After a dire start to the 2015-16 season, Steve McClaren’s damned United seemed to have turned a corner come October. A fantastic 6-2 rout over Norwich saw Newcastle grab their first league win of the season and according to the manager, things had ‘clicked’.
A bright spark going into the Sunderland game was a certain Aleksandar Mitrovic, scorer of two in the last two games. One of the most passionate players of recent times had earned himself a lot of early love, and his performances were beginning to repay that.
A certain optimism was gained and some momentary hope re-established at St James’ Park.
Yet this confidence plummeted. What followed was a crushing defeat to bitter rivals and so began the attempts to piece together a crumbling club. A messy McClaren system gave way to a dressing room revolt and the rest is history best forgotten.
However, when all else was failing, the 6ft2 striker continued to capture the attention of many. A stunning goal against Manchester City and the impact made with a brace against Norwich, were enough to get fans excited for his upcoming season under a better management.
Calls were being made to hand the youngster the ‘Number 9’ shirt despite many stating he still had to earn it. What was clear though was that Mitrovic was going nowhere and his love for the club continued to put him in the fans’ good books.
His past had also put him at postitive stead. 36 goals in 69 games for Anderlecht proved to be a slightly higher goals-per-game ratio than a certain Romelu Lukaku during his time there.
With the fans’ backing, Mitrovic was ready to have a stormer, whilst supposedly facing weaker opposition under a far superior manager. The stage was set.
Fast forward to the summer of 2017 and an unanimous sigh can be heard when discussing Mitrovic‘s 2016-2017 performance. 29 appearances would see him bag a disappointing 6 goals and 6 assists in all competitions.
Pages have been turned and the book even closed by some, as the Newcastle faithful have become less keen, many calling for him to be sold.
The Championship was an undeniable struggle for the Serbian striker. His influence was sparse and he often went missing during games. Where was the young bull from the previous season? Looking back now, has his time run out already?
Looking at both seasons, stats show significant differences in many areas. One of the main being the total game time given.
This season, the striker only started 11 of his 29 appearances, clocking 1,349 mins of game time in all competitions. That is just under a thousand minutes less than his time in the Premier League.
Bad spells included a dire total of only 26 mins in 10 games after the 1-0 loss during the Christmas and new year period. It can be said without any uncertainty that Mitrovic had a poor season in front of goal, his 40% shot accuracy proving to be the worst from any striker in the side.
There even came a time when Daryl Murphy was trusted ahead of him, in vital games such as Huddersfield away.
Yet in a league much more reliant on physicality than the Premier League, defenders knew what to expect from Mitrovic. Accompanied with Rafa’s system, the striker often found himself in a role where goals weren’t a priority.
Benitez is not shy of using strikers with a strong physical presence who aren’t natural finishers. For Liverpool, he signed and played the 6ft6 Peter Crouch who appeared in over 100 games for the Spaniard, despite bad spells such as his 14-game goalless run.
The former England international went on to bag his fair share of goals, but Crouch’s main influence involved drawing defenders out of position and creating chances.
An example of Mitrovic doing this can be seen in the 1-1 draw to Leeds. The towering Pontus Jansson, arguably one of the better defenders in the league, was constantly on the look-out for the attacker. In the end, Newcastle’s man caused all sorts of trouble and even provided the assist.
The particular game itself was said to have missed the presence of a certain Dwight Gayle, who had a phenomenal season notching 23 goals in 34 appearances.
This brought about a lot of criticism directed towards the club’s other strikers. A high bar had been set in stone, as the Englishman significantly surpassed Mitrovic’s form in front of goal.
Gayle went on to play nearly double of his team mate’s game time, and understandably so. These numbers don’t come as a surprise, and have been the source of much speculation surrounding the future of NUFC’s number 45.
£13 million is a lot for a player who isn’t going to guarantee you goals and many fans see him as an expensive risk going into next season. Reports have suggested that his time is up and Benitez will look to cash in. A move which would make financial sense if he doesn’t fit the manager’s plans.
Arriving at Newcastle as an unfinished product, he has failed to set the world alight with his performances, for sure. Yet what the striker has done is improve in areas he desperately needed to.
The overly-passionate player ended the 2015-16 season as a loose cannon, ultimately having to start this past season on a 4 game suspension. Ridiculous fouls, on-field tantrums and unnecessary confrontations were a part of his game.
A staggering 35 yellows and 4 reds preceded him before his arrival in England. This was followed by two more reds in his debut season.
Yet look ahead to this summer and Mitrovic’s last red card remains the same one he received over a year ago. Championship referees have only had to hand out three yellows to him this season, an incredibly low amount in what has probably been a very frustrating season individually.
In addition to this, his movement and work-rate has also been on the rise. He won 44% of his one-on-one duels in the Championship, more than any other striker at the club.
Writing him off at this stage would be premature. Why not give him a chance to play in the top division with a side that actually has a working system? He has a lot to concentrate on, especially when it comes to his goal scoring, but some big changes this season paint the picture of a man who is working hard to improve.
At 22 years of age, time is on his side. Things are put into perspective when compared to players such as Manchester United’s Anthony Martial, who is considered one of the brightest talents in the world.
Making his premier league debut the same year as NUFC’s main man, the Frenchman only scored a handful more goals from the same position, in a far more talented & organized side.
For Serbia, Mitrovic is an indispensable player for international manager Slavoljub Muslin, having scored five in the last four World Cup Qualification games. The striker has the work ethic and the ability to be unearthed, the question remains as to who has the tools to do so. What better man than Rafa Benitez to wield them.