Henrikh Mkhitaryan signed for Arsenal in January 2018 hoping to revive a career that went stale at Old Trafford, but he’s only ever suffered serious criticism in his time in the Premier League despite arriving on the back of an incredibly promising spell at Borussia Dortmund.
Mkhitaryan was involved in a swap deal that saw Alexis Sanchez leave the Gunners and head for the Red Devils, who exchanged the Armenian after poor performances under Jose Mourinho.
Under a manager with more attacking instinct in Arsene Wenger, Mkhitaryan was expected to show his class and he responded with a very promising start to life at the Emirates, starring in his home debut against Everton by registering a hat-trick of assists, though he’s failed to find consistency in his role since his stellar start.
Unai Emery has often deployed the playmaker as a right winger with the number 10 role being regularly fulfilled by Mesut Ozil or Juventus-bound Aaron Ramsey, leaving Mkhitaryan only to fill the gaps in the starting XI.
The reality is that despite the midfielder’s evident shortcomings and lack of end product, it would be unfair to judge him on his performances since he arrived in England, considering he’s been grossly mismanaged.
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Mkhitaryan was signed by Manchester United as one of the players of the season in the Bundesliga, registering 23 goals and 32 assists in his final season with Borussia Dortmund.
His statistics mirrored those of Kevin De Bruyne, who achieved 16 goals and 28 assists in his first full season at Wolfsburg before becoming a roaring success at Manchester City.
Like Mkhitaryan, De Bruyne was predominantly used as a right winger upon his arrival with Manuel Pellegrini squeezing him into a line-up that boasted a central midfield of Fernandinho, Yaya Toure and David Silva. With Pep Guardiola taking the helm in the blue side of Manchester, he’s found a way to include his most creative midfielders in the middle of the pitch and sacrifice steel for class instead.
There’s no doubt that De Bruyne’s switching of position has elevated his game to a new level – this combined with the influence and mentoring of Guardiola.
Emery has tried to solve Arsenal’s problems out wide with a number of formations, but the ex-Dortmund man has not been the answer to the right flank. Mourinho used Mkhitaryan in the same way, and his regular deployment in this position has skewed what fans immediately assume as his comfort zone. He’s no longer judged as a number 10 struggling out of position – he’s now criticised as a poor right midfielder.
Some will say that a player of his talent should be able to adapt more effortlessly to a tweaking of position, though this is far too naive. The beauty of a world class number 10 comes in their ability to excel when the shackles are off, and watching them use their sheer instinct and talent to dictate a football match. Playing on the right means Mkhitaryan has so much defensive responsibility that it saps away his freedom, especially when he’s having to protect a right-back who’s also playing out of position in Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
During the occasional game in which he’s started in the middle for Arsenal, he’s excelled. For at least another year or two, with the departure of Ramsey and Ozil’s consistent inconsistencies denying him a regular position in Emery’s XI, perhaps there is a gap to be filled by Mkhitaryan if he were afforded the opportunity to show his quality in central areas, but it’s down to the manager to realise the position in which he truly belongs.