Aleksandar Mitrovic’s agitation for Saudi move casting shadow over Fulham’s summer

Aleksandar Mitrovic has travelled to the United States for Fulham’s pre-season participation in the Premier League Summer Series. Aleksandar Mitrovic, however, does not want to be there.

He wants to be in Saudi Arabia, as a player for suitors Al Hilal.

For Fulham, this galling summer continues to induce cold sweats. No sooner had the squad reached the airport on Thursday afternoon than news broke that coach Marco Silva, recently a target for Al Hilal himself, is subject to another offer from a different Saudi club, with Al Ahli reportedly offering him $40million (£31m) per year.

The Athletic has not been able to fully verify that offer, although one source with knowledge of the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, has suggested Silva’s representatives are discussing terms with Al Ahli representatives in London and that a swift response would be required. It is not clear whether Silva would accept such a package — he previously turned down interest from Al Hilal in order to carry on working in Europe. But his future does remain uncertain as he continues to stall over a new contract at Craven Cottage.

When you also consider West Ham United’s sideways glances at midfielder Joao Palhinha as a replacement for Declan Rice — a £45million ($58m) offer was recently rejected by the west London club — it is understandable that Fulham fans are dreaming of the morning of September 2 and a closed transfer window.

It is the Mitrovic saga that has dominated the early part of Fulham’s preparations for the 2023-24 Premier League, however, and it leaves the club with a headache.

On the one hand, they face the question of whether it is possible to replace a player who has been essential to their successes in recent years. On the other, they have to weigh up whether it is worthwhile retaining him at all costs if he has expressed a desire to leave.

That much is clear. Mitrovic does want to join Riyhad-based Al Hilal. Last season’s Asian Champions League final runners-up have been bestowed with extra funds as part of a Public Investment Fund-backed recruitment drive this summer in Saudi Arabia and, after signing Ruben Neves from Wolverhampton Wanderers, Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, they have set their sights on Fulham’s talismanic striker.

The appeal for Mitrovic is clear, even if it would see him depart following a 2022-23 season where he at last truly affirmed his reputation as a Premier League striker at the fifth time of asking, eight years after originally joining Newcastle United at age 20.

Al Hilal, third in last season’s Saudi Pro League, will offer a huge increase in salary, far beyond what Fulham can afford and reportedly as much as triple his current earnings. Fulham already pay Mitrovic well over £100,000 per week. In addition, Al Hilal have just recruited one of his international-game team-mates, Milinkovic-Savic. The pair are the same age, and are long-standing friends. They came through the Serbia youth ranks together and, in 2013, were integral to their country winning the UEFA Under-19 European Championship.

Milinkovic-Savic and Mitrovic have been international team-mates since representing Serbia’s junior teams (Photo: Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

So far Fulham have repelled two bids, worth €35million and €40m. Mitrovic has asked for an offer to be accepted, contacting the club’s ownership directly to do so, and has not appeared in two behind-closed-doors matches Fulham have played over the past week.

Those close to the player, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect their relationships, have reflected on his eagerness to move as partly being born of the sense that, after five and a half years, he has served his time at Fulham. 

Fulham though are within their rights to stand their ground, considering he is one of their most well-paid players and still has three years to run on his contract.

There is clearly frustration at these latest developments and the impact of the Saudi market on transfers. Fulham’s vice-chairman and sporting director Tony Khan, half in jest, described the Saudis’ lavish strategy as “amazing” this week while conceding its clubs were trying “to sign up all the top players in the world”.

In the face of this new competition, he did reiterate his desire to retain the club’s best players.

Those close to Mitrovic believe Fulham are after a fee closer to €60million (£51.9m; $66.8m). As it stands, Al Hilal are not willing to pay that much.

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Mitrovic scores in the penultimate match of last season – will it be his final Fulham goal? (Photo: Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

After some persuasion, Mitrovic has travelled to the U.S. with Fulham and is set to continue with preparations for the coming season, which kicks off away to Everton on Saturday, August 12. Problem solved?

Well, not quite.

The real issue for the club is the degree to which Mitrovic has become unsettled. The unpredictable element is whether they can win him back around to continue to fight for the cause. Contractually, he has to train and play. But is that enough in itself?

A lot rests on the shoulders of Silva to ensure Mitrovic is ready to wear the shirt again, but the noises around the Fulham coach recently do not inspire much confidence, either.

Silva’s value to the club is extensive, as outlined previously, yet Mitrovic is also an integral figure. The structure of the setup under Silva since his appointment two years ago has been geared towards creating chances for their imposing striker, while Mitrovic’s link-up play creates space for others, allowing the likes of Willian, who Fulham have retained for another year, to thrive.

Mitrovic’s target-forward attributes are relatively unique in the game — particularly his aerial ability. He would not be a straightforward player to replace, as his Fulham deputies Carlos Vinicius and Rodrigo Muniz have discovered. Muniz was moved out on loan to Middlesbrough of the Championship last season, while Vinicius has five goals for the club from 28 league appearances but has regularly struggled to mirror Mitrovic’s interplay.

A proven goalscorer is essential for any team hoping to retain their top-flight status, and to lose Mitrovic in this window would have a significant impact.

The situation has strong similarities with how Fulham lost striker Louis Saha when he moved to Manchester United in January 2004. Saha, again, was a talismanic figure at Craven Cottage; he had scored 15 goals in 22 appearances for Fulham that season and lifted them into the Premier League’s top four in the run-up to Christmas. The club announced they had rejected a bid in the December ahead of the winter window. Matters became very public thereafter.

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Saha in Fulham colours (Photo: Stuart Franklin/Allsport)

Saha threatened to run down his contract, while reports suggested a falling out with the manager at the time, Chris Coleman, as the club tried to retain their player.

Coleman stated Saha would be sold “over my dead body”. But he would depart for Old Trafford a month later. Fulham’s form duly tailed off over the rest of the season and they finished ninth.

“It comes to a point where you get frustrated, and it’s nothing to do with ego,” Saha told The Athletic of the episode last year. “I think it’s more about when you have been told that you will have the door open when the offer is coming, and you start from one price and it goes to another… and you can see very easily that this opportunity can (slip) away.”

Mitrovic is in that boat now — seeing an ‘opportunity’, albeit of a slightly different kind to joining a club of Manchester United’s global stature, slip away. The difference with Saha, however, is that the Frenchman spoke publicly about the transfer standoff to force the issue. Mitrovic has not taken that step yet. In that regard, it offers hope for Fulham. He still boarded the plane to travel to the U.S., too.

There will be further questions to ponder down the line if he does ultimately force through a move, particularly regarding his legacy.

Mitrovic is adored at Craven Cottage, a sentiment only heightened as he proved his critics wrong over the past two seasons, with fans standing by him throughout even while he was sidelined under then-manager Scott Parker. They will be hurt by the nature of this saga. The memories he has created alongside the River Thames will remain but the exit of a player in his prime in this way would leave a scar.

The more pressing concern for Fulham is that the longer this saga drags on, the more problems it will pose for the team’s pre-season preparations. A quick resolution is needed to ensure there is adequate time to find a replacement before the September 1 deadline, or simply to restore some stability.

The constant noise leaves the club looking unsteady. And that is no way to enter a new season.

(Top photo: Paul Ellis / AFP via Getty Images)

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