Aleksandar Mitrović: A rejuvenated Premier League striker out to prove a point – tactical analysis
Having bounced straight back to the Premier League from the Championship, Fulham faced off against the runners-up of the Premier League and Champions League on matchday one. There is always scepticism about Fulham, who have been in purgatory between the top flights in England. However, could this be the season Fulham finally avoid relegation?
With Marco Silva in charge and a Serbian striker who bagged 43 goals in 44 games in the Championship, the opening game at Craven Cottage was going to be the first test. Aleksandar Mitrović continued his fine form as he ran the Liverpool defence ragged, scoring 2 goals to give his team a well-deserved point to kick off their campaign.
The 2-2 draw said a lot about both teams, but more importantly, displayed the firepower that Mitrović might finally bring after his previous four stints in the Premier League being rather dismal. This tactical analysis in the form of a scout report will break down the movement in and around the box, the build-up play, long ball tactics and the Serbian international’s role in defence, to showcase the full package that Mitrović brings to The Cottagers.
Movement in and around the box
Aleksandar Mitrović is well known for his aerial ability in the box. Because of his strength and height, what he is less acknowledged for is his intelligent movement to open up the opportunities to score in and around the penalty area.
Against Liverpool, he crafted two goals in a completely different fashion. The Serbian’s first goal came in the 31st minute, as Fulham hit Jurgen Klopp’s side on the break. With Liverpool outnumbering the home side, Reed played Kebano down the right-hand side looking to cross the ball in for their target man.
At this stage of the attack, Mitrović is lurking in between the midfield and defensive line, parallel to the back post. This gives Liverpool a difficult decision to make. With Fulham’s biggest aerial threat completely unmarked and Alexander-Arnold already marking another Fulham player, Mitrović is left free on the fullback’s blind side. Mitrović now has the advantage over Alexander-Arnold, who potentially didn’t respect Mitrović’s ability or wasn’t aware of his presence at the back post.
As the ball was whipped in, Alexander-Arnold and Mitrović meet simultaneously at the back stick but, by now, there was little the fullback could do with the Serbian running onto the ball and towering above Alexander-Arnold to score his first ever goal on the opening game of the season.
This is going to be a regular feature of Mitrović’s Premier League goals, as he targets the blind side of defenders aiming to run onto the ball from the back post. In the Liverpool game alone there were over 4 instances of Mitrović situating himself on the blindside of his nearest defender to find himself free at the back post. Even if he only connects with one cross, that one is enough to make a difference in the game.
The threat of Mitrović’s presence in the box has been his go-to weapon for scoring goals and is his biggest strength as a target number nine. On Saturday, the Serbian showcased the new weapon in his armoury as he took on defenders and dribbled into the box to carve out his own chances.
Carrying the ball
Previously, Mitrović wouldn’t have attempted to take on players as his sole purpose was to link other players into the game and get into the box. This new part of Mitrović’s game transforms his skillset allowing him to remain unpredictable when he attacks and builds up the play.
As a player who rarely gets back to defend, he is always the quickest option for his teammates to play the ball to in order to get some respite. With his ability to run at a defence, leaving him one versus one is a dangerous game.
This was the first warning sign that Liverpool had, which indicated Mitrović is prepared to run at the defence. In the 55th minute, the Serbian came back to challenge for a 50/50 in his defensive third. Successfully beating Henderson to the ball, Mitrović started to break towards the Liverpool goal as van Dijk looked to slow the Fulham striker down.
Now faced with the Dutch centre-back, Mitrović darted past van Dijk, putting him off balance. By now, Liverpool players were flooding around him, so after a cheeky Cruyff turn to evade a van Dijk leg, he released the ball to Andreas Pereira who was on the outside of the Liverpool back four.
The shot from Pereira was blocked, but this was great hold-up play by the Serbian to carry the ball forward and set his team off on a counterattack. Even if Mitrović lacks the pace to get beyond the last defender, he can continue to carry the ball up the pitch and give his team time to join the attack.
