With their 4-0 thumping of Feyenoord last night, Manchester United look almost certain to progress to the knockout stage of the Europa League.
That might not be the biggest positive to come from the game, though. The man of the match performance of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was making only his second start of the season, will have delighted all United fans in attendance and watching around the world.
The Armenian had been out in the cold ever since being taken off at half-time in the Manchester derby on 10 September. Before Feyenoord’s visit to Old Trafford, his only appareance since the defeat to Manchester City was away to Fenerbahce ealier this month. Even then, his 29 minute cameo appeared to draw the ire of Mourinho — "He has to do more. It’s as simple as that," the Portuguese said after the game.
But given a start last night, Mkhitaryan put in a virtuoso display, showcasing the speed of thought, directness and dynamism that led to United forking out £26.5 million to sign him from Borussia Dortmund in the summer.
When asked about Mkhitaryan’s exclusion from the team, Mourinho had cited a lack of intensity, a notion which baffled many who saw him turn out for Dortmund.
There was no lack of intensity against Feyenoord, though, as Mkhitaryan appeared determined to prove a point to his boss, and his worth to the fans.
As well as he played, Andi, do you think he’s done enough to force Mourinho to completely change his stance? Or was last night the first of many steps that he’ll likely have to take to convince Mourinho that he was wrong?
Andi: Well, he couldn't have done much more. Except score. But that aside, he was brilliant, and more importantly he was the kind of brilliant that United have been missing over the last few seasons. That kind of direct running with the ball through the lines of defence is exactly what a side trying to shake of a bad case of the van Gaal side-to-sides needs.
If we assume that Mourinho wasn't just being a mardy buffoon and was waiting to see something in Mkhitaryan's training and attitude, then we can probably assume that this kind of performance was exactly what he was waiting for. Yet even then, Mourinho made a post-game reference to "one more step": the Premier League. It's clear that Mourinho, when he mentioned "intensity", didn't mean application or effort or anything that Mkhitaryan displayed at Dortmund. What do you think he might have been worried about? And what's so special about the Premier League that it takes three months to adjust?
Ryan: The honest answer here is: I have no idea what was stopping Mourinho from playing him.
As you say, last night Mkhitaryan looked like the kind of player United have been missing, but it’s not like it came as a surprise; most fans have been crying out for him to play all season for exactly that reason.
Maybe it was all an elaborate ploy from Mourinho to stoke Mkhitaryan’s fire, because he certainly seemed extra-motivated last night. But, as many of us have felt for some time now, leaving him out of the team made very little sense.
I guess we have to give Mourinho the benefit of the doubt in these situations as we’re not privy to what goes on on the training pitch; perhaps he felt Mkhitaryan wasn’t working hard enough.
As for why the Premier League might take so long to adapt to, it seems to be different for every player.
There was a time when English football was especially cut and thrust, and played a breakneck speeds with little thought given to tactical planning — all four-four-effing-two and whatnot. But these days the game is globalised, the proliferation of foreign players and coaches has made football in Europe much more of a homogenised melting pot of styles. The reasons why some players take a while to adapt could be purely cultural.
From a footballing perspective, I thought Mkhitaryan’s style and skillset made him an ideal candidate to hit the ground running in the Premier League — more so perhaps than, say, Eric Bailly, who has been excellent from the off.
Mkhitaryan’s lack of action this season has baffled most fans, but do you think there is any method to Mourinho’s madness?
Andi: My only thought — and I stress that this is highly speculative and almost certainly inaccurate — is that Mourinho judged, rightly or wrongly, that the game against City knocked Mkhitaryan quite seriously. And as a result, he wanted to be ultra-careful about when he reintroduced him into the team: it had to be when he was completely ready, when the rest of the team were playing quite well, and against amenable opposition. Feyenoord certainly were that.
I don't pretend to have followed Mkhitaryan's career too closely but I think — and again, I may be wrong — that he took a while to reach his best at Dortmund. And I've certainly seen people talking about him as a player who needs an arm round the shoulder, whose confidence can be knocked. So, that's my best guess. He kept talking him up in interviews, but he didn't want to compound the poor game against City with another poor follow-up game, so he waited. And waited. And ... [looks at watch] ... waited.
So, now that the wait's over, where in the full-strength team does he go?
Ryan: With the way West Ham United are struggling at the moment, I think Mourinho can afford to field a similarly attacking line-up to the one we saw against Feyenoord, i.e. we can probably afford to get away with allowing Pogba to roam from the double pivot in a 4-2-3-1, with three dedicated attacking midfielders in the team. In these kind of fixtures, Mkhitaryan could play on the left or as the No.10, assuming Mata starts on the right. And with Wayne Rooney also having put in a great display last night, you could fit him back into this formation too, if you so wish.
But up against better opposition, we’ve seen that United need a three-man midfield, with Carrick holding and Ander Herrera as the counterbalance to Pogba’s desire to roam.
When this is the case, it becomes a straight choice between Mkhitaryan, Mata, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Ashley Young and Rooney for the two wide positions.
His ability to play on either side will help Mkhitaryan’s case to start, but if more natural width is required, it may be a case of either/or between him and Mata.
Do you see it any differently? Would you consider some kind of change of system to accommodate Mkhitaryan in a different way?
Andi: I think you're right on both counts: United will move between their Pogba+1 and Pogba+2 formations depending on the occasion, and Mkhitaryan's position depends on that. What I would add is that one of the most encouraging signs from last night's performance was the willingness of Mkhitaryan and his colleagues to interchange. Rooney made the first goal by charging down the left flank, Mkhitaryan should have drawn a red card by cutting right through the middle. Given the way he plays, it would be a waste to force him to play just as a winger, and it's encouraging that in games where United expect to dominate, he seems to have licence to roam. Long may it last.