Like all great stories, this one begins with a dispute over Gala’s 1996 Eurodance hit ‘Freed from Desire’.
In the latter half of the 2015-16 season, Will Grigg was very much “on fire” in the English third tier. The Wigan fans’ irritating ear-worm of a chant honouring the striker’s hot streak even went international as it got several airings at that summer’s Euros in France (despite Grigg pleasing French firefighters by not playing a single minute for Northern Ireland at the tournament).
But Wigan fans didn’t invent the chant. Supporters of Sunderland and Stevenage have both staked a claim – although all that’s relevant to the matter at hand is that Newcastle fans were already bellowing out their own version. The player the Toon Army were boisterously serenading? Aleksandar Mitrović (‘Mitro’ for ease of lyrical adaptation) – whose return of nine goals in his first season at St. James’ Park hardly constituted an inferno.
Fast-forward to 2022, though, and Mitrović is performing at the prolific peak of his powers for Fulham. The 27-year-old Serb – whose 90th-minute winner against Portugal in November secured his country’s spot at this year’s World Cup – is burning out of control, topping the Championship scoring charts with 28 goals – in just 26 games.
Scoring at a rate of a goal every 81.04 minutes and playing an average of 87.26 minutes per game, Mitrović is currently on course to fall just one short of a 50-goal season. In any case, Guy Whittingham’s record for the most goals in a second-tier campaign during the Premier League era (42 for Portsmouth in 1992-93) looks highly likely to go, although George Camsell’s all-time record of 59 for Middlesbrough in 1926-27 is probably safe for another year. Mitrović has already found the net more times this season than the top scorer or scorers in 21 of the 29 second-tier seasons since 1992, one of which was himself with 26 in 2019-20 – when he beat Ollie Watkins, then of Brentford, to the Golden Boot on minutes per goal.
El Goals Did Flow
Evidently, Mitrović has excelled in the Championship in the past – but what he’s doing at the moment is next-level excellence. Of his 94 league goals in English football, 28 have come this term. But where has this scintillating streak come from?
Well, for starters, Fulham as a team are having a frankly ridiculous season on the goalscoring front. Marco Silva’s Championship leaders may have drawn 1-1 with mid-table Blackpool last time out, but they are averaging well over two goals per game – closer to three, in fact (2.64). In addition to a 5-1 thrashing of Huddersfield, they’ve scored four on four occasions, and struck six and seven twice each.
Last month saw Fulham put Reading to the sword in a 7-0 evisceration on the road, before going all WTA by recording back-to-back 6-2 home wins over Bristol City and Birmingham – Mitrović bagging a brace against Reading then going one better and hitting his third hat-trick of the season against Bristol City (only to draw a blank against Birmingham). No second-tier side had registered six or more goals in three straight league matches since Everton almost 68 years earlier.
With a whopping 74 goals so far, Fulham are the Championship’s highest scorers by a country mile – from Blackburn on a comparatively paltry-looking 45. They’ve scored 70 non-penalty goals – 27 more than the next-best performers in that respect, QPR – and struck 53 times from open play, 18 more than Bournemouth behind them. If they continue at the same rate, Fulham will end the season with 122 goals, matching Middlesbrough’s second tier record from 1927.
By most expected goals measures, Fulham are setting the standard and then some. In fact, just about the only attacking area in which they have not been untouchable is set-piece creativity — with their 14.7 xG from dead-ball situations ranking second to West Brom’s 17.3 (although they have still notched a league-high 14 set-piece goals).
From his goals return alone, we can pretty safely surmise that Mitrović is being afforded five-star service, but in order to really understand his extraordinary exploits – and why he becomes a different proposition in the Championship – where, after registering only four goals in 25 appearances for Newcastle in 2016-17, he’s banged in a total of 56 in 83 for Fulham – we need to drill down a bit deeper.
Second tier specialist?
Last season, as Fulham finished 18th in the Premier League and were relegated for the second time in as many top-flight campaigns, Mitrović played 1,390 minutes and posted non-penalty xG figures of 6.18 at 0.3 per 90 minutes. In 2021-22, he’s more than doubled his NPxG output to a Championship-best 0.75 per 90 – having played 2,269 minutes so far. Of players to have featured for 900 minutes or more in the second tier this term, Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke is the only one whose NPxG per 90 (0.71) comes within 0.1 of Mitrovic’s.
Looking at chance quality, we can see that Mitrović’s average non-penalty shot in 2020-21 was worth 0.08 xG. The equivalent value this season stands at 0.17 – as with his NPxG per 90, an increase of more than 100%.
Is the Championship twice as easy as the Premier League? No. Many would argue, compellingly, that it’s one of the strongest 10 leagues in the world – but it stands to reason that a player seemingly ‘stuck in the gap’ between the two divisions will fare better at the lower level. That point is reinforced by the fact that Mitrović averaged 0.14 xG per non-penalty shot in his previous, 26-goal Championship campaign.
Mitrović’s average chance quality is only fractionally up on 2019-20, then – so what’s the key to his success this time around? Well, it follows that if you’re having more of those good-quality chances, you’re probably going to score more goals…
In 2019-20, Mitrović averaged 3.62 non-penalty shots per game as he ended the campaign on 146 non-penalty shots overall – the second-most in the league behind then-Brentford winger Saïd Benrahma on 173. Not even two-thirds of the way through 2021-22, he’s already had 111 non-penalty shots at a rate of 4.4 per 90. Silva’s devastatingly effective attacking set-up is playing right into his number nine’s hands (well, feet – and head, with which he’s nodded in eight of those 28 goals of his).
Increasing his non-penalty shooting frequency by just over 20% relative to his last campaign at this level is one thing, but Mitrović has increased his non-penalty scoring frequency by more than 70%. Simply put, he’s taken his finishing to new heights.
Mitrović has outperformed his xG in two of his previous six seasons in England. Unsurprisingly, he’s doing so again this term (28 goals from 22.9 xG), but he’s also doing something he’s never managed before: exceeding his xG with his expected goals on target – by 2.9, to be precise. That’s a higher shooting goals added than Robert Lewandowski this season (albeit not quite as high as half-man, half-ball launcher Erling Haaland).
Clearly, Mitrović is in the midst of a prolonged purple patch the like of which most strikers can only dream of. Can he sustain it? Absolutely. Will he sustain it? Very possibly. Will he finally make his mark on the top flight if Fulham go up? Maybe.
But that last point is for another day. Next on the list of milestones for Mitrović? Reaching the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career. Then? Four more goals to bring up a century in English league football. And after that…? Another 13 to eclipse Guy Whittingham – and 14 to go down in Fulham history by breaking Frank ‘Bonzo’ Newton’s 90-year-old record for the most league goals in a single season for the Cottagers. Cracking the Premier League can wait.
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