Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Armenian magician. The sheer brilliance of the midfield maestro this season has been astonishing. His highly anticipated arrival in the starting line up has rejuvenated and revitalised our attacking force. Although all four of our summer signings have been excellent, Mkhitaryan’s exceptional impact can partially be attributed to his prime age on arrival (27) compared with Bailly and Pogba (early twenties) and Zlatan (mid thirties). It is not only his incredible work ethic which has impressed but the decisive, match winning pieces of imperious brilliance, which have illuminated our season. Is it a coincidence that his reintroduction to the team at the end of November prompted a dramatic upsurge in our fortunes and performance levels?
His first Premier League goal against Tottenham was quite simply breathtaking; a finish of aplomb and finesse which fuelled our expectations that Mkhitaryan could be a talismanic figure in our attacking skirmishes. Whilst I do not share Spurs fans’ admiration of the talents of their left back Danny Rose, his lightning pace is unquestionable. So when Mkhitaryan motored past him with sublime ease and was brought down despairingly by the lunging Rose, I gained further proof that we had acquired a genuine gem. His subsequent injury from the abhorrent challenge strengthened the fervour and clamour surrounding the Armenian, and our firm belief that we had found the missing piece of our team.
All of this was in stark contrast to his initial Premier League debut where he was the main culprit (along with Jesse Lingard) in a sobering 2-1 defeat against Manchester City. His lack of game time and match fitness was really exposed by the high energetic pressing of Guardiola’s side. Hauled off at half time, Mkhitaryan no doubt had a baptism of fire to the English Premier League. He looked a shadow of the player who had terrorised the Bundesliga last season, scoring 23 goals and assisting a further 26, an average of a contributing to a goal every 89 minutes in all competitions.
However, Mkhitaryan wouldn’t allow this poor debut to thwart him entirely. Rather, he used it as galvanisation and worked extremely hard to win back his place. As Jesse Lingard revealed in a recent interview with FourFourTwo, Mkhitaryan is the earliest to arrive at training, which shows his dedication and exemplary work ethic. Mkhitaryan’s professionalism and endeavour will surely have impressed Jose Mourinho, who with his repeated picks of Marouane Fellaini, has shown that he values desire and passion as much as skill and technique.
Mkhitaryan, also, has an incredible propensity to show moments of true attacking brilliance, whether this is a defence splitting pass, a mouth-watering dribble or an outstanding finish. His scorpion kick against Sunderland epitomised the immense quality that he has. The goal may have been scored from an offside position but the linesman who denied it would have been deemed an enemy of football had he flagged. It wasn’t just the exquisite nature of the precise contact but the placement of the strike which nestled into the corner of the goal. It was quite simply extraordinary and deservedly won Goal of the Month.
Another of Mkhitaryan’s most impressive skills is his ability to track back and win possession for the team. Unlike some other members of the team, if he loses the ball, he will chase his dispossessor to retrieve possession. In the recent FA Cup match against Blackburn, Mkhitaryan’s offensive statistics were impressive with 1 assist, 7 dribbles and 66 passes but he also won 100% of his tackles. This redoubtable ethos not only impresses the fans, but inspires the other players to try their utmost at all times. I feel that the majority of fans will accept defeat, if the players have tried their absolute best and shown maximum effort. Mkhitaryan’s heart and pride in his work is unquestionable.
His pace, so unusual for a creative play maker, adds a further asset which has proved invaluable this season as he terrorises defences and offers the threat in behind when bursting clear against opponents such as Tottenham and Leicester in the league, for example. In the one on one situations, Mkhitaryan shows composure and class in taking the right amount of touches before executing the final pass or finishing with conviction. Indeed, with his abundant pace, Mkhitaryan has stated that he would have been a sprinter, had he not become a footballer. Attacking verve is characterised by quick, skilful players of which Mkhitaryan is amongst the best in world football.
