soccer

Fulham are back in the Premier League. Stays? It’s harder.

LONDON — The thing about Aleksandar Mitrovic is that he’s not just a striker with a barrel, a shaved head and a sharp eye. He’s not just a Serbian international, he’s been a pretty constant presence for his country for the better part of a decade. He is also not just a national hero, the goal scorer who sent his country to the World Cup.

It turns out that he is also an existential question.

Rafael Benítez, one of Mitrovic’s long line of former coaches, has been pondering the mystery of his former protégé for about 15 minutes when he hits on it. “There’s a saying in Spain,” said Benítez, never short of an aphorism. “It is better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion.”

Benítez said Mitrovic has to decide if that is enough for him.

Few players have such a clear dichotomy as Mitrovic. For years on end, 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, an implacable goal. a scoring machine and others have a stalled engine, dull blade, inefficient and anonymous.

The difference, of course, is in the division where he finds himself. In the second tier championship, Mitrovic’s record is unparalleled. He scores a goal every 117 minutes on average. He is already 12th on the division’s all-time scoring list. Last year, he made 44 appearances and scored 43 goals. No one has ever scored more goals in one Championship season. The previous record was 31.

That his output in the Premier League, which Fulham will return to this season, is diminishing is hardly a surprise. After all, he will be facing a higher caliber defender and Fulham, something of a cruiserweight club, will struggle to create as many opportunities for him. It is therefore natural that Mitrovic will struggle to score so many goals: 11 in his first Premier League season at Fulham and just three in his last.

However, the extent of the decline is noteworthy. By the time Fulham were last relegated, in 2021, Mitrovic was only a brief part of the team. A player who was too good for the Championship appeared to be too good.

He’s not the only one in the same predicament. Instead, Mitrovic is simply the starkest example of a dilemma facing a large number of players and an increasingly select cadre of clubs, including Fulham. They represent perhaps the most pressing problem facing English football at the dawn of the new Premier League season: teams that find themselves caught somewhere between a mouse’s head and a lion’s tail.

Rick Parry has stopped using the term “parachute payments”. They may have been designed that way – a way to soften the financial blow to teams relegating from the Premier League and landing in the Championship, a safety net for losing the massive TV revenue that was first guaranteed, but it no longer helps. their influence.

Instead, Parry, chairman of the English Football League, the body that oversees the second, third and fourth tiers of English football, has given the payments a name that better reflects their impact. Three years of additional revenue, totaling $110 million, will now serve as a trampoline payment, Parry said.

Fulham provide a fitting example. The reason it’s so easy to see the contrast between Mitrovic’s success in the Premier League and the Championship is that he has spent the last four seasons bouncing back and forth: Fulham relegated in 2019, promoted in 2020, relegated again, promoted again.

Norwich City have done 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) have little to prove less volatile.

That these teams should monopolize the promotion places does not surprise Parry. It’s not just that the money they get from the Premier League allows them to spend far bigger budgets than most of their Championship rivals. It’s a fact that so few teams in the division receive these payments.

Trampoline clubs have received so many promotion and relegation spells in recent years that only five teams – the three relegated from the Premier League last season, as well as West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United – of the division’s 24 clubs receive parachute payments. this year.

For most of the rest, automatic promotion is effectively out of reach.

“The Championship is a great league,” Parry said. “It’s incredibly competitive and unpredictable when you accept that two relegated teams will bounce right back up.”

While he sees the division’s playoffs — which expand the circle of hopes for success before crushing all but one of their dreams — as “the saving grace that gives everyone else a target,” he believes the entrenched inequity is unsustainably luring owners. spending to try to level the playing field. “It feels like you have to overinvest,” he said.

But while the continued health of the Championship is Parry’s central concern, he argues that predictability should also be a source of anxiety for the Premier League. “It’s a problem for them, too,” he said. “The selling point for it is how competitive it is: for the title, for Champions League places, at the bottom. When you know which teams are relegated, some of the drama is gone.”

As always, at the dawn of the new season, there is a belief in Fulham that the cycle can be broken. Marco Silva, the club’s fourth manager in the last four years, has examined the root causes of his predecessors’ relegations in 2019 and 2021. He is confident that he can avoid the same pitfalls. “We have to write a different story,” he told The Athletic.

Like all those teams caught on the precipice of English football, however, the balance is delicate. Fulham, like Watford and Norwich before them, need to spend enough money to stay in the Premier League, but not so much that the future of the club is jeopardized if they fail. (A post-promotion splurge in 2020 backfired so spectacularly that the idea of ​​the league recruiting heavily in preparation for the Premier League has entered the lexicon as “doing Fulham”.)

“Sustainability” is the watchword for most of these clubs, said Lee Darnbrough, a scout and analyst who has spent much of his career working with teams trying to straddle the line between the Premier League and the Championship. Darnbrough has spent time at Norwich, Burnley and West Brom before joining Hull City as head of recruitment.

At West Brom – English football’s most traditional yo-yo club – the team’s managers were driven by sustainability to find a place in the country’s top 25, Darnbrough said: not expecting a place in the Premier League or accepting a Championship place.

“In my time we didn’t finish higher than 17th in the Premier League or fourth in the Championship,” he said. “It was so sustainable. I wouldn’t say we liked it, but we knew where we stood. The challenge was to avoid yo-yoing between divisions, but we knew the parameters.

Of course, the ambition was always to find a way to survive that first season, to turn the club into something of a fixture, as the likes of Crystal Palace and (even more spectacularly) Leicester City have managed in recent years. “The problem is knowing at what point you’re established,” Darnbrough said. “You can’t be up once and then immediately take the shackles off.”

For clutch teams, that point may never quite arrive. Parachute payments can distort the Championship, but they are a drop in the ocean compared to what a team has earned when it has enjoyed three, four or five years in a row in the Premier League.

Parry said it creates a cycle where teams that go up are always likely to go down. “There’s a reason Premier League clubs love parachute payments,” he said.

Fulham and Bournemouth, like Watford and 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.

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