Not five minutes. Not even a minute.
Aleksandar Mitrovic didn’t get any time on the pitch at Oakwell.
Can you control the midfield without this second striker? You might be more dangerous with two strikers, but then you have less power and less control in the middle.Rafa Benitez
Rafa Benitez made just two substitutions against Barnsley on Tuesday night.
Mitrovic didn’t spend the entire game, won 2-0 by Newcastle United, on the bench.
The striker – who has made only one Championship start this season – frequently warmed up in front of the half-empty West Stand.
Each time he headed towards the 5,501 travelling fans at Oakwell, there was a chant of “Mitro, Mitro, Mitro”.
Mitrovic, so strong in the air, was the player most supporters wanted to see come off the bench.
Yet Benitez brought on Christian Atsu and Jack Colback.
Why? Why has Mitrovic spent so little time on the pitch this season since serving a four-game ban.
That is at least partly explained by the form of stunning Dwight Gayle, who took his goal tally for the season to 11 with two strikes against Barnsley.
Gayle – a natural finisher who has the pace to get in behind teams – has been a revelation since joining from Crystal Palace in the summer.
Mitrovic, not blessed with pace, is often at his best with his back to goal. Gayle is better facing goal.
As such, many supporters feel they would form a good partnership.
So why has Benitez, so far, resisted the temptation to field Gayle AND Mitrovic from the start?
It’s a question that has been put to Benitez several times.
“I know everybody says ‘why don’t you play with two strikers?’, but it depends on the rest of the team,” said Benitez, who has been using Mohamed Diame and Ayoze Perez in the No 10 role behind Gayle.
“Can you control the midfield without this second striker? You might be more dangerous with two strikers, but then you have less power, less control in the middle.”
Never say never, but Benitez doesn’t seem minded to name them both in his starting XI this season.
Benitez feels playing Mitrovic – who scored twice for Serbia during the international break – alongside Gayle would see Newcastle weaker in midfield.
And one thing Benitez wants his team to do is control games.
It was a point he touched on after watching his team beat Queens Park Rangers 6-0 at Loftus Road last month.
Newcastle had won by a six-goal margin in the league for the first time since the 1962-63 season. Yet Benitez wanted more. He wanted more “control”.
Mitrovic started that night. He hasn’t started since.
The striker revealed after the match that he almost “lost his head” waiting for his first league start.
“It has been a really frustrating few weeks for me, and it has been hard for me to keep my head right,” said Mitrovic.
Maybe that was why he started ahead of Gayle, Benitez’s preferred striker, at Loftus Road. Benitez felt he simply had to have a game.
Of course, Mitrovic and Gayle have been on the pitch at the same time this season – with devastating consequences.
Mitrovic came off the bench against Norwich City and helped spark a late, late comeback. The 22-year-old, a powerful presence in the box, caused the late panic which led to Gayle’s two injury-time goals.
One concern of Benitez is, not surprisingly, Mitrovic’s discipline. That’s a work in progress.
The odds are on Mitrovic starting next week’s EFL Cup tie against Preston North End at St James’s Park.
It would be a welcome run-out for a player who needs to get fit after missing the start of the season – but he can’t do that without time on the pitch.
One thing that will have heartened Benitez, however, was Mitrovic’s reaction to Gayle’s second goal at Oakwell.
Mitrovic, warming up on the touchline, ran to join in the celebrations – and was as joyful as any of his team-mates.
The result took the club to the top of the Championship ahead of tomorrow’s home game against Ipswich Town.
Mitrovic will get chances this season, but his patience will be tested.
And he just might not get the chance to play alongside Gayle that often – despite the clamour from the terraces.