LONDON. The peculiarity of Alexander Mitrovic is that he is not just a striker with a barrel-shaped chest, a shaved head and a sharp look. He’s not just a Serbian international with a fairly consistent presence in his country for the better part of a decade. Nor is he just a national hero, a scorer who sent his country to the World Cup.
It also appears to be an existential question.
Rafael Benítez, one of Mitrovic’s former managers, has been pondering the riddle of his former protégé for about 15 minutes when it hits him. “There is a saying in Spain,” said Benítez, a man who has always known aphorisms. “Better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion.”
According to Benitez, Mitrovic must decide if this is enough for him.
Few players present such a distinct dichotomy as Mitrovic. Since 2018, with his club Fulham cycling in and out of the Premier League since 2018, the 27-year-old striker has at times been one of the most relentless finishers in European football, a relentless goal scoring. a scoring machine, while others have a stalled engine, dull paddle, ineffective and nameless.
The difference, of course, is in the division in which he is located. In the second tier championship, Mitrovic’s record is unmatched. He scores an average goal every 117 minutes. He is already the 12th top scorer in the division. Last year he played 44 matches and scored 43 goals. No one has ever scored more goals in a single league season. The previous record was 31.
That his performance in the Premier League, where Fulham will return again this season, should decrease is hardly a surprise. After all, he will have to face a higher caliber defender and Fulham, the heavyweight club, will struggle to create so many chances for him. So it’s only natural that Mitrovic has to struggle to score so many goals: 11 goals in his first season in the top flight for Fulham and only three in his last.
What is remarkable, however, is the scale of the fallout. At a time when Fulham were last relegated in 2021, Mitrovic was just a passing part of the team. A player who was too good for the league wasn’t good enough for the premier league.
He’s not the only one in the same predicament. Instead, Mitrovic is simply a stark illustration of the dilemma faced by many players and, increasingly, a select cadre of clubs, including Fulham. They represent perhaps the most pressing problem facing English football as the new Premier League season dawns: teams that have gotten lost somewhere between a mouse’s head and a lion’s tail.
Rick Parry stopped using the term parachute payments. Perhaps that’s how they were meant to be – a way to cushion the economic blow for teams that exited the Premier League and landed in the Championship, a safety net in case they lose their fixed-TV income, guaranteed first – but it no longer covers their impact.
Instead, Parry, 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 effect. Three years of $110 million in extra income now functions as “trampoline payouts,” Parry said.
Fulham provides a suitable example. The reason it’s so easy to see the contrast in Mitrovic’s fortunes in the Premier League and Championship is because he’s spent the last four seasons bouncing between them: Fulham relegated in 2019, promoted in 2020 , flew out again, rose 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 ” (down in 2020, up this spring) showed only marginal results. less volatile.
That these teams have to monopolize promotional spots doesn’t surprise Parry. It’s not just that the money they get from the Premier League allows them to manage budgets much higher than most of their Championship rivals. The fact is that so few teams in the division are now receiving these payments.
Trampoline clubs have accounted for so many promotion and relegation spots in recent years that only five teams – three relegated from the Premier League last season plus West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United – out of the division’s 24 clubs will receive parachutes. payments. this year.
For most of the rest, automatic promotion is practically unavailable.
“The Championship is a great league,” Parry said. “It’s incredibly competitive and unpredictable if you agree that the two relegated teams will immediately come back to the top.”
While he views the division playoffs, which widen the pool of promotion contenders before shattering the dreams of all but one of them, as “saving grace giving everyone else a purpose,” he believes that ingrained inequalities are driving owners to unsustainable spending to try to level the playing field. “There is a feeling that you need to reinvest,” he said.
But while the continued health of the championship is Parry’s main concern, he argues that predictability should be a source of concern for the Premier League as well. “This is also a problem for them,” he said. “The essence of his sale is how competitive he is: for the title, for places in the Champions League, at the very bottom. If you know which teams are losing, then part of the drama is lost.”
As always, at the dawn of a new season, Fulham are convinced that the vicious circle can be broken. Marco Silva, the club’s fourth manager in four years, is looking into the reasons for his predecessors’ relegations in 2019 and 2021. He is confident that he can avoid the same loopholes. “We have to write a different story,” he said. Athletic.
However, as with all those teams that are stuck on the brink of English football, the balance is fragile. Fulham, like Watford and Norwich before, needs to spend enough money to have a chance to stay in the Premier League, but not to spend so much that – if they fail – the club’s future is in jeopardy. (The lavish fun taken after the 2020 promotion backfired so badly that the idea of hiring too hard in preparation for the Premier League has entered the lexicon as “do Fulham.”)
For most of these clubs, the motto is “sustainable development,” said Lee Darnbrough, a scout and analyst who has spent most of his career working for teams trying to draw the fine line between the Premier League and the Championship. Darnbrough spent time at Norwich, Burnley and West Brom before moving on to his current job as head of recruiting at Hull City.
At West Bromwich – England’s most traditional yo-yo football club – the desire for sustainability has led team management to budget a spot among the “top 25” teams in the country, Darnbrough said: neither a Premier League place nor a slots in the Championship.
“In my day, we didn’t finish higher than 17th in the Premier League or lower than fourth in the Championship,” he said. “It was sustainable. I would not say that it suited us, but we knew what we were standing on. The challenge was to avoid yo-yos between divisions, but we knew the parameters.”
The ambition, of course, has always been to find a way to survive that first season, to turn the club into something of a fixture, as clubs like Crystal Palace and (more spectacularly) Leicester City have done in recent years. “The problem is knowing at what point you established yourself,” Darnbrough said. “You can’t get up once and immediately remove the shackles.”
For a whole group of teams, this point may never come. Parachute fees can skew the championship, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to what the team has earned after three, four or five straight years in the Premier League.
This, Parry says, creates a cycle in which teams that move up are always more likely to back down. “There’s a reason Premier League clubs love parachute payouts,” he said.
Fulham and Bournemouth, like Watford, Norwich and West Brom before them, fell into the same no-man’s streak as Mitrovic, stuck between a mouse’s head and a lion’s tail.