At 5ft 10 inches Mkhitaryan is not the tallest player but has shown that given the chance he can contribute aerially also. It was his towering leap above the Hull defender in the opening leg of our League Cup Semi Final that directly assisted Juan Mata, who had the simplest of close range finishes from Mkhitaryan’s perfectly placed header. This is important as taller players like Marouane Fellaini and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will often draw the opponents’ direct attention and smaller players like Mkhitaryan can ghost in for set pieces and crosses as he did on Thursday against St Etienne.
Footballers are often praised on their intelligence, ability to read the game and make the correct decisions. Mkhitaryan is multilingual, fluent in six languages: Armenian, Russian, English, German, French, Portuguese and also some Italian. This is a somewhat rare and admirable trait, as it shows an intelligence which disproves the common rhetoric that footballers are all unintelligent, other than with their feet. Certainly, one can imagine that with the multinational Manchester United squad, these lingual skills will enable him to more closely bond with his team mates.
Undoubtedly, we have seen that Mkhitaryan’s vision and execution are incredible. His backheel assist for Zlatan’s opening goal in our 4-0 demolition of West Ham off his weaker left foot, gave a tantalising glimpse of Mkhitaryan’s ingenuity and flair which have gained him accolades and plaudits from pundits and fans alike. His slide rules passes have further characterised his precision and tremendous ability, notable mentions, include his assist for Mata against Leicester and his assist for Rashford against Blackburn Rovers.
He and Mata, in particular, seem to revel playing with one another exchanging intricate, quick passes when playing together, never more showcased than by the one two the pair exchanged for Mata’s strike against Leicester. Mata repaid the debt, when he curled a delicious cross into Mkhitaryan’s path to stab home the away goal against St Etienne. Replays show that Mkhitaryan points to Mata where he wants the ball, as the latter looks up and further cements the chemistry the two seem to have.
Mourinho has been seen to trust certain members of his team well above others. Many Manchester United fans for instance, have been wont to observe that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba seem beyond approach and censure for below average performances. They are picked in almost all games and seem above substitution. It is a credit to Mkhitaryan that his efforts and skill level are commensurately rewarded with becoming a member of Mourinho’s elite contingent of trusted acolytes. However, the debilitating effect which this immense game time can have was exposed when Mkhitaryan pulled up with a hamstring injury ruling him out of this weekend’s League Cup Final.
His import to the team can be judged in the uncertainty surrounding whom to pick to replace Mkhitaryan. There are a wide variety of options being bandied about whether to use Lingard, Rooney, Fellaini in the more attacking role, or switching the formation to allow a deep lying player like Michael Carrick to play. When a team contends with having to alter its formation in your absence you know you’re a key component of it.
There is no higher honour or epithet which I can bestow upon Mkhitaryan than that he reminds me of Cristiano Ronaldo. The parallels with the Portuguese’s second goal in the 2009 Champions League away tie against Arsenal and Mkhitaryan’s goal against Wigan are striking. In both, the players run at breathtaking pace and are involved in a rapier sharp, counter attack exchanging passes from deep in their own half and finish with distinction. Mkhitaryan is in the same mould as Ronaldo, a thrilling, exhilarating player whom fans can enthuse and rave about.
It is easy to forget that Mkhitaryan wasn’t playing in the autumn of this year. Many fans became restless and there was a general feeling of despondency and dejection that the Armenian would be offloaded. Mkhitaryan has since, graciously, admitted that Mourinho acted in his player’s best interests and that his absence from the front line had served him well when he has vindicated his reputation over the last three months.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has firmly embedded himself in the Manchester United team, evident as we desperately search for a replacement for the League Cup Final. After his winning goal in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over St Etienne, Mkhitaryan has been directly involved in 11 goals in his last 16 games for Manchester United with 6 goals and 5 assists. A strong argument could be made that Mkhitaryan is both our best and most invaluable player, with his plethora of attributes and panache. He has certainly become a firm fans’ favourite and one of mine.