Aleksandar Mitrovic surpassing Ivan Toney’s Championship goalscoring record felt inevitable since he started finding the net regularly under Marco Silva. The Serbian sped past the Brentford striker’s mark with a first-half penalty against Peterborough last night and made sure of the three points after the break with a volley that carried far more firepower in a side-footed finish than it looked. True to his insatiable appetite for goals, Mitrovic was disappointed after the final whistle not to complete his hat trick. He’s always set high standards for himself – and is clearly enjoying his football again.
The 27 year-old is a much more mature and confident man than the one who initially turned up at Craven Cottage on loan from Newcastle. Lured to London by the prospect of a reunion with his compatriot Slavisa Jokanovic, Mitrovic’s career was at a crossroads. He had been unable to establish himself as a regular in the Premier League with Newcastle and plainly wasn’t Rafa Benitez’s type of forward. The goals hadn’t exactly flowed on Tyneside, but after a slow start he powered Fulham’s promotion push with twelve goals in 20 games – playing a full part in a remarkable 23-match unbeaten run and the way the Whites went up through the play-offs.
He thrived off the warmth from the Fulham fanbase and, something crucially overlooked by those who suggest he’ll never replicate these extraordinary goalscoring feats in the top flight, he found the net eleven times in a dismal season where the Whites looked out of their depth from the off, despite being led by three different managers. He made have managed 26 goals the following season – and claimed the Championship golden boot – but you always felt he was rather suffocated by Scott Parker’s sterile football and proof that the rookie manager didn’t trust his number nine arrived the following year. Mitrovic, in the process of breaking the Serbian national goalscoring record, started only three league games and was left kicking his heels as an impotent Fulham outfit went down without a whimper.
There was a very real possibility that Fulham’s talisman would be playing his football elsewhere had Parker’s infatuation with Bournemouth not come to fruition in the close season. Instead, his remarkable predatory instincts have been fully utilised by Silva: who recognised that a striker with these attributes should be the focal point of an attacking side. Yes, it is in the second tier, but Mitrovic’s rate of goalscoring has been remarkable. He now has 33 in 30 league games this season, but his deployment has changed dramatically. He is free to roam around the field, drop into pockets of space to create room for areas, and make his own late runs all the trickier for terrified centre halves to pick up.
Mitrovic’s vision and passing has also been underrated by the pundits who pigeon hole him as ‘a typical old-fashioned centre forward’. In Silva’s fluid 4-2-3-1, he frequently starts attacks as often as he finishes them. The goal Fabio Carvalho scored at Manchester City in the FA Cup owed everything to a beautifully weighted ball to Harry Wilson, whilst the Welshman was also the beneficiary of a sublime bit of skill when he put a goal on a plate for Neeskens Kebano at Reading last month. Mitrovic now averages around 26 passes a game and has seven assists to his name: he looks both fitter and more mobile under Silva and is an integral part of Fulham’s pressing game, a role Parker professed him unable to perform.
In his remarks after the win over Peterborough, Mitrovic played down the significance of overhauling Toney in the context of the promotion. The ultimate team man, the Serbian insisted that returning to winning ways after the weekend slip-up against Huddersfield was more important. He’s told the Athletic that any celebration can wait until the end of the season once the Whites are holding up the league trophy. Mitrovic is such a rich vein of form, who knows how many goals he’ll have got by then? George Camsell’s all-time second tier record of 59 feels out of reach, but he should be able to beat Guy Whittingham’s 42 from 1992/93. There’s also the prospect of reaching a century of Fulham goals – he needs fourteen to bring up that landmark too.