Hearts were in mouths when Henrikh Mkhitaryan went to ground under a heavy Danny Rose challenge in Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Tottenham on Sunday afternoon. There were fears the summer arrival had suffered serious damage to his ankle when he was felled by the England international and subsequently stretchered off the Old Trafford pitch. The fans were understandably concerned. “We don’t think it is a serious injury. He can’t play but he will only be missing for about a week or so,” United boss Jose Mourinho said after the game to ease nerves.
It’s only recently that Mkhitaryan has established himself as a star man for United under Mourinho, so to have lost him for a lengthy spell would have been a huge set back for all involved. When he joined from Borussia Dortmund earlier in the year, supporters were understandably excited at the signing of one of Europe’s most influential attacking outlets. The 27-year-old registered more assists (15) than any other Bundesliga player last season and chipped in with a further 11 league goals for Dortmund.
All in all, the Armenia international was directly involved in 49 competitive goals for the German side as he ended his time with Die Schwarzgelben strongly. So it was a huge surprise to see Mkhitaryan forced into a peripheral role by Mourinho when he first joined. Injuries further hindered the attacker’s settling in period but even when injury-free, Mourinho opted against calling on the former Dortmund man. “Micki needs time to become the top player he knows he can be,” the United boss said of the player back in October and while under pressure to maximise his attacking talents, Mourinho resisted the temptation. Whether or not you believe it was the right decision, United - prior to his game-ending injury at the weekend - are reaping the benefits that a fully fit Mkhitaryan offers.
His first half match winning goal against Spurs meant Mkhitaryan not only became the first Armenian to score in the Premier League, but has seen him directly involved in four goals in his last four competitive appearances for United. It’s the kind of impact that fans were expecting when he swapped Germany for England given his performances in his first and then final season for Dortmund.
Indeed, Mkhitaryan was a player that United perhaps lacked in recent years. While Mourinho is able to call on Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to provide pace out wide, the pair are far more direct than the former. That isn’t to say Mkhitaryan is slow, far from it in fact, but that he combines his pace with his intelligent playmaking and speed of thought as well as foot, making him a far neater player than Rashford and Martial. In effect, Mkhitaryan is the player Juan Mata would be if he had the mobility to back up his techincal ability.
1.5 key passes per 90 is a modest return for a player who is still arguably adjusting to his new surroundings. Yet despite adapting to an unfamiliar league, he is able to utilise his dribbling quality to ghost past opponents, with only Pogba (2.8) completing more dribbles per 90 than Mkhitaryan (2.1) of all United players this term. His directness is of course a boost for the team, but then he clearly has the creative capacity to bring teammