Henrikh Mkhitaryan is perhaps the only player at Manchester United Jose Mourinho allows to shirk his defensive responsibilities at times. The 68-cap Armenian isn’t gifted the off-the-ball apathy he showed during his first few appearances for the Red Devils, but there is nonetheless an acceptance that he doesn’t always have to be as relentlessly industrious as the rest of the team.
The trade-off, though, is that Mkhitaryan should be United’s talismanic spark – the go-to guy who can provide a moment of glistening creative magic when they need it most. In big games like Manchester United’s Premier League clash with Chelsea on Sunday, those players can be all the difference.
In fact, with Mourinho adopting such a pragmatic and defensive strategy against such opposition on the road, United need that flash of genius more than most sides in the top six.
And yet, barring a winning goal against Tottenham at Old Trafford last season followed by a strike against Ajax in the Europa League final, we’re yet to see Mkhitaryan truly deliver on the most important occasions. The defeat to Chelsea last weekend provides the most recent example of not only Mkhitaryan failing to provide a much-needed telling moment, but also going completely missing just when you’d expect a player of his calibre to come through.
Indeed, Mkhitaryan failed to produce a single shot or created chance before being subbed off in the 61st minute. But perhaps most damningly of his modest contribution, he had just five more touches of the ball and completed only three more passes than Marouane Fellaini – the man brought on to replace him with less than half an hour left to play.
Some may question Jose Mourinho’s tactics and it’s certainly true his United team have struggled offensively in away games against the big six. But that’s because he expects players with Mkhitaryan’s attacking quality to muster up a moment brilliance that will decide the game or at least give United a chance of doing so. Since his move from Borussia Dortmund, that simply hasn’t happened on a consistent enough basis to justify how little Mkhitaryan offers off the ball.