LONDON — The thing about Aleksandar Mitrovic is that he’s not just a barrel-chested, clean-shaven, sharp-eyed striker. He’s not just a Serbian international, having been a fairly constant presence for his country for the better part of a decade. Nor is he simply a national hero, the scorer of the goal that sent his country to the World Cup.
It also turns out to be an existential question.
Rafael Benitez, one of Mitrovic’s long line of former managers, spends about 15 minutes discussing his former protégé’s conundrum when he hits it. “There’s a saying in Spain,” said Benitez, a man never short of an aphorism. “Better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion.”
Mitrovic has to decide, Benitez said, if that is enough for him.
Few players have such a different dichotomy as Mitrovic. In alternate years, with his club Fulham moving in and out of the Premier League every year since 2018, the 27-year-old forward has at times been one of the most ruthless players in European football, an unrelenting goalscorer. Score machine and others stuck motor, dull blade, inefficient and anonymous.
The difference, of course, is the division where it occurs. Mitrovic’s record in the second tier championship is unmatched. He scores an average of every 117 minutes. He is already 12th on the division’s all-time scoring list. Last year he played 44 matches and scored 43 goals. No one has ever scored more goals in a single Championship season. The previous record was 31.
That his results should be reduced in the Premier League, where Fulham will return again this season, is not surprising. After all, he will be facing a higher caliber defender and Fulham, a cruiserweight sort of club, will struggle to create as many chances for him. It’s natural that Mitrovic should struggle to score so many goals: 11 goals in his first season at Fulham and just three in his last.
However, the scale of the decline is noteworthy. By the time Fulham were last relegated in 2021, Mitrovic was only a temporary part of the team. A player who was too good for the Championship was apparently not good enough for the Premier League.
He is not the only one who has fallen into the same predicament. Instead, Mitrovic is simply the starkest illustration of the dilemma facing a group of players and, increasingly, a select few at clubs, including Fulham. They represent perhaps the most pressing issue facing English football at the dawn of the new Premier League season: the teams lost somewhere between the tail of a mouse and the tail of a lion.
Rick Parry has stopped using the term “parachute payments”. It might have been designed that way – a way to soften the economic blow for teams relegated from the Premier League, a safety net for losing the huge TV revenue guaranteed by the former – but it’s no longer. their influence.
Instead, Perry, chairman of the Football League, the body that oversees English football’s second, third and fourth tiers, gave the payments a name that better reflected their effect. The three years of additional revenue, totaling $110 million, now function as “trampoline payments,” Parry said.
Fulham provide a relevant example. The contrast in Mitrovic’s fortunes in the Premier League and the Championship is so easy to see as he has spent the last four seasons in between: Fulham relegated in 2019, promoted in 2020, relegated again, promoted again.
Norwich City (promoted in 2019 and 2021, relegated in 2020 and 2022) did the same, while Watford (relegated in 2020 and 2022, promotion in between) and Bournemouth (relegation in 2020, promotion this spring) proved only marginally better. less volatile.
That these teams should monopolize advertising space is no surprise to Parry. It’s not just that the money they get from the Premier League allows them to run a budget far higher than most of their opponents in the Championship. It’s the fact that so many teams in the division now receive these payments.
Trampoline clubs have occupied so many promotion and relegation slots in recent years that only five of the division’s 24 clubs – the three relegated from the Premier League last season, as well as West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United – will receive a parachute payment. this year.
For most of the rest, automatic promotion is practically unavailable.
“Championship is a great league,” Perry said. “It’s incredibly competitive and unpredictable, until you recognize that two of the relegated teams will come straight back.”
While he sees the division’s play-offs – which widen the pool of promotion hopes before stifling the dreams of one of them – as “a saving grace, giving everyone a purpose”, he believes entrenched inequality serves to make the owners unsustainable. They tried to spend and level the playing field. “There’s a sense that you need to overinvest,” he said.
But while the ongoing health of the Championship is Perry’s central concern, he insists predictability should also be a source of anxiety for the Premier League. “It’s a problem for them, too,” he said. Its 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, then some of the drama is lost. “
As always at the dawn 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’ relegation in 2019 and 2021. He is confident that he can avoid the same meals. “We have to write a different story,” he told The Athletic.
Like all teams caught on the edge of English football’s great cliff, however, the balance is delicate. Fulham, like Watford and Norwich before them, need to spend enough money to have a chance of staying in the Premier League, but not so much that – if they fail – they jeopardize the future of the club. (A lavish run after promotion in 2020 has produced such spectacular results that the idea of recruiting too seriously in preparation for the Premier League has entered the lexicon as “doing Fulham”.)
The watchword for most of these clubs is “sustainability,” said Lee Darnbrough, a scout and analyst who has spent much of his career working with teams trying to walk the fine line between the Premier League and the Championship. Darnbrough spent time at Norwich, Burnley and West Brom before landing his current job as head of recruitment at Hull City.
At West Brom – English football’s most traditional yo-yo club – the search for sustainability has prompted the team’s executives to commit to a place among the country’s “top 25” teams, Darnbrough said: neither a place in the Premier League nor a place. Getting a slot in the championship.
“In my time, we haven’t finished higher than 17th in the Premier League and lower than fourth in the Championship,” he said. “It was so sustainable. I wouldn’t say we were comfortable with it, but we knew where we stood. The challenge was to avoid yo-yoing 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 like Crystal Palace and (more spectacularly) Leicester City have managed in recent years. “The problem is knowing what stage you’re in,” Darnbrough said. “Once you stand on your feet, you can’t immediately remove the shackles.”
For a whole bunch of teams, that point may never really come. Parachute payments can distort the Championship, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to what a team earns after playing in the Premier League for three, four or five years in a row.
This, Perry said, creates a cycle in which teams that quit always come back. “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, between the mouse’s head and the lion’s tail.