From Bundesliga Player of the Year to relative anonymity - What's gone wrong for Henrikh Mkhitaryan?
Towards the end of last season, Manchester United fans were left disillusioned by the tedious possession-based football their team was playing under then-manager Louis Van Gaal. There was a clear lack of bite in the attacking third of the pitch and even though there was a trophy added with the FA Cup triumph, everybody understood it was time for a change.
In came Jose Mourinho. When the ‘Special One’ took over at Manchester United, the club was in dire need of intensity and attacking intent in the final third of the pitch. The team from the previous season was shackled in terms of attacking movement under Van Gaal and Mourinho needed to put this right if he was to achieve success in what he described as the ‘biggest job of his career.’
And he started on the right note, bringing in big names in the transfer window, even with the lack of Champions League football at Old Trafford this season. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was brought in for free. The prodigal son, Paul Pogba, returned for a world-record fee. Defensive reinforcement arrived in the shape of Eric Bailly.
But what captured the imagination of the media and the fans most was the signing of one Henrikh Mkhitaryan. One of Europe’s leading playmakers, the Armenian had just had the season of his life at Borussia Dortmund, having scored and assisted a jaw-dropping 49 goals for BVB and winning the Bundesliga Player of the Year award along the way.
He was everything a Manchester United fan hoped for. He likes to take a run at the defenders, has a brilliant turn of pace and has the ability to make that incisive final pass in the opponent’s half of the pitch. In many ways, United had found everything that they lacked under Van Gaal in this player alone.
Signed from Shakhtar Donetsk as a replacement for the outgoing Mario Götze in 2013, Mkhitaryan had enjoyed a wonderful 3-year spell at Signal Iduna Park. A genuine fan favourite, he went on to score 41 times for BVB in over 130 appearances.
So, it was a given that many top sides across Europe were eying the 27-year old. But United’s chief executive Ed Woodward made sure the attacking midfielder arrived at the Theatre of Dreams, snapping him up for £27million.
His arrival at Carrington was met with great amount of anticipation and expectation. He was the man who was expected to turn a laborious United side into a fluid attacking machine. The prospects of such a quality player linking up with the likes of Zlatan and Rooney, along with the raw pace of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford on the wings was truly a mouth-watering one for everyone.
His first appearance in a pre-season friendly for United at Wigan showed glimpses of what was to come. He buzzed around the DW Stadium, playing first-time passes between the lines and had an acceleration that left defenders stunned in their tracks.
But things have hardly gone well for the Armenian. He was meant to spellbind Old Trafford with his footballing prowess. But instead he has failed to play a full game under Jose Mourinho till date despite the team’s woes.
So what has wrong gone for Mkhitaryan? Where has the Bundesliga Player of the Year disappeared?
Mourinho started the season with Rooney as his favoured No.10, with the likes of Martial and Juan Mata on the wings, condemning Mkhitaryan to the bench. But the winning start to the campaign meant nobody questioned the Portuguese’s selection.
The first international break followed, playing the villain in what was supposed to a fairytale for both the club and the player. Mkhitaryan got himself injured on international duty with Armenia and with the Manchester derby up next, he was considered doubtful to feature.
But Mourinho, who is usually very prudent when it comes to selecting injured players, decided to gamble on the playmaker, handing him his first start for United against their fiercest rivals in a high-pressure game. It turned out to be a disastrous selection as Mkhitaryan struggled to have any impact and was withdrawn at half-time with the Red Devils trailing 2-0. He gave the ball away cheaply on many occasions and looked completely out of pace throughout his short appearance.
Mourinho's post-match comments about the first half read: 'You have to be completely ready in terms of your thinking and decision-making,' hinting at Mkhitaryan’s disappointing show. One might argue that it was unfair to the player who was returning from an injury and starting his first ever game on such a big night. But he hasn’t kicked a single ball for United since that night.
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Since the loss to City on September 10, United have struggled in the Premier League with just one win in five games. But in a time of crisis for his team, Mourinho still continues to overlook the former Shakhtar Donetsk player.
A thigh injury had been cited as part of the reason for Mkhitaryan’s continued absence but Mourinho declared him and Luke Shaw fit before the game at Liverpool two weeks ago. Shaw appeared as a substitute at Anfield but Mkhitaryan didn't.
He wasn't even in the matchday squad for the 4-0 drubbing at Chelsea when the manager's defensive tactics backfired. Nor was he named among the 18-men for the EFL Cup fourth round clash against rivals City which United did manage to win 1-0.
Why? The question beckons
It all boils down to the trust between the player and the gaffer. Mourinho, who is by nature a defensive manager, likes his attackers to put in a shift in defence as well. He prefers players who are prepared to perform defensive duties apart from their primary role of attacking. And what Jose saw from Mkhitaryan against City last month may have created doubts in his mind about using the attacking midfielder.
One can even argue that after playing Mkhitaryan when he was not 100% match fit against City, Mourinho is being more pragmatic and is taking a cautious approach with respect to using him until he is completely ready. That Mourinho isn’t willing to take another gamble and further harm the player’s fitness and confidence.
But whatever the reason might be behind his ongoing exile at United, Mourinho should realize that there’s no other player at his disposal who can link play in the final third at a high tempo, better than Mkhitaryan. Both Rooney and Pogba were tried but failed to impress. ‘Mkhi’ can also ease the goal-scoring burden on United’s forwards to a certain degree with goals from midfield.
With rumours doing rounds saying that Mkhitaryan is unhappy and looking for an exit this early into his Manchester United career, it is high time Mourinho showed faith in his player and reinstates him to United’s midfield. Sometimes all a player needs is a show of confidence and he can do wonders, which we all know, Mkhitaryan is very capable of.
After three years of scintillating displays in front of the ‘Yellow Wall’, it is time Henrikh Mkhitaryan is given an opportunity to set ablaze the ‘Stretford End.’