Daley Blind’s dad, Danny, recently sacked by the Dutch FA for his part in their unsuccessful 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, spoke earlier in the month about José Mourinho’s “six chosen ones” – cute line – at Manchester United this season. Blind Snr. felt those six made up the “frame of his side” while other positions are heavily rotated.
“De Gea, Valencia, Matić, Pogba, who is currently injured, Lukaku & Mkhitaryan.” Check, captain check, check, yup, check, ch–wait. Henrikh Mkhitaryan?
“People talk about Lukaku, who gets a lot of goals. But you need a player who provides all the assists, who feeds the big goalscorer. He [Mkhitaryan] is so important for United. He keeps the tempo in the game, he is deadly with his one touch football near the box and he always has an eye for every situation in front of goal.”
Not only has Mkhitaryan started every game this season for United save for a single league cup fixture against Burton Albion, but also in a coveted position. United aren’t short of No. 10s – Juan Mata is especially unlucky not to have played there with any regularity under several managers since joining nearly four years ago. Mata has, to his credit, made the right side his own now sharing with Jesse Lingard. On the left, 70 minutes of Rashford then 20 minutes of Martial, or vice versa. Mkhitaryan, however, currently starts regardless if he’s fit. Mourinho probably pushed Mkhitaryan’s condition against Palace – taken off in Moscow three days earlier after an hour having scored their fourth – in United’s last game before the international break. As is the manager’s want, and the Armenian was duly subdued and subbed second half.
Mkhitaryan misplaces a pass when he had the chance to set Lukaku free and Mourinho is not impressed. Immediately sends Lingard to warm up.— Rob Dawson (@RobDawsonESPN) September 30, 2017
He did not have a good game against Palace, making an entry in the ever excellent Football365 winners and losers roundup.
Mkhitaryan polarises opinion from supporters more than any player since Nani. They are not dissimilar; Nani also took risks to stretch teams and unlock defences. Losing the ball infuriates fans, whether trying to thread a pass or beat a man, but as inventive players they should get a little more leeway. They are also both hot-and-cold types drifting in and out of games, Mkhitaryan especially. Again, this angers fans when things aren’t going particularly well and a scapegoat is sought. Their unshackled role is clear: make something happen. Nevertheless, when it’s not happening there’s no hiding nor being above criticism.
After a difficult start to his United career, Mkhitaryan’s influence on the team when drafted back in was stark for a side more recently used to eschewing a slick tempo. At times, Mkhitaryan helped United look like United again. Mourinho has decided, for now, that his major concession to creativity is Mkhitaryan, pleasingly in an often attacking outfit which includes Mata. The absence of Paul Pogba and his creativity may have had an impact on selections, equally will United’s more demanding fixtures, but Mkhitaryan seems to be regarded as an automatic starter. Quite the redemption. Some fans, however, remain unconvinced and would rather see the endearing Mata take centre stage. In a lovely interview on the eve of facing Liverpool at Anfield, Mata – we’ll assume unwittingly – made reference to flawless decision making, something Mkhitaryan struggles with. Consistency is key and only the very best creative players have it. Mkhitaryan is not there yet and may never be, though his manager’s keen to find out.
Mkhitaryan scored for his country midweek but will be having the summer off, likely anywhere but Russia or England, and can focus entirely on taking his club to the next level. More immediately, another pardon in the league cup fixture will be penciled in later this month as his only rest again – all being well. Mkhitaryan’s first battle was supposedly mental, now he’s being tested physically and the incline is getting steeper with games against Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea in the league around more Champions League fixtures where he looks most at home.
Only a major change in formation and selection is threatening Mkhitaryan’s place prior to a litmus test period for both him and United making do without their best player. Anfield did no harm to Mata’s reputation amongst United fans, so maybe not such a bad place to start.