It is time Aleksandar Mitrovic staked his claim at Newcastle United
Life at Newcastle United is like a whirlwind for big-money strikers because there is no middle ground, only two paths. Success or failure await any attacker who leads the line at St James' Park, and half the battle comes before a ball is ever kicked or a net rustled. First of all, they must be able to stare at the long list of greats from yesteryear and believe they can join them.
Principally, that is no different anywhere else, or in any other position, but at Newcastle, being a striker is a responsibility to become a hero, and not only that, to show bravery and heart the way Alan Shearer, Jackie Milburn and Les Ferdinand did. The number nine shirt is steeped in club folklore, but the ideals are not just for the man who wears it to reproduce.
The case of Aleksandar Mitrovic is a rather curious one. Known more for his antics and poor temperament than his goals and performances, the Serb has not yet found his feet on Tyneside. Now entering his third season, after joining from Belgian side Anderlecht in the summer of 2015, Mitrovic is at something of a crossroads; as a fan of Shearer and Newcastle growing up, he will be disappointed not to be on the way to legendary status at the club, but now, more than ever, is his chance on the line.
Because he is such a loose cannon, naturally he has his admirers. Funny training ground anecdotes are only that if they are backed up by goals, which they have not been on a consistent enough basis at Newcastle. Nine Premier League strikes in his debut campaign, at the age of 20, was a decent return, especially given the club’s relegation that season. The man once described by an Anderlecht official as ‘a five-year-old in a monster’s body', thanks to his powerful physique and six-foot-three frame, was expected to make easy work of the Championship and return to the top-flight a year later as Rafa Benitez’s undisputed number one striker; unfortunately, that he plainly isn’t.
Dwight Gayle took the number nine shirt as soon as he joined from Crystal Palace a year ago, which probably told its own story about where Benitez saw him in relation to Mitrovic, who kept the number 45, which he reportedly wanted originally because the two numbers make nine when added up.
Two games into the current campaign and Mitrovic must be thinking long and hard about his situation. The 22-year-old was on the bench for both the home loss against Tottenham Hotspur and Sunday’s defeat at fellow newly-promoted side Huddersfield Town. Gayle, who missed the final preseason game against Hellas Verona through injury, has not been at the races yet, and Ayoze Perez still has a lot to prove too. With one substitute appearance under his belt right now, the jury is still very much out on new signing Joselu.
Loan bids have reportedly been made for Mitrovic in this transfer window, with Newcastle rejecting them all. Benitez appears very much to be the decision-maker when it comes to football, which is more than can be said for some of his predecessors, but given the constant backdrop of his frustration that has engulfed this window, it is a worthwhile question to ask whether Mitrovic would have been allowed to leave had the coach been afforded more money to spend this summer.
Benitez is known to like a complete striker, one who gets involved in the play as much as he finishes moves off, and does more than either hold the ball up as a target man or run of the shoulder of the last defender. Mitrovic is famed for the former and Gayle the latter, so it could be argued Benitez does not have his ideal option either way. The majority of the time, though, Newcastle play on the counter attack, holding a structured defensive shape and breaking at pace through Gayle, Matt Ritchie and Christian Atsu, or another new boy Jacob Murphy whenever he gets his chance.
Yet, the trouble is in the first two games of the season, Newcastle have not been able to stamp their authority on the game going forward at all. Losing Jonjo Shelvey to a red card in the opening game with Spurs was a huge blow and arguably cost them the game, while against Huddersfield, the Englishman’s absence meant they had no respite from the hosts' high press, rendering Gayle useless.
Benitez was rather downbeat after the game when it came to transfers, meaning any reshuffling will probably involve players leaving first. But if he is to alter the team tactically, the first change he could look to make, either against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup on Wednesday or West Ham three days later, is Mitrovic coming in for Gayle.
He may appear as a beast with a lack of both maturity and consistency, but Aleksandar Mitrovic has scored over 60 goals before the age of 23, an impressive record whatever the level. Given the right coaching and work, he could come back from the brink at Newcastle, because now is the best opportunity he could ever hope to get.