The relief Aleksandar Mitrovic felt at scoring the winner against West Brom was obvious. The Newcastle frontman has found goals hard to come by in recent weeks; the Serbian guilty of missing some glorious opportunities as McClaren’s men struggle near the bottom of the Premiership table.
With 4 away games in the next 6 – a run that also features the home derby with Sunderland – and Newcastle in urgent need of points, fans are hoping that West Brom goal marks the turning point in Mitrovic’s fortunes in front of goal.
Due to the club’s present league position, it is hard for those who care about Newcastle’s fortunes to look beyond the next few weeks. If, like I do, you assume Newcastle will qualify for next season’s Premiership, then you see Mitrovic from a different perspective – rather than a striker struggling for goals, you see a player with the potential to become the successor to Alan Shearer that Newcastle have waited a decade for.
The majority of players who come to the Premiership from abroad take time to settle in. The considered opinion is that it takes at least a year to adapt to the increased pace and power of the English league. When you factor in the need to acclimatise to living in a new country – in a part of the country where the weather is considerably bleaker, and the local tongue is hard to understand – and Mitrovic’s young age, plus the pressure of the relegation situation, it makes sense why Mitrovic hasn’t quite exploded onto the scene. Relying on him to score 15-20 goals was always a risk.
What Mitrovic brings to Newcastle was highlighted in the opening half an hour against West Brom. With Mitrovic as the focal point, Newcastle tore into the Baggies from the first minute, creating several chances and having a goal disallowed before Mitrovic stroked home the winner. What’s more impressive is that he did so at a time when Geordie emotion threatened to affect the performance.
While all around were losing their heads due to the manner in which Cheick Tiote’s goal was disallowed, Mitrovic kept his composure to first find space between the centre-halves, before finishing one-on-one with a mature finish. Mitrovic’s forward play led to Newcastle creating 19 chances against West Brom; he also contributed defensively, most notably when clearing a corner in stoppage time in a Shearer-esque fashion, ending any hopes the visitors had of equalising.
Against Everton four days earlier, McClaren chose to play Ayoze Perez as a lone striker, dropping Mitrovic to the bench. What followed was an insipid Newcastle performance, with the Ross Barkley-inspired home team strolling to a 3-0 victory that flattered McClaren’s men. The difference between Everton and West Brom was the presence of Mitrovic.
When he’s on the bench, we don’t talk of how many chances Newcastle miss – we talk about how Newcastle go entire matches without creating goalscoring opportunities. We talk about the lack of fight in the Newcastle team. We use words like gutless, cowardly and embarrassing.
The experts agree that, as a striker, the time to worry is if you are not getting enough chances. The only thing Mitrovic is lacking is a touch of composure and decisiveness – these are qualities that will come naturally as he gets older, and becomes more comfortable with both the pace of the league and the style and ability of his team-mates.
Given Mitrovic’s passion, it could even be that he’s simply trying too hard; expect Mitrovic’s goal ratio to increase as Newcastle pull away from the relegation zone. His present lack of goals is causing anxiety on Tyneside, but the real cause for concern is that an immature 21 year-old, in his debut season in the most physically intense league in the world, is the only frontman around which the rest of McClaren’s team can operate effectively. For a club that has spent £80m in six months, that is simply scandalous.
At 21, Mitrovic has a career record of 74 goals in 180 matches. In two seasons in Belgium, he fired Anderlecht to the title one year, and was the league’s top scorer in the other. He has 2 goals in 18 international matches. To consider how Mitrovic might develop over time, we must compare him to other strikers, both past and present:
Ian Wright: Wright was 22 when he signed his first professional deal with Crystal Palace. He was 26 before he scored a top-flight goal. Wright went on to become Arsenal’s record goalscorer, until later usurped by Thierry Henry.
Les Ferdinand: Ferdinand was 23 when he scored his first QPR goal; he scored his first professional goals for Besiktas in Turkey at the age of 22, ending with a record there of 14 goals in 24 matches.
Didier Drogba: Drogba plied his trade in the French 2nd division until the age of 22. After 4 years in a sub-par Ligue 1 that was dominated by Lyon, he moved to the Premiership at the age of 26.
Thierry Henry: Henry signed for Arsenal at the age of 22; his record until then was 23 goals in 136 games, albeit many from a wide position.
Duncan Ferguson: Mitrovic has more career goals at the age of 21 than Ferguson had when he LEFT Newcastle at the age of 28.
Faustino Asprilla: In his only full season at Newcastle, an in-his-prime Asprilla registered four league goals. Mitrovic has exceeded that with three months of the season left.
Demba Ba: Ba moved to West Ham at the age of 26; Mitrovic has more career goals now than the 67 Ba had when entering the Premiership.
Diego Costa: When he joined Chelsea at age 25, Costa had scored only 64 career goals.
Harry Kane: Kane burst onto the scene last season, after struggling for selection in the years prior. Kane started last season age 21 – the same age Mitrovic starts next season.
Peter Beardsley: Another forward whose overall contribution was overshadowed by his lack of goals, especially at international level. Beardsley was a year older than Mitrovic is now when Newcastle signed him from Vancouver Whitecaps. Much as Beardsley was the reason Lineker was so prolific for England, Mitrovic’s work-rate has led to Georginio Wijnaldum becoming Newcastle’s highest-scoring Premiership midfielder in over 20 years – excluding Kevin Nolan’s 12-goal haul in 2010-11, which could still be beaten.
Jamie Vardy: The man that’s fired Leicester to the brink of the title made his Premiership debut last season. His record was 5 goals in 34 matches; Mitrovic has as many goals in February, from less games. Following a season of adapting, Vardy broke the Premiership record for consecutive matches scored in.
Alan Shearer: Shearer signed for Blackburn at 22 years old. His record at Southampton was 23 goals in 118 league games – significantly worse than Mitrovic, albeit at a higher level of football. While at Newcastle, Shearer had season records of 2 goals in 19 league matches (1997-98), 5 goals in 19 league matches (2000-2001) and 7 goals in 28 league matches (2004-05).
Mitrovic has given several demonstrations of his mental strength and potential: dominating Manchester United at Old Trafford on his first start; scoring a great diving header away at Manchester City and having another wrongly ruled out for offside; inspiring a 6-2 victory over Norwich where his forward play enabled Wijnaldum to run riot; coming off the bench at Tottenham Hotspur to turn a 1-0 defeat into a 2-1 victory; demanding to take the penalty, and scoring, against Manchester United at St. James’ Park despite a barren spell; against West Brom, he scored the winner that, perhaps, kept his manager in a job.
Is Mitrovic struggling? No. In a top six team – the level Newcastle should be aspiring towards – Mitrovic would be the exciting youngster brought off the bench. The only reason he is subject to such scrutiny at such an early age is the abject failure of fellow forwards Papiss Cisse and Siem de Jong to achieve fitness.
When joining Newcastle, Mitrovic spoke openly about his love for Newcastle United and his respect for Alan Shearer:
“Of all foreign clubs, it was never a secret, I love Newcastle United the most. I loved Alan Shearer, what a striker the man was.”
In October, Mitrovic said:
“This is the most special place for strikers to play. All strikers who score here are big players and they come after legends. It is an honour to be a striker here. I hope I have a lot of goals here to celebrate.”
When asked about Shearer’s goal record, he said:
“I have 204 goals to go – I have time. Shearer came here when he was 26 til 36. Why not?”
Mitrovic is five years off the age when Shearer joined Newcastle. He is, perhaps, seven years away from his prime. Assuming he plays for Newcastle until he’s 36, which he’s hinted at being his intention, Mitrovic has 15 years to score 202 goals and break Shearer’s record.
Even if he fails to achieve that ambitious target, there’s one other name worth comparing Mitrovic to: Wyn Davies. Another criticised for his lack of goals (with a record of 40 in 181 games at Newcastle), ‘Wyn the Leap’ threw everything at opponents, battering them physically, holding the ball up, bringing his teammates into the game and serving as the totem the rest of the team thrived around.
Despite his average scoring record, Wyn Davies was the last man to lead Newcastle to a trophy – the UEFA Fairs Cup in 1969.
Whether he develops into a Wyn Davies, a Les Ferdinand or an Alan Shearer, Aleksandar Mitrovic promises to be the Number 9 Newcastle have needed for ten years.
At last, the Newcastle fans have a leader they can believe in once more.
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