Twenty-three goals and 32 assists in a single season at Borussia Dortmund; that was the justification for the vast billing Henrikh Mkhitaryan received when he first arrived at Manchester United in 2016.
Those who had watched the Armenian international develop from a talismanic goalscoring creator at Shaktar Donetsk, earning comparisons with Frank Lampard from Pat Nevin, into the same relentless force at Westfalenstadion licked their lips at the prospect of him moving to the Premier League, even more so to a team crying out for his dynamism and flair.
But almost 18 months into his United career, Mkhitaryan has been nothing more than an immense disappointment. Rather than becoming the latest in a long line of flamboyant midfielders to regularly wow the Old Trafford crowd, Mkhitaryan has slowly emerged as United’s equivalent of Mesut Ozil; resting on a preceding reputation and natural talent to explain apathy off the ball and anonymity in United’s most important games.
Much like Ozil too, he was meant to be the creator-in-chief that would take a club on the edge of malaise back towards the trophy-laden glory days. Excepting a goal in last season’s Europa League final, that just hasn’t happened.
While the Gunners No.10 can point to 24 goals and 44 assists from his 125 appearances in the Premier League as a counterweight to the negativity he receives though, Mkhitaryan has produced just five strikes and six setups in 35 games – and five of those assists came in the first three fixtures of 2017/18 alone.
After a turbulent first season at Old Trafford, that flurry of assists against modest opposition was meant to a turning point. But once again, Mkhitaryan has regressed into his shell just when United need him most.
The 1-0 defeat to Chelsea on Sunday provided the most recent and most telling example, not least because Mkhitaryan was hauled off after just 61 minutes, marking his shortest start in the Premier League this season, with just 29 touches and 19 passes to his name.
His direct replacement Marouane Fellaini managed only five and three less respectively in the space of half an hour. Mkhitaryan didn’t create a single chance or have a shot at goal either and what will disappoint Mourinho most is that he fielded the Armenian in his preferred No.10 role, with two powerful and quick strikers in front of him, despite the gravity of the game.
Indeed, there has been much debate over Mourinho’s negative tactics against high-quality opposition this season, and it’s certainly true the pragmatic approach taken against Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham inevitably stifles a player of Mkhitaryan’s fluid, creative mindset. And yet, we’re still talking about a No.10 with two robust central midfielders protecting him, athletically gifted forwards who attack space behind beyond him and another creator in Juan Mata to link up with.
All season, the stage has been set for Mkhitaryan to be at the beating heart of United’s success – he’s certainly been given more chances and freedom than most of the attacking players to work under Mourinho down the years – but he just hasn’t embraced the role and responsibility.
Even if it’s not a case of Mkhitaryan being a relentless presence on the ball in the same way as Eden Hazard or David Silva, he’s failed to provide the moments of ingenious magic United need to get over the line in those pragmatic performances too. For a 28-year-old who should be at the peak of his powers, that’s incredibly worrying.
But perhaps there are greater forces at work than simply an important player shying away from his duties, forces which once again link Mkhitaryan with Ozil. Both belong to the mode of No.10 that was immensely popular in the early 2010s; creators who would elusively seep in and out of games, given the free role in midfield, with the expectation to eventually provide the cutting edge.
The simple fact of the matter is that few top Premier League sides use 4-2-3-1 formations these days – even Mourinho has reverted to a back three in recent weeks – the No.10 position has accordingly diminished and there is a greater emphasis on pressing from the front than ever before.
Attacking midfielders are highly adaptable, but Ozil and Mkhitaryan just don’t have the natural working appetite for the inside forward roles we now see No.10s fielded in. It’s already clear Mourinho has tried his best to generate one in Mkhitaryan.
That being said, there is an obvious trade-off for workshy players regardless of tactics and systems. Hazard has never been the most energetic off the ball, but his productivity justifies having the rest of the team work for him.
If Mkhitaryan were matching those levels, or even the levels of Ozil, his low work-rate, his knack of drifting in and out of games, would be understandable and acceptable – especially considering how sturdy United are defensively. But the Armenian hasn’t shown once during his time in England that he’s capable of delivering in the same way. At 28, you have to wonder if he ever will.
Mourinho has every right to feel betrayed because of the faith he’s shown in Mkhitaryan. The team has been structured in a way that should embellish his strengths; using a No.10 rather than three central midfielders was perhaps the biggest tactical decision Mourinho made during the summer and after an underwhelming debut season, reserving that role for the ex-Dortmund man was a significant gamble.
Mkhitaryan’s failed to step up to the plate and the biggest problem now is that Mourinho’s hands appear tied. With Mata quickly dropping out of favour, and in fact struggling just as much as Mkhitaryan this season, and Anthony Martial more a forward than a midfielder, the United boss doesn’t really have an alternative No.10 to fall back on. Jesse Lingard and Marouane Fellaini represent the final, uninspiring and largely attritional options.
That might just keep Mkhitaryan in the team long enough to turn his anonymous form around, but the current signs all suggest he just doesn’t have the appetite for it.