Why Fulham are pinning their hopes on Broja to plug a Mitrovic-shaped hole


Fulham’s January deadline day striker signings under Shahid Khan’s ownership have been a mixed bag.

On the one hand, there is Josh Maja, whose initial spark fizzled out quite quickly, and Kostas Mitroglou who was, to be frank, a disaster.

But then there was Aleksandar Mitrovic, signed after a late-evening text exchange with Fulham’s then head coach Slavisa Jokanovic after the forward’s transfer from Newcastle to Anderlecht broke down. He signed before the deadline, inspired promotion to the Premier League and went on to become one of Fulham’s best centre-forwards in recent memory.

It is the latter whom Armando Broja will want to emulate.

Fulham have been searching for a replacement for Mitrovic since last summer and this deal, with its initial loan period, feels like an audition. Broja was a key target and, while the finances involved in Chelsea’s initial loan proposal were off-putting, the negotiations led to an agreement that Fulham could tolerate.

There is a loan fee of £4m ($5.08m) but, according to multiple sources close to the deal, the money due could potentially drop to zero if Broja meets appearance criteria. Fulham will cover his salary and there is no option to make the deal permanent in the summer.

GO DEEPER

Broja capture is a boost for Fulham, who have work to do in the summer

Fulham needed a centre-forward.

Raul Jimenez’s form has improved since breaking his goal drought against Aston Villa in November, but a hamstring injury — which might leave him sidelined for more than a month — leaves them exposed. Behind the Mexican, neither Carlos Vinicius nor Rodrigo Muniz fully convinced. Between them, they have two goals from 23 league appearances and the latter is yet to score in the top flight. Vinicius has joined Galatasaray on loan until the end of the season.

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Jimenez (left) is hamstrung, while Vinicius has left on loan (Eddie Keogh/Getty Images)

As a team, Fulham have scored just two goals from their most recent 87 shots, with both of those coming against Arsenal on New Year’s Eve. No Premier League side has failed to score in matches more often this season than Fulham (10 times). They needed a goalscorer.

So is Broja the answer and a player capable of filling the void left by Mitrovic?

The Albania international is 22 and still raw. He caught the eye when on loan at Southampton in 2021-22, scoring six goals from 32 league appearances and nine in all competitions. Most of those came in the first half of the campaign after which his form, and that of his team, fell flat. 

With Chelsea, his progress was interrupted by a serious knee injury suffered in the winter of 2022 during the Qatar World Cup hiatus. He returned this season and made his first start against Fulham, scoring his side’s second goal in a 2-0 win at Craven Cottage in October. The striker made 13 league appearances for Chelsea this season, winning a late penalty against Manchester City but offering a mixed bag of performances in a team that has struggled for confidence and consistency.

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Broja scores at Craven Cottage in October (Nigel French/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)

Yet, while Chelsea may have wanted to move Broja on given the money raised by the sale of an academy product would be classed as pure profit, head coach Mauricio Pochettino never doubted the player’s potential.

“The potential is massive,” Pochettino said last week. “All the biggest strikers need time. When they are young, they need to find their own balance. But I believe that he has the potential to be an amazing striker.

“I always compare it to Harry Kane. He went on loan to Leyton Orient, Norwich, and spent time finding his real balance. In our first six months, he started to perform only in December and January and that’s when we started to see his real potential.”

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Fulham’s style has not evolved greatly since Mitrovic departed. They still play in a 4-3-3 system, and their build-up is most effective in wide areas. They continue to create chances, particularly from crosses; last year they averaged around 20 crosses per game, the second most in the division behind Liverpool, and this year that figure has only dropped slightly to around 18.

They have, though, been lacking a focal point in the box. Jimenez, for all of his industry off the ball, is a player more comfortable linking the play and working on the edge of the area, rather than lingering around the six-yard box. That is where they have missed Mitrovic.

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Mitrovic holds off Victor Lindelof and Christian Eriksen of Manchester United last May (Matt McNulty/Getty Images)

So, what of Broja stylistically?

It is worth noting that Broja’s numbers will vary within his team’s playing style and, in truth, there are unknowns. He played significantly different football at Southampton, where Ralph Hasenhuttl imposed a counter-pressing game, compared to life at Chelsea under Graham Potter and Pochettino. Neither team were as focused on a target forward like Fulham.

But Southampton are clearly the better comparison given the club competed at a similar level to Fulham.

As you can see from his ball receptions (below), he actually spent quite a bit of time in wide areas with Chelsea…

armando broja passes received

… whereas, during his stint at Southampton, he mirrors more of what Mitrovic provided Fulham in 2022-23.

aleksandar mitrovic passes received 1

Compared directly to Mitrovic’s best season for Fulham, when he scored 14 top-flight goals, Broja is a player who tends to get into more dangerous positions, outlined by his expected goals per shot (see table below). But he was not as prolific at conversion. Mitrovic, of course, had more experience in the Premier League and was playing in a system that was designed to put him in front of goal.

That may change things for Broja.

But there are some encouraging elements. Broja’s higher numbers of progressive carries and dribbles that occur in the opposition half — runs which are greater than five metres and move the ball at least five metres towards the opposition goal — point to his better technical ability on the ball.

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His percentage of headed attempts at goal is lower than that of Mitrovic, influenced by the lower quantity of aerial battles he faced at Chelsea. But at Southampton, the numbers were more similar. Mitrovic averaged 4.5 aerial duel successes per 90 minutes last season, and Broja averaged 4 per 90 while on loan at St Mary’s.

His success rate will need to improve if it is to match Mitrovic; Mitrovic won 48 per cent of his aerial duels in 2022-23, while Broja won 34.6 per cent of his during that campaign on the south coast. It should be acknowledged, however, that Mitrovic was one of the Premier League’s best in the air.

Broja, too, is a physical presence. He stands 6ft 3in (1.91m) tall, but also has some speed and, crucially, is a good presser. “Armando’s got everything; he’s a problem (for defenders). I’d hate to play against him,” said Levi Colwill after he scored against Fulham. “He’s big, strong and takes his chances.”

As a personality, he needed a bit of pushing to get going, according to Hasenhuttl. “I had some very serious conversations with him to tell him what I want to see,” he said back in September 2021. “He’s a little bit of a slow starter, you need to push him a little bit. But it’s impressive how quick he learns and how quick he wants to do it better.”

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Broja heads at goal while playing for Southampton against Arsenal in April 2022 (Robin Jones/Getty Images)

Finding consistent minutes will be essential for Broja at Fulham, and that is why it formed a key element of the loan agreement itself. The last Chelsea player to move down the road to Craven Cottage on loan, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, struggled to make a proper impact, but the “play or pay” nature of Broja’s loan arrangement may put pressure on Marco Silva to pick the new arrival.

The encouraging factor for his new club will be how the head coach has polished rough diamonds during his tenure. Countless players, from Willian to Tim Ream to Mitrovic himself, have hit new heights since his appointment in west London. Fulham will want Silva to do the same here. 

Broja is a player that everyone will now be assessing. Will his performances convince Chelsea that they should retain him, or encourage Fulham to find the money to make him Mitrovic’s longer-term replacement? The coming weeks may offer an indication.

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GO DEEPER

Armando Broja making up for lost time as Chelsea’s faith in the forward pays off

(Top photo: John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)





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