LONDON — The thing about Aleksandar Mitrovic is that he’s not just a striker, with a barrel chest, shaved head and piercing eyes. He is not just a Serbian international, a fairly constant presence for his country for the better part of a decade. Nor is he just a national hero, scoring the goal that sent his country to the World Cup.
It is also, it turns out, an existential question.
Rafael Benítez, one of Mitrovic’s former managers, has been pondering his former protege’s riddle for around 15 minutes when he comes across it. “There is a saying in Spain,” said Benítez, a man never short of an aphorism. “It is better to be the head of the mouse than the tail of the lion.”
What Mitrovic has to decide, Benítez said, is whether that’s enough for him.
Few players present such a distinct dichotomy as Mitrovic. Alternately as his club Fulham have yo-yoed in and out of the Premier League every year since 2018, the 27-year-old striker has at times been one of the most ruthless finishers in European football, a goal implacable- scoring machine, and to others a stalled engine, a dull blade, inefficient and nameless.
The difference, of course, is the division it is in. In the second division championship, Mitrovic’s record is unmatched. He averages a goal every 117 minutes. He is already 12th on the division’s all-time goalscoring list. Last year he made 44 appearances and scored 43 goals. No one has ever scored more goals in a single league season. The previous record was 31.
That his production is dwindling in the Premier League, where Fulham will return again this season, is hardly a surprise. After all, he will face a higher caliber defender, and Fulham, a kind of heavyweight club, will struggle to create so many chances for him. So it’s only natural that Mitrovic would struggle to score so many goals: 11 goals in his first top-flight season at Fulham, and just three in his last.
What is remarkable, however, is the magnitude of the decline. When Fulham were last relegated in 2021, Mitrovic was only a fleeting part of the team. A player who was far too good for the Championship seemed not to be good enough for the Premier League at all.
He is not the only one caught in this same dilemma. Mitrovic is, instead, simply the starkest illustration of a dilemma facing a band of players and, increasingly, a select cadre of clubs, including Fulham. They represent perhaps the most pressing problem facing English football at the dawn of a new Premier League season: teams that find themselves lost somewhere between the mouse’s head and the lion’s tail.
Rick Parry has stopped using the term “parachute payments”. Perhaps that’s how they were designed – a way to cushion the economic blow for teams descending from the Premier League and landing in the Championship, a safety net for the loss of the vast TV revenues guaranteed by the first – but that no longer captures their impact.
Instead, Parry, the chairman of the English Football League, the body that oversees the second, third and fourth tiers of English football, gave the payments a name that better sums up their effect. The three additional years of revenue, totaling $110 million, now function as “trampoline payouts,” Parry said.
Fulham provide a relevant example. The reason it’s so easy to see the contrast between Mitrovic’s Premier League and league fortunes is that he’s spent the past four seasons bouncing between them: Fulham were relegated in 2019, promoted in 2020, relegated again, promoted again.
Norwich City did much the same (promoted in 2019 and 2021, relegated in 2020 and 2022), while Watford (relegated in 2020 and 2022, promoted in between) and Bournemouth (relegated in 2020, promoted this spring) proved only slightly less volatile.
That these teams monopolize the promotion spots doesn’t surprise Parry. It’s not just that the money they receive from the Premier League allows them to manage far bigger budgets than the majority of their league opponents. It’s the fact that so few teams in the division are now receiving these payments.
Trampoline clubs have accounted for so many promotion and relegation slots in recent years that only five teams – the three expelled from the Premier League last season, plus West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United – of the division’s 24 clubs will receive payments by parachute. This year.
For most others, automatic promotion is effectively out of reach.
“The Championship is a big league,” Parry said. “It’s incredibly competitive and unpredictable, as long as you accept two of the relegated teams going straight up.”
Although he views the divisional playoffs — which widens the pool of promotion hopefuls before crushing the dreams of all but one — as a “saving grace, giving everyone else a goal,” he believes entrenched inequality serves to induce landlords to become unsustainable. spending to try to level the playing field. “There’s a feeling that you have to overinvest,” he said.
But while the continued health of the Championship is Parry’s central concern, he argues predictability should also be a source of anxiety for the Premier League. “It’s a problem for them too,” he said. “His selling point is his competitiveness: for the title, for the Champions League places, downstairs. If you know which teams are going down, then some of the drama is lost.
As always, on the eve of a new season, Fulham believe the cycle can be broken. Marco Silva, the club’s fourth manager in four years, has studied the root causes of the relegations suffered by his predecessors in 2019 and 2021. He is confident he can avoid the same pitfalls. “We have to write a different story,” he told The Athletic.
Like all of these teams caught on the edge of the great cliff in English football, however, the balance is delicate. Fulham, like Watford and Norwich before them, must spend enough money to have a chance of staying in the Premier League, but not so much that if they fail, the club’s future is in jeopardy. (The lavish frenzy undertaken after promotion in 2020 has backfired so dramatically that the idea of over-recruiting in preparation for the Premier League has entered the lexicon as “doing a Fulham”.)
For most of these clubs, the watchword is “sustainability,” said Lee Darnbrough, a scout and analyst who has spent much of his career working for teams trying to draw the line between the Premier League and Championship. Darnbrough spent time at Norwich, Burnley and West Brom, before taking up his current role as head of recruitment at Hull City.
At West Brom – English football’s most traditional yo-yo club – that search for sustainability has led team leaders to budget for a place among the “top 25” teams in the country, Darnbrough said: neither assume a place in the Premier League, nor accept a place in the Championship.
“In my time, we didn’t finish higher than 17th in the Premier League or lower than fourth in the Championship,” he said. “It was sustainable like that. I wouldn’t say we were comfortable with that, but we knew where we stood. The challenge was to avoid yo-yoing between divisions, but we knew the parameters.
The ambition, of course, has always been to find a way to survive this first season, to turn the club into something of a fixture, as Crystal Palace and (more spectacularly) Leicester City have succeeded in recent years. “The problem is when you’re established,” Darnbrough said. “You can’t stay awake once and then take the chains off right away.”
For a handful of teams, that point may never really happen. Parachute payouts can skew the Championship, but they’re just a drop in the ocean compared to what a team has earned once they’ve had three, four or five consecutive years in the Premier League. League.
This, Parry said, creates a cycle in which teams that go up are always likely to come down. “There’s a reason Premier League clubs like parachute payments,” he said.
Fulham and Bournemouth, like Watford, Norwich and West Brom before them, are trapped in the same no man’s land as Mitrovic, caught between the mouse’s head and the lion’s tail.