Only a handful of teams have scored fewer goals in the Premier League this season than Newcastle United. The Magpies are on course to avoid an immediate return to the Championship following their promotion last term, currently sitting in 13th place, five points clear of the bottom three, but the goals have hardly flowed in getting there.
That makes the success of Aleksandar Mitrović at Fulham over these past few weeks all the more difficult to digest from a Newcastle point of view. The Serbian international has thrived since leaving St James’ Park on loan on transfer deadline day in January, scoring seven times in his last five outings.
With Mitrović up front, Fulham have closed the gap on the pace-setters at the top of the Championship; Slaviša Jokanović’s side now five points off the automatic promotion places in the table. Even if they are forced to settle for a place in the play-offs, many view the Cottagers as having the edge with Mitrović leading the line.
So did Rafael Benítez make a mistake in first denying the Serbian first-team opportunities in the first half of the season, and secondly in allowing him to leave Newcastle in the January window? Might Mitrović have made the difference for the Magpies as they scramble to reach the 40-point mark and secure safety in the Premier League?
“There are two ways to analyse this,” Benítez told The Chronicle when asked this specific question earlier this week. “One is Mitrović is scoring goals in the Championship. It’s good news for him and us. Two, he is playing before the World Cup and he is our player. We then have to discuss his future in May. In May we will see and if he is doing well, fine no problem.”
Benítez is right to be pragmatic over the situation. But as long as Mitrović is scoring goals it will be used as a stick to beat him with. On the face of things, he is the sort of player Newcastle could use right now.
But, according to reports in The Chronicle, the Spanish coach was left less than impressed by Mitrović’s performances in training, even strapping the striker with a GPS to prove he wasn’t doing enough.
A major part of Newcastle’s problem is they lack a shot taker; someone willing to test opposition goalkeepers with shots from in and around the penalty box.
Chelsea loanee Kenedy averages more shots on goal per game than any other player at the club, but he only manages 2.3 per 90. Behind that, Joselu and Dwight Gayle average 2.4 while Jacob Murphy and Matt Ritchie let fly with 1.9
Those figures are in start contrast to Mitrović for Fulham over this past month-and-a-half. The Serbian is averaging 4.9 shots on goal and 1.1 key passes per 90.
At both Fulham and Newcastle, there are support systems in place to aid a central striker. At Craven Cottage, Mitrović is the central prong of an attacking front three in a 4-3-3 formation. On Tyneside he was used as the frontman in a 4-2-3-1 shape. There are not too many differences between the two strategies, at least from the perspective of a central striker like Mitrović.
Where the differences lie is in the determination of the Serbian to drive back opposition defenders. Take the below scenario in the recent game against Sheffield United, for instance.
As is ordinary for a central striker, Mitrović receives the ball with his back to goal, yet he manages to spin quickly and surge towards the opposition goal. It might not have resulted in a goal, but it created an opportunity for his side.
Contrast this to a similar scenario presented to Gayle during the 3-0 win over Southampton on Saturday. He too receives the ball with his back to goal, albeit slightly further out.
However, under no pressure he manages to turn, like Mitrović. But, unlike the Serbian, he passes the ball back to a defensive team-mate rather than driving forward with it. That says a lot about the role of the centre forward in this Magpies side and how they are expected to play as the focal point.
This is perhaps why Mitrović struggles to satisfy Benítez. Newcastle could, and perhaps should, be a side that plays to the Serbian’s strengths. But they do not.
Just this week Denis Odoi spoke about how the arrival of Mitrović has allowed Fulham to play a different style of football; about how the Serbian has given the Cottagers a presence up front.
“The goals are very important, but he's also a resting point for us when we play it up top,” Odoi told BBC Radio London.
“I think before [Mitrović arrived] we couldn't play long balls because we didn't really have a striker who could keep the ball.
“Rui Fonte can keep the ball when you play it to his feet, but he's not as tall. With Mitro you can play a hard ball and he'll still take it down on his chest, so I think that's the difference.
“We can play to him and then we can push up as a team and he puts the ball back to Stefan Johansen or Tom Cairney and runners like Ryan Sessegnon.”
That is a glowing reference. But even that does not do justice to the player Mitrović is and the player Benítez has made a point of overlooking.
As Newcastle continue to struggle for goals, it's a decision the Spaniard could regret.