For his second goal, Mitrović was making a run in behind the Merseyside back four with Van Dijk playing the Fulham number nine onside. The ball over the top for him to run onto was the perfect opportunity to once again run at van Dijk, who was trying to slow down Mitrović to allow Alexander-Arnold and his defence to get back.
By the time Mitrović had carried the ball to the edge of the box, Alexander-Arnold had already got back but just a few seconds too late. Mitrović fakes to cut inside van Dijk but instead takes the ball towards goal and wins a penalty as he is fouled by a sloppy outstretched leg. It is rare to see van Dijk so flustered in a one-versus-one, so if Mitrović can cause the Dutchman to give away a penalty when they hadn’t for the entirety of last season, it shows he can do this against any defender.
Mitrović can clearly carry the ball from deep and run in behind a defence to cause problems. The next aspect of the match against Liverpool was the Serbian’s role in the build-up for Marco Silva’s side.
As with many of the newly promoted Premier League teams, playing out from the back can be difficult even if this was the team’s playstyle in the Championship. With this in mind, Marco Silva uses Mitrović to deploy a long ball playstyle because of the 27-year-old’s aerial and hold-up ability.
While long balls are never a guarantee of controlled possession, Marco Silva chooses to position Mitrović in the wide channel, as the ball is aimed solely towards him.
In doing this, it reduces the chances of the ball returning into a dangerous area and limits the places Liverpool can head the ball because anything that goes out for a Fulham throw is a success as they have progressed to the opposition half. The touchline also makes it easier to win second balls because of the reduced area for the ball to land. Alongside this, with the Serbian positioned out wide, it provides the opportunity for another player to take up the space in the centre of the pitch to start an attack off of the second ball.
If Mitrović does keep possession of the ball, he has the ability to offload the ball to another player who can spray it, or he can take the initiative himself by playing balls in behind for the players who are on the shoulder of the defence.
With the game plan from Marco Silva, suiting the qualities that Mitrović possesses, there is no doubt that Fulham will catch more teams out from their long balls even if they know the tactic. With everything the Serbian brings to the table going forward, to see his full effect on the team, his defensive input needs to be part of the analysis.
For Mitrović, defending is not something he focuses on and Marco Silva recognises this through his tactics. There are two main roles for the Serbian in defence which are extremely common for all traditional number nines.
The first role is to block passing lanes when the opposition, Liverpool in this case, are playing the ball around the back. The key in blocking the passing lanes is to show the opposition backwards or around the outside of the defensive shape, this makes it easier for the defending team to contain the ball down one side of the pitch.
When Mitrović has cut off the passing options, he angles his body so that he can intercept the ball or press the centre-back if there is any opportunity to win the ball. Against the top teams in the league, there will be fewer opportunities, but it may lead to a few goals throughout the season.
The pressing from Mitrović had a slight effect on Liverpool, as the Serbian would target van Dijk or Allison to force a mistake providing Fulham with possession high up the pitch. Even if no mistake was forced, Mitrović pressed aggressively, looking to get in contact with the opponent as this may frustrate the defender, making them lose their head or causing the defender to panic when they are pressed by Mitrović later in the match.
The downside to Mitrović’s press is his laboured recovery to get back onside. This can cause Fulham to lack an outlet up front when they are defending. In future matches, this may put more on the Fulham defence as they struggle to get the ball to safety while Mitrović is returning to his position.
Surprisingly, Liverpool struggled a few times against this Fulham press, as they would be a team that are expected to be able to play through a high press with the quality they have in the squad. For Mitrović, defending is not a key focus of his game but it is something Marco Silva will hope the Serbian can play a part in as they will need everyone working as a team against every opponent.
With the intelligence Mitrović displayed in this match, there is no doubt that he has the potential to beat his personal best of 11 goals in one Premier League campaign. Against the best defenders in the world, the Serbian wreaked havoc and made the Liverpool backline look ordinary.
Although Mitrović has performed very well against one of the best teams in the league, there will be doubts as to whether he can keep up this quality for the entirety of the season which he has struggled to do in his previous campaigns. All of the questions surrounding the number nine will be uncovered in time. For now, Fulham must focus on their next opponent, Wolves, as they travel to Molineux with the hope of getting more points on the table.