tottenham.
That freedom was given to him by Silva and it is that relationship which ensured Mitrovic stayed at Craven Cottage, having been close to leaving last summer as his relationship with former boss Parker deteriorated.
“When he came, he stayed in the middle of the park and was slow to get wide,” added Davies. “Now he has confidence, looks fitter, has lost weight and is an all-round athlete. He puts defenders under pressure and I love his attitude. If he scores 43 goals he wants 44.”
‘He is like a sponge’
Vuk Rasovic was among the first people to spot Mitrovic’s potential when the young striker was in the FK Partizan youth system.
Rasovic worked for the Belgrade club as an assistant and in 2011 took over as head coach at Teleoptik, Partizan’s feeder club in the second division.
He decided to take Mitrovic with him, even though the forward was only 16 and had no experience of senior football.
“He was a young, ambitious lad, determined to succeed,” Rasovic recalled. “As soon as I first spoke to him, I couldn’t help noticing the amazing energy. He was an unfinished product but his body was perfect, just what modern football requires. Even at 17 he was able to hold onto the ball. His potential was obvious. He would soon become completely dominant in the penalty box.
“Keep in mind that we played in a very tough division for a youngster. The Serbian second division was full of experienced players. Battling with them, he showed glimpses of great things to come. He was past that level very quickly and within a year he was playing for Partizan, scoring important goals.”
Rasovic considers Mitrovic’s ability to listen and learn to be among his prime assets.
“He was like a sponge, he would never forget a thing,” added the coach. “He would learn so fast and readily accepted any sort of advice. It was amazing. We would go through some details in training only once and, come game time, he would implement it on the pitch, and then keep doing it. It was fascinating to see his energy, his desire, combined with his talent and knowledge.”
That was why Mitrovic was given a professional contract after a year at Teleoptik and immediately broke into Partizan’s starting XI. He became a young star of the team and was sold to Anderlecht in August 2013. He scored 16 league goals as they won the Belgian title.
Left-back Olivier Deschacht was his team-mate back then: “We had a tough start to the season but then we bought Mitrovic. He was very important from the first second. We played a very dominant game with a lot of crosses – he could play high and put the ball in. Now, when I see him, he has become complete.
Mitrovic was 18 then, so he was not exactly a leader in the dressing room and he remains a quieter figure than people might imagine given his fiery on-field demeanour.
“He’s a quiet boy,” said Deschacht. “He likes to joke and is very funny but he is not the loudest. He listens to the coaches and does his tasks. I remember he changed his hair every month. Just search some images… he had different styles. Also when he scored he liked to do some special celebrations. He liked to provoke in that way, but he played well and scored, so he could afford it and everybody accepted it.”
‘No one knows how far he can go’
Despite being prolific for his clubs – his Anderlecht form earned him the move to Newcastle in 2015 – Mitrovic has not always found things easy at international level.
In 2013, he helped Serbia win the Under-19 European Championship and was named player of the tournament.
But in the senior team, his scoring record was not great at the start, managing just two goals in his first 20 appearances.
Since then, though, he has added 44 in 53 games and is his country’s record scorer. It was his six goals in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers that really won the fans over.
Now he is a national hero.
“There are no Serbia fans really, just Red Star and Partizan fans,” said Vladimir Novakovic, a Serbian football journalist. “They tend to be very hostile to the opposition players and it takes a lot of effort to turn it around. That ‘Mitro’ did it is nothing short of a miracle.”
Rasovic is certain Mitrovic has not reached his limit yet.
“We are still in touch,” said his ex-coach. “I know his daily routines and the way he prepares for each game. I notice he is never satisfied with his current level, he always wants more.
“When we talk, I often tell him: ‘Don’t stop, go on, no one knows how far you can go. You’ve achieved a lot, but you’re still young, and you can do more.’ I can assure you that he will get even better.”
He added: “I deeply hope that he does something big and beautiful in Qatar. I hope he helps Serbia by becoming one of the World Cup’s top scorers.”
Proving the Premier League doubters wrong is the next big step.
“If he finishes with between 12 and 15 goals, that will be a good season for Mitrovic,” said Davies.