Aleksandar Mitrovic's career at Newcastle United is reaching another crossroads
It is clear to anybody watching that Newcastle United need a top-tier striker if they are to make the step up to the next level. In the long-term, Rafa Benitez will have one on his shopping list, but there may be a temporary solution within the current squad. There has been a lot of clamour from supporters on social media for Aleksandar Mitrovic to be given a chance in the first-team. The Serbian international has had a turbulent career since signing for the Magpies, but there is no denying that he has talent and has the potential to be a good Premier League centre-forward.
Newcastle face a difficult test against Manchester United this weekend and their main problems lie in attack, with the team failing to score in their last two Premier League fixtures. Joselu was a cheap summer signing from Stoke City and although he has shown some encouraging signs, he isn’t the natural goalscorer that the side needs. Dwight Gayle was the club’s leading scorer in the Championship last season, but there remain doubts about his ability to replicate that form at the highest level. Both have been given a chance to make the starting spot their own and they have failed to convince. Mitrovic could be the best option of the three.
Since Benitez arrived towards the end of the 2015/16 campaign, he has had a mixed relationship with Mitrovic. There was hope that the arrival of a world class manager would bring the best out of the striker and see him develop into the player that everyone hoped he would be when he joined from Anderlecht.
Their working relationship got off to a good start as the Serbian scored the first goal of the Benitez era. Mitrovic was a handful against Sunderland in the North East derby and got the equaliser to prevent an early embarrassment for his new manager. Despite the club’s relegation during that season, the young striker was one of the rare bright spots as he scored nine Premier League goals in a poor team.
He scored on the final day in the Magpies’ convincing win over Tottenham. It came too late to save them, but the performance on that day and the reaction from the supporters was enough to convince Benitez to stay on as manager, as he saw the potential of the club. It wasn’t the only thing that the manager saw that day. The naivety of Mitrovic’s character was on display as he earned a needless red card. There was no reason to make the challenge and that action has led to his current position in the Newcastle squad. That is a squad player that can’t be trusted.
Newcastle put together a strong squad to attempt to achieve promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt. Dwight Gayle arrived and there was a competition to be the starting striker at St James’ Park. The number nine shirt was vacant, with Gayle and Mitrovic both vying for it. The former was given the honour and that was the first sign that it would be a frustrating campaign for the Serbian. He will have been annoyed by his role, but he only had himself to blame as his stupidity against Tottenham earned him a four-match suspension to serve at the beginning of the new season.
Benitez couldn’t build a team around a striker that wouldn’t be available for the start of the season. The Newcastle boss is a perfectionist and he needs to have full trust in each of his players to carry out his instructions. The unpredictability of Mitrovic means that he doesn’t have that with the striker. Last season, the 23-year-old started only 11 of the 46 Championship matches. Considering he is an international that cost £13 million, it was expected that he would take the second tier by storm. The reality was that he wasn’t mentally ready to take on that role.
During the summer, there were rumours linking Mitrovic with a move away from St James’ Park. Benitez would have been unlikely to oppose an exit if a fair offer came in, but the lack of funds given to the Spaniard in the transfer market meant that he couldn’t afford to lose the Serbian. It put him in a difficult spot, as he knows he isn’t wanted, but he is doing little to force his manager to change his mind.
Against West Ham United, Mitrovic was given his first chance of the season from the bench and what followed was a microcosm of his Newcastle United career. He missed a great chance, scored the next and then elbowed Manuel Lanzini. Although he wasn’t sent off on the day, he was later hit with a retrospective ban and he has only been seen once since.
One of the prominent reasons why supporters want to see him back in the starting eleven is his form for Serbia. Although he hasn’t been playing regularly for the Magpies, he has been a key part of his national team’s success in qualifying for the World Cup. The 23-year-old scored six times in qualification and his consistency during the process suggests that he can become a very good player. Neither Gayle nor Joselu are scoring regularly and the feeling is that Mitrovic would offer a bigger goal threat.
The recent poor form in the final third has led to the supporters revisiting the Mitrovic issue. He splits the fan-base, but there are a lot of questions that have yet to answered. The growing calls for the striker to be given a chance will only increase with every game. Benitez needs to put an end to this issue once and for all. The manager may well be right in his judgement, but he needs to give the player one more chance. If it works out, then Newcastle will benefit. If it doesn’t, then it will be known, once and for all, that the striker doesn’t have a future on Tyneside.