When Newcastle resumes Premier League play on Saturday against Swansea, a potential six-pointer for the relegation struggle, they will be hoping to ride the momentum of a massive win over West Ham two weeks prior. What they will be without, however, is, uh, mercurial forward Aleksander Mitrović, who will be serving the first of a three match suspension for this contact with the head of West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini. For his part, Mitrović has disputed that the play on Lanzini was even a foul; whatever the case may be, it’s beyond argument that his reputation precedes him, and is likely to have played at least a part in the ultimate unanimous decision of a three-person panel to suspend the striker.
Mitrović will be returning to training after two matches with the Serbian national team in which he made two starts, scoring a goal against Moldova and aiding his squad to a victory against Ciaran Clark’s Ireland squad. Serbia currently sits atop their World Cup qualification group with two matches left to play; in the eight matches played in the current round of qualification, Mitrović has contributed six goals. So far in qualification, Serbia has racked up a red card and 10 yellows, none of which belong to Mitrović.
The matches against West Ham and Nottingham Forest in League Cup play notwithstanding, the discrepancy between Mitrović’s performances for club and country are evident, and this has missed the attention of neither the media nor his coach for the Serbian team, Slavoljub Muslin. Muslin, in an interview during the recent international break, offered a number of suggestions as to why Mitrović has performed at such a different level for his squad than he does for Rafa Benítez at Newcastle.
“Perhaps the coach in Newcastle doesn’t have as much confidence in [Mitrović] as I do,” Muslin suggested when questioned on the disparity in play. “He is our first center forward. Perhaps he feels more comfortable playing for the national team than he does for his own club.” Each of these statements deserve consideration. Starting with the last, it’s not impossible to believe that Mitro’s play is due to a comfort level that comes with playing for his national team - in doing so, he is training and playing half his matches in not only his home nation but also the capital, Belgrade, the city in which Mitrović developed in Partizan’s youth academy and made his senior debut. Additionally, as supporters may remember from his transfer to Newcastle, his father has consistently played an active role in his life and decision making, going so far as to threaten Partizan with violence if they did not move his son in 2013.
Muslin also identified Mitrović as being Serbia’s first choice center forward, and a perusal of the players at his disposal shows why - no other forward who has been called up in the past year has made more than five national team appearances, compared to Mitrović’s 30 appearances despite being the youngest regular player for Serbia at 22. Knowing that he will be one of the first players on Muslin’s team sheet surely allows Mitrović the comfort to know that it is not required of him to do more than is requested of him, which in turn is sure to reduce the number of situations where Mitrović will find himself in disciplinary trouble.
This is also the result of Muslin’s first and, to me, most interesting comment, which indicates that the diffences in play could stem from strategic and formation differences. Serbia utilizes a 3-4-3 formation that, against Ireland, looked like this:
Look at that lineup again. Two things should immediately stick out. First, that team is good. The starting XI is filthy with Premier League talent, including Mitrović, Branislav Ivanović, Dusan Tadić, Luka Milivojević and Nemanja Matić, while also flaunting players from La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga. The second is just how strange of a formation is being employed. Traditionally, when a team employs a three-man back line, the three players are all traditional center backs and are flanked by wingbacks, which replace both the fullbacks and wingers employed in most traditional formations. Instead, Muslin’s side utilizes both wingbacks and wingers, with two holding midfielders playing in front of the back three and theoretically leaving acres of space open in the center of the pitch, making the 4-2-2-2, often referred to as the “empty bucket,” look congested.
(As an aside - if you find yourself without a national team that you’re committed to rooting for in the World Cup in Russia next year, I would recommend for your consideration this Serbian squad - not only is it full of top-level talent, but it has the same pirate mentality of the best Portugal and Nigeria squads. Additionally, I would expect that their supporters will travel well with Russia’s proximity to Serbia, making for a great atmosphere.)
Let’s look at three goals scored by Mitrović during 2018 World Cup qualifying. His goal against Moldova is above; below are two more, starting with this goal against Austria:
Then this score to equalize against Wales:
What do these goals have in common? In each play above, Mitrović has an incredible amount of space in which to operate, space that is created through player movement, both by Mitrović and his teammates. Additionally, none of these goals would look particularly natural if you replaced Serbian red with Newcastle black and white - the 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 schemes implemented by Benítez, while allowing for a more secure midfield presence, do not allow for the same off-ball creativity that the space in Muslin’s 3-4-3. Christian Atsu and Matt Ritchie, for all of their positive traits, do not make the sorts of runs without the ball in the attacking third that would create these opportunities. Mitrović and Ayoze Pérez, by comparison, have looked their respective best when playing with one another, creating space through movement and linking up in and around the box.
“Perhaps the coach in Newcastle doesn’t have as much confidence in [Mitrović] as I do.” It’s difficult to fault either manager in this situation - Mitrović has been less than dependable for Benítez at Newcastle, and he has performed admirably when relied on heavily for the Serbian national team for Muslin. In the end, it’s likely that fixing this disparity and elevating Mitrović’s play for Newcastle will rely on Benítez trusting Mitrović enough to operate within his framework. Hopefully for everyone involved, this trust is bestowed sooner than later.