How to Solve a Problem Like Aleksandar
Calls for Aleksandar Mitrovic to be brought on were loud and clear from Newcastle United supporters this weekend. as they looked for an elusive goal that never came.
Rafa Benitez opted otherwise, looking for Ayoze Perez and Jacob Murphy to provide the impetus needed for a decisive goal, but it was not to be.
Benitez came out after the match and stated that he did not feel that Mitrovic would have had the desired impact on the game, stating that he was looking for different movements and that Perez offered that.
The death knell at Newcastle United seems to have chimed for the Serbian striker, who was somewhat prolific during the World Cup Qualification campaign. His persistent non-inclusion has led to many fans believing his time on Tyneside may well be up – and there are a variety of theories as to why that is the case.
Mitrovic promised so much upon signing for the club in 2015, boasting Champions League pedigree and a handsome goal return for Anderlecht in the Belgian League. Subsequent mismanagement under Steve McClaren and a relegation meant that a year later, the Serb was largely tarnished with the same brush as many of United’s – at the time – disinterested players. People from outside the club viewed Mitrovic as the striker who could not keep Newcastle in the league, despite his nine league goals that season.
Many fans and pundits consider Mitrovic to not be at the required standard to lead a Premier League attack. He has been given plenty of opportunities with so-so form. Goals come in fits and starts but the calls for his inclusion have not wavered. His passion being a key factor in why he is held so dearly in some fans’ hearts and minds but also his downfall with others.
Another reason for his lack of gametime under Benitez is exactly that, his passion – or rather how he channels it. Mitrovic was lucky to escape a red card on his club debut against Southampton in August 2015 as he was introduced from the bench before kicking Saints player Matt Targett in the air only seconds after he had stepped onto the pitch. Mitrovic’ ill-temper is something that has given him somewhat of a reputation in English football.
Following the Southampton match, in Newcastle’s next home game, Mitrovic saw red for a challenge on Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin just sixteen minutes into the match. Already by this point, Mitrovic was beginning to gain a ‘bad boy’ tag.
Mitrovic’ passion and desire often gets the better of him, which often results in losing control. One example of this is in the Tyne-Wear derby 1-1 draw in which he scored the equaliser. Following his 83rd minute goal, Mitrovic was forced off for treatment to a head injury.
Incensed at the prospect of being removed from the game, the striker squirmed on the touchline, demanding he returned to the field of play immediately which would have been going against the advice of Club Doctor Paul Catterson. A photograph captured of the clearly frustrated striker beside the dugout shows Benitez attempting to calm Mitrovic but to no avail.
In the pressure-cooker that is the Tyne-Wear derby, Benitez needed to know his players had the coolness of mind to remain on the pitch. This was clearly not being displayed.
Perhaps the main reason Mitrovic has failed to get the nod on a regular basis from Benitez is his judgement and ill-discipline. This was epitomised far too clearly and foolishly in the club’s final game of the season of the 2015-16 season, a game in which Newcastle were already relegated but somehow managed to demolish Champions League qualifying Spurs 5-1.
The match began brightly with Newcastle taking an early two-goal lead through Mitrovic and Georginio Wijnaldum, the former powering a smart header past Hugo Lloris.
The rest of the story was all too familiar to a fanbase who had witnessed Mitrovic’ hot-headedness for an entire season as he lashed out at Kyle Walker, raking his studs down the full-back’s shin and received a straight red card – his second of the season.
Not only was this deeply frustrating for the player, but also for Benitez, who most probably deemed the Serbian forward untrustworthy from that point forth. In a dead-rubber game with no significance, in which players should have been making their case to start the following season in Benitez’ starting XI, Mitrovic lost his cool yet again, entirely unnecessarily. Not only that, Mitrovic sabotaged his own chances of making a fist of his Newcastle United career as his second red of the season warranted a four-match ban, meaning he would miss the first four domestic matches of the following Championship season.
Dwight Gayle needed little invitation and cemented his position as resident number nine scoring 23 goals in the Championship, limiting Mitrovic to relative cameos and sporadic starts in cup competitions. At no point in the 2016-17 season were there vehement clamouring for Mitrovic’ involvement from Newcastle supporters, simply due to the form of Gayle and the rest of the team.
At present, Mitrovic has just thirty minutes of Premier League football this season, although he has scored against West Ham in the league and versus Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup. His minutes-to-goals ratio is impressive for a striker of just 23-years-old, but the fact remains of an overbearing feeling of mistrust between Benitez and the Serb.
Benitez has a history of turning to players and coaches he trusts.
His current number two Mikel Antia played under Benitez for Real Madrid ‘B’ and also for Real Valladolid where he was a mainstay at centre-back. Francisco de Miguel Moreno, known as ‘Paco’, another first team coach at United has worked alongside Benitez at Liverpool, Inter, Chelsea and Real Madrid. The list goes on but the gaffer has his trusted lieutenants.
Current Southampton manager Mauricio Pellegrino was a La Liga winner with Benitez at Valencia before joining up with him at Liverpool, first as a player then as a coach. Fabio Aurelio, another Spanish title winner alongside Benitez, joined up with the Spaniard at Anfield to much intrigue from Liverpool supporters, but the signing was soon justified.
In short, Benitez takes trust seriously and he places it in certain individuals who have earned it.
Aleksandar Mitrovic may be a fan favourite to certain sections of the fanbase but it is clear that Rafa is not his greatest admirer. Despite the minor goal drought of Joselu and Gayle at present, Mitrovic remains unlikely to be called upon.
Barring a remarkable turnaround in the form of the Serbian striker, an injury crisis, or Rafa to dramatically change his perception of Mitrovic, it is unlikely we will see him in a Newcastle United shirt too many more times this season.
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