LONDON — The thing about Aleksandar Mitrovic is that he’s not just a striker, with a barrel-shaped torso, shaved head and sharp eyes. He is not just a Serbia international, a fairly constant presence for his country for the better part of a decade. Nor is he just a national hero, the goal scorer of the goal that sent his country to the World Cup.
He is also, it turns out, an existential question.
Rafael Benítez, one of Mitrovic’s long line of former managers, has spent about 15 minutes pondering the enigma of his former protégé when he notices it. “There is a saying in Spain,” said Benítez, a man who always has an aphorism. “It is better to be the head of the mouse than the tail of the lion.”
What Mitrovic has to decide, Benítez said, is whether that is enough for him.
Few players show such a clear dichotomy as Mitrovic. In the years when his club, Fulham, has been in and out of the Premier League yo-yo every year since 2018, the 27-year-old attacker has at times been one of the most ruthless finishers in European football, scoring an unrelenting goal. scoring machine, and sometimes a stalled engine, a dull blade, ineffective and anonymous.
The difference, of course, is the division he is in. In the second championship, Mitrovic’s record is unmatched. He scores an average of every 117 minutes. He is already in twelfth place on the division’s all-time scoring list. Last year he made 44 appearances and scored 43 goals. No one has ever scored more goals in a single Championship season. The previous record was 31.
That his output in the Premier League, where Fulham will return again this season, should decline, is no surprise. After all, he will face a higher caliber defender, and Fulham, a cruiserweight club of sorts, will struggle to create so many opportunities for him. It makes sense, then, that Mitrovic struggles to score so many goals: 11 goals in his first top-level season at Fulham and just three in his last.
What stands out, however, is the size of the drop-off. By the time Fulham were last relegated, in 2021, Mitrovic was just a fleeting part of the team. A player who was far too good for the Championship turned out not to be good enough for the Premier League.
He is not the only one in the same dilemma. Mitrovic is instead simply the starkest illustration of a dilemma facing a large number of players and, increasingly, a select team of clubs, including Fulham. They represent perhaps the most pressing issue facing English football at the start of a new Premier League season: the teams getting lost somewhere between the mouse’s head and the lion’s tail.
Rick Parry has stopped using the term “parachute payments.” That’s how they may have been designed – a way to cushion the economic blow to teams coming out of the Premier League and landing in the Championship, a safety net for losing the huge television revenues guaranteed by the former – but it catches the eye. no longer their influence.
Instead, Parry, the chairman of the English Football League, the body that oversees the second, third and fourth tiers of English football, has given the payments a name that better reflects their impact. The three years of extra income, totaling $110 million, now act as “trampoline payments,” Parry said.
Fulham provides a striking example. The reason it’s so easy to see the contrast between Mitrovic’s fortunes in the Premier League and the Championship is because he’s jumped between them over the past four seasons: Fulham were relegated in 2019, promoted in 2020, relegated again, got his doctorate again.
Norwich City have done much the same (promoted in 2019 and 2021, relegated in 2020 and 2022), while Watford (relegated in 2020 and 2022, promoted in between) and Bournemouth (relegated in 2020, promoted this spring) have proved very little. less volatile.
Parry is not surprised that those teams would monopolize the promotion places. It’s not just that the money they receive from the Premier League allows them to have much higher budgets than the majority of their championship opponents. It’s the fact that so few teams in the division are now getting those payments.
The trampoline clubs are responsible for so many promotions and relegations in recent years that only five teams – the three that were expelled from the Premier League last season, as well as West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United – of the division’s 24 clubs will receive parachute payments this year.
In fact, for most others, automatic promotion is out of reach.
“The championship is a great competition,” said Parry. “It’s incredibly competitive and unpredictable as long as you accept that two of the relegated teams will move right back up.”
While he sees the division playoffs – which increase the pool of hopeful promotions before crushing the dreams of everyone but one – as a “saving grace that gives everyone a target,” he believes the deep-seated inequality serves to trick owners into unsustainable spending to try to level the playing field. “There’s a feeling that you have to over-invest,” he said.
But while the ongoing health of the championship is Parry’s main concern, he argues that predictability should also be a source of fear for the Premier League. “It’s a problem for them too,” he said. “The selling point is how competitive it is: for the title, for the Champions League places, at the bottom. If you know which teams are going down, then some of the drama is lost.”
The top 25
As always, at the start of a new season, there is a belief at Fulham that the cycle can be broken. Marco Silva, the club’s fourth manager in four years, is studying the root causes of his predecessors’ demotions in 2019 and 2021. He is confident he can avoid the same pitfalls. “We have to write a different story,” he told The Athletic.
However, like all those teams that got caught on the big cliff of English football, the balance is delicate. Fulham, like Watford and Norwich before them, need to spend enough money to stand a chance of staying in the Premier League, but not spend so much that – in the event of failure – the club’s future is jeopardized. (The lavish spree undertaken after promotion in 2020 failed so spectacularly that the idea of recruiting too heavily in preparation for the Premier League has entered the lexicon as ‘doing a Fulham’.)
For most of those clubs, the key word is ‘sustainability’, says Lee Darnbrough, a scout and analyst who has spent much of his career working for teams trying to tread the thin line between the Premier League and the Championship. Darnbrough spent time in Norwich, Burnley and West Brom before taking up his current job as head of recruitment at Hull City.
At West Brom – English football’s most traditional yo-yo club – the quest for sustainability led team managers to budget for a place among the ‘top 25’ teams in the country, Darnbrough said: neither taking a place in the Premier League nor accepting a place in the Championship.
“In my time we didn’t finish higher than 17th in the Premier League or lower than fourth in the championship,” he said. “So it was sustainable. I wouldn’t say we were comfortable with it, but we knew what we were in for. The challenge was to avoid yo-yos between divisions, but we knew the parameters.”
The ambition, of course, was always to find a way to survive that first season, to make the club something of a fixture, as Crystal Palace and (more spectacularly) Leicester City have done in recent years. “The problem is knowing where you’re located,” Darnbrough said. “You can’t stay up just once and take the cuffs off right away.”
For a whole host of teams, that point may never really come. Parachute payments can disrupt the championship, but they are a drop in the ocean compared to what a team has earned after playing three, four or five consecutive years in the Premier League.
That, Parry said, creates a cycle where the teams that come up are always likely to go down again. “There’s a reason why Premier League clubs love parachute payments,” he said.
Fulham and Bournemouth, like Watford and Norwich and West Brom before them, are trapped in the same no man’s land as Mitrovic, caught between the mouse’s head and the lion’s tail.