LONDON — The thing about Aleksandar Mitrovic is that he is not just a striker, barrel-chested and shaven-headed and keen-eyed. He is not simply a Serbian international, a fairly constant presence for his country for the better part of a decade. Nor is he merely something of a national hero, scorer of the goal that sent his country to the World Cup.
He is also, it turns out, an existential question.
Rafael Benítez, one of Mitrovic’s long line of former managers, has been considering the conundrum of his former protégé for about 15 minutes when he hits upon it. “There is a saying in Spain,” said Benítez, a man never short of an aphorism. “It is better to be the mouse’s head than the lion’s tail.”
What Mitrovic must decide, Benítez said, is whether that is enough for him.
Few players present quite such a distinct dichotomy as Mitrovic. In alternating years as his club, Fulham, has yo-yoed in and out of the Premier League every year since 2018, the 27-year-old forward has at times been one of the most ruthless finishers in European soccer, an implacable goal-scoring machine, and at others a stalled engine, a dulled blade, ineffective and anonymous.
The difference, of course, is the division where he finds himself. In the second-tier Championship, Mitrovic’s record is peerless. He averages a goal every 117 minutes. He is already 12th on the division’s all-time scoring list. Last year, he made 44 appearances and scored 43 goals. Nobody has ever scored more goals in a single Championship season. The previous record was 31.
That his output should diminish in the Premier League, where Fulham will return yet again this season, is hardly a surprise. He will, after all, be facing a higher caliber of defender, and Fulham, a cruiserweight sort of a club, will struggle to craft quite so many chances for him. It is natural, then, that Mitrovic should struggle to score quite so many goals: 11 goals in his first top-flight season at Fulham, and only three in his last.
What is noteworthy, though, is the scale of the drop-off. By the time Fulham was last relegated, in 2021, Mitrovic was only a fleeting part of the team. A player who was far too good for the Championship appeared to be not good enough at all for the Premier League.
He is not the only one caught in that same quandary. Mitrovic is, instead, simply the starkest illustration of a dilemma facing a swath of players and, increasingly, a select cadre of clubs, including Fulham. They represent possibly the most pressing issue facing English soccer on the dawn of a new Premier League season: the 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.” That might have been 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 television income guaranteed by the former — but it 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 soccer, has given the payments a name that better encapsulates their effect. The three years of extra income, totaling $110 million, function now as “trampoline payments,” Parry said.
Fulham provides an apposite example. The reason that it is so easy to see the contrast in Mitrovic’s fortunes in the Premier League and the Championship is because he has spent the last four seasons bouncing between them: Fulham was relegated in 2019, promoted in 2020, relegated again, promoted again.
Norwich City has 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 proved only a little less volatile.
That those teams should monopolize the promotion places does not surprise Parry. It is not just that the money they receive from the Premier League allows them to run budgets far higher than the majority of their opponents in the Championship. It is the fact that so few teams in the division now receive those payments.
The trampoline clubs account for so many of the promotion and relegation slots 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 division’s 24 clubs will 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, as long as you accept that two of the relegated teams will go straight back up.”
Though he sees the division’s playoffs — which widen the pool of promotion hopefuls before crushing the dreams of all but one of them — as a “saving grace, giving everyone else a target,” he believes that the entrenched inequality serves to entice owners into unsustainable spending to try and level the playing field. “There is a feeling that you have to over-invest,” he said.
But while the ongoing health of the Championship is Parry’s central concern, he argues that predictability should be a source of anxiety to the Premier League, too. “It is a problem for them, too,” he said. “Its selling point is how competitive it is: for the title, for the Champions League places, at the bottom. If you know which teams are going down, then some of the drama is lost.”
The Top 25
As ever, at the dawn of a new season, there is a conviction at Fulham that the cycle can be broken. Marco Silva, the club’s fourth manager in four years, has been studying the root causes of the relegations suffered by his predecessors in 2019 and 2021. He is confident that he can avoid the same trapdoors. “We have to write a different story,” he told The Athletic.
Like all of those teams caught on English soccer’s great cliff edge, though, the balance is delicate. Fulham, like Watford and Norwich before it, has to spend enough money to stand a chance of remaining in the Premier League, but not spend so much that — in the event of failure — the club’s future is endangered. (The lavish spree undertaken after promotion in 2020 backfired so spectacularly that the idea of recruiting too heavily in preparation for the Premier League has entered the lexicon as “doing 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 tread the fine line between the Premier League and the Championship. Darnbrough has spent time at Norwich, at Burnley and at West Brom, before landing in his current job, as the head of recruitment at Hull City.
At West Brom — English soccer’s most traditional yo-yo club — that search for sustainability led the team’s executives to budget for a place among the “top 25” teams in the country, Darnbrough said: neither assuming a place in the Premier League, nor accepting a slot in the Championship.
“In my time, we didn’t finish any higher than 17th in the Premier League or any lower than fourth in the Championship,” he said. “It was sustainable like that. I wouldn’t say we were comfortable with it, but we knew where we stood. The challenge was to avoid yo-yoing between the divisions, but we knew the parameters.”
The ambition, of course, 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 (more spectacularly) Leicester City have managed in recent years. “The problem is knowing at what point you are established,” Darnbrough said. “You can’t stay up once and then take the shackles off straightaway.”
For a whole clutch of teams, that point may never truly arrive. Parachute payments may distort the Championship, but they are a drop in the ocean compared to what a team has earned once it has enjoyed three, four or five consecutive years in the Premier League.
That, Parry said, creates a cycle in which the teams who come up are always likely to go back down. “There is a reason the 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.