Will ‘aggressive’ Aleksandar Mitrovic play on Leeds United’s growing fear of heights

Danger man - Aleksandar Mitrovic of Fulham celebrates scoring against Charlton. (Picture: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
Danger man - Aleksandar Mitrovic of Fulham celebrates scoring against Charlton. (Picture: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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Never mind his 30 goals for club and country this calendar year, Marcelo Bielsa’s use of the adjective ‘aggressive’ to describe Aleksandar Mitrovic ought to set alarm bells ringing in the Leeds United dressing room.

The Whites will therefore be hoping Fulham do not use the Serbian’s full potential to prey on their recent Achilles heel.

Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa (Picture: PA)

Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa (Picture: PA)

Having wobbled against Huddersfield Town and Hull City, Leeds’s winning streak came to a spectacular end against Cardiff City last week. Three-nil up and cruising with half an hour to go, Bielsa’s men had to settle for a 3-3 draw.

It was hardly a disaster, but you can bet your life that analysts up and down the Championship have been studying the video over the past few days anxious to learn more about the chink in the Whites’ armour.

Steve Mounie and Tom Eaves, two classic targetmen, unsettled the Championship’s best defence in consecutive derbies without finding the net, just as Sheffield Wednesday’s Steven Fletcher had in October. Cardiff, never shy in taking the direct route which had given the Terriers and the Tigers some joy, secured their dramatic comeback with a goal from 6ft 4ins substitute Robert Glatzel.

The last three matches have been some of the few times when on-loan central defender Ben White has looked less than imperious, the rare occasions where Liam Cooper’s influence has been missed alongside him.

You do not need a Uefa Pro licence to work out the pattern.

Stuart Rayner

You do not need a Uefa Pro licence to work out the pattern.

Bielsa had been conscious of it, bringing on Pascal Struijk for last weekend’s latter stages because: “We wanted to get more height out on the pitch.”

The comparisons the Argentinian head coach drew between Mitrovic and his own centre-forward, Patrick Bamford, were therefore significant.

“He’s a great forward,” Bielsa said of the Championship’s top-scorer, “Bamford also. They are goalscorers.

“They are very aggressive players. You have to take care of them.”

Neither Leeds nor Fulham totally play to that aggression, preferring instead to get the ball down and play.

Mitrovic may “only” be 6ft 2ins, but he is formidable in the air. His time at Craven Cottage has shown there is more to his game. No wonder he was the most expensive striker in English football during the summer 2018 transfer window.

Sometimes when teams have a totem-pole-like striker, they find it hard resisting the temptation to hit and hope, but the Cottagers are made of stronger stuff.

“Fulham are a similar team to us,” commented Bielsa. “The values we had last season, this season they are the same – possession, chances, quantity of shooting – they are one of the best teams in the Championship.”

It takes a lot to outpass Leeds, and Fulham are the only Championship side to have managed it, keeping the ball for 60.5 per cent of their league matches this season. According to WhoScored.com, only Swansea, West Bromwich Albion and Huddersfield have hit fewer long balls this season, although no one else can match their accuracy when they do.

Mitrovic is unsurprisingly their most effective player in the air – winning the ball four times a game – but behind forwards such as Kieffer Moore, Matt Smith, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Fletcher.

Manager Danny Cowley has spoken recently about changing Huddersfield’s style to adapt to their tough circumstances – in a relegation battle with an injury-hit squad – and to play on their opponents’. Elsewhere on these pages he speaks about sticking to his off-the-field principles, but when it comes to what happens between the white lines, sometimes even the best managers have to resort to a bit of pragmatism. Will Scott Parker watch the videos of Leeds’ recent games and decide he has to do the same?

Leeds certainly have done their homework, and Mitrovic’s status as the Championship’s top scorer means there is no danger of them taking him lightly.

“We work every day on ourselves and we know what we need to do to nullify Mitrovic,” said centre-back Cooper, who could return at Craven Cottage today if the Whites are satisfied they are not taking a risk with the fitness of a player who has been beset with minor issues since the autumn.

“He’s an unbelievable player, he plays for his country, he’s proven at the level and he scores goals at this level and I think we have got to do everything we can to nullify his attributes and then concentrate on us and how we are going to hurt them.”