Sports · August 5, 2022

Fulham return to the Premier League. to remain? It is more difficult.

LONDON – The beauty of Aleksandar Mitrovic is that he is not just a striker, barrel chest, shaved head and sharp eyes. He is not simply a Serbian international, a fairly constant presence in his country for most of a decade. Nor is he just a kind of national hero, author of 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 many former coaches, considered his former protégé’s riddle for about 15 minutes when he hit us. “There is a saying in Spain,” said Benítez, a man who never misses an aphorism. “It is better to be the rat’s head than the lion’s tail.”

What Mitrovic has to decide, Benítez said, is whether it is enough for him.

Few players have such a stark dichotomy as Mitrovic. In alternating years in which his club, Fulham, has been in and out of the Premier League every year since 2018, the 27-year-old striker has at times been one of European football’s most ruthless finalists, a relentless goal. scoreboard, and still others a stopped engine, a blunt blade, ineffective and anonymous.

The difference, of course, is the division it is in. In the second tier league, Mitrovic’s record is unmatched. He averages one goal every 117 minutes. He is already 12th in the division’s all-time scorers table. 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 expected to decline in the Premier League, where Fulham will return once again this season, is hardly a surprise. After all, he will have to face a higher caliber defender and Fulham, a kind of cruiserweight club, will struggle to create so many possibilities for him. It is only natural, then, that Mitrovic will have to struggle to score so many goals: 11 goals in his first season in the top flight at Fulham, and only three in the last.

What is noteworthy, 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 too good for the league seemed not to be good enough for the Premier League.

He is not the only one trapped in the same dilemma. Mitrovic, on the other hand, is simply the strongest illustration of a dilemma facing a range of players and, increasingly, a select team 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 rat’s head and the lion’s tail.

Rick Parry has stopped using the term “parachute payments”. That may have been how they were designed – a way to cushion the economic blow to teams coming down from the Premier League and making it into the League, a safety net for the loss of the massive TV revenues the former had guaranteed – but it no longer captures their impact. .

Instead, Parry, the president of the English Football League, the body that oversees the second, third and fourth tiers of English football, has given payments a name that better summarizes the effect. The three years of extra income, totaling $ 110 million, now function as “springboard payments,” Parry said.

Fulham provides a fitting example. The reason why it’s so easy to see the contrast in Mitrovic’s fortunes in the Premier League and Championship is because he has spent the last four seasons bouncing between them: Fulham were relegated in 2019, promoted to 2020, relegated again, promoted to new.

More or less the same did Norwich City (promoted in 2019 and 2021, relegated in 2020 and 2022), while Watford (relegated in 2020 and 2022, promoted in the middle) and Bournemouth (relegated in 2020, promoted this spring) they proved to be just a little less volatile.

That those teams should monopolize the promotion spots comes as no surprise to Parry. It’s not just that the money they get from the Premier League allows them to manage budgets that are far superior to most of their opponents in the league. It is the fact that so few teams in the division now receive those payments.

Trampoline clubs represent so many promotion and relegation spots in recent years that only five teams – the three ejected from the Premier League last season, as well as West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United – of the 24 clubs in the division will receive parachute payments. ‘year.

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

“The championship is a great championship,” Parry said. “It is incredibly competitive and unpredictable, as long as you accept that two of the relegated teams will get the advantage.”

Although he sees the division playoffs – which widen the pool of prospects for promotion before crushing the dreams of all but one – as a “saving grace, giving everyone else a goal,” he believes the entrenched inequality serves to induce owners. to become unsustainable spending on trying to level the playing field. “There is a feeling that you have to invest too much,” he said her.

But while the ongoing health of the league is Parry’s central concern, he argues that predictability should be a source of anxiety for the Premier League as well. “It’s a problem for them too,” he said. His strength is how competitive he is: for the title, for the places in the Champions League, after all. If you know which teams are losing, then some of the drama is lost. “

As always, at the dawn of a new season, at Fulham there is the belief that 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 trap doors. “We have to write a different story,” he told The Athletic.

Like all those teams that have found themselves on the great precipice of English football, however, the balance is delicate. Fulham, like Watford and Norwich before, must spend enough money to have a chance to stay in the Premier League, but not spend so much that if they fail, the club’s future is in jeopardy. (The lavish revelry undertaken after promotion in 2020 backfired so spectacularly that the idea of ​​recruiting too heavily in preparation for the Premier League entered the lexicon as “making a Fulham.”)

For most of those 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 fine line between the Premier League and the Championship. Darnbrough spent time in Norwich, Burnley and West Brom before landing his current job as head of recruiting in Hull City.

At West Brom, England’s most traditional yo-yo club, the pursuit of sustainability has led team executives to budget for a spot among the “25 best teams” in the country, Darnbrough said: Neither take a seat. in the Premier League, nor accepting a seat in the league.

“In my day, we didn’t get to seventeenth place in the Premier League or fourth in the league,” he said. “It was sustainable like that. I wouldn’t say we were comfortable, but we knew where we were. The challenge was to avoid yo-yos between divisions, but we knew the parameters ”.

The ambition, of course, has always been to find a way to survive the first season, to turn the club into a sort of fixture, as the likes of Crystal Palace and (more spectacular) Leicester City have done in recent years. . “The problem is knowing where you are established,” Darnbrough said. “You can’t stand up once and then take off the chains right away.”

For a whole group of teams, that point may never really come. Parachute payments can skew the league, but they are a drop in the ocean compared to what a team has earned after enjoying three, four or five consecutive years in the Premier League.

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

Fulham and Bournemouth, like Watford and Norwich and West Brom before them, are trapped in the same no-man’s land as Mitrovic, trapped between the mouse’s head and the lion’s tail.