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The rise and fall of Henrikh Mkhitaryan

The curious case of Manchester United’s maddening magician

Huddersfield Town v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

He was once an undeniable starter and majorly responsible for Manchester United’s Europa League championship this year. These days, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is an invisible man, likely making his Manchester exit soon, possibly even next month.

The Armenian midfielder has not been featured in eight of the last nine matchday rosters, only appearing as as a substitute in United’s 1-0 win over Brighton on November 25th. This begs the question: what happened?

Disappearing act

The Red Devils began their 2017 Premier League season in excellent style, going unbeaten through eight matches and only conceding two goals. Just in the month of August, Mkhitaryan had five assists in three league games; his attack was in top form. Since then, Mkhitaryan has zero assists and has failed to score in open range.

When the season began Mkhitaryan was hailed as United’s answer to City’s Kevin De Bruyne and Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho. Sure, Mkhitaryan was able to compete with the best of them in August. However, when De Bruyne is showing player of the year quality football and we are still in the first half of the season, the comparisons stop and the criticism ensues.

United acquired Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund for around £26m less than 18 months ago, and his absence in the last month of match play is reminiscent of his first six months at Old Trafford. His failure to shine in big games has even led fans to call for his sale in January. With rumors of Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil coming to Manchester swirling, it’s possible José Mourinho may use Mkhitaryan as a bargaining chip to garner a more consistent performer and break even on transfer fees.

Coveted number 10 position

One of José Mourinho’s biggest advantages as United manager is the versatility within his squad. Ashley Young is a dominant left-back, but he’s also incredible as a winger. Antonio Valencia has completely redefined the responsibilities of a right-back, creating goal-scoring chances when there are none. In the last several weeks, Jesse Lingard has silenced critics who have expressed concern as to whether his pace and finishing are comparable to Mourinho’s standards.

As Lingard’s form improves, so does his argument to be the starting number 10. When asked why Mkhitaryan was notably absent in his recent line-ups, Mourinho told “I can only have six [outfield] players on the bench and I try to have some balance on the bench – I had two defenders and [Daley] Blind who can play in different areas. I had Ashley Young to cover me all of the wing and the wing-back position.”

Basically, José doesn’t have room for Mkhitaryan anymore. As the boss attempts to balance the strengths of his players, this leaves Mkhitaryan as the odd man out. In Sunday’s 2-1 win against West Brom, Juan Mata gracefully moved about the pitch and had a role in both of United’s goals. While we haven’t seen much of Mata in recent weeks, his form does not dip with each appearance.

Premier League pressure

Last week, I wrote about five Manchester United players I believe the club sold too soon. On that list was Shinji Kagawa, the Japanese international who lasted just two years at Old Trafford before returning to Borussia Dortmund, the club United purchased him from. Besides being former teammates, Kagawa and Mkhitaryan share another trait: difficulty adapting to the demands of the Premier League.

When Mkhitaryan arrived at Manchester United, Mourinho was hesitant to give him a starting role, and concerns about his physical and mental strength triggered that decision. He responded with fine performances – but only in Europe. The Premier League is the toughest football league in Europe, and leaves little to be desired for men with unpredictable displays.

The January transfer window is set to open in two short weeks, and Dortmund look keen to welcome their attacking midfielder back with open arms. A homecoming for Mkhitaryan could be necessary for their Europa League chances. Mkhitaryan has all the qualities of a Premier League player, but sadly the patience of his manager is wearing thin.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s decline from outstanding to outcast remains both extraordinary and mystifying. There’s no denying the talent he possesses, but Manchester United is not a club where players go to improve their skills, and inconsistency cannot lead your team to a 14th domestic title. If Mkhitaryan can reignite his early-season performance, then we might see him back at The Theatre of Dreams in February. I still believe he can and will succeed at United, if he wants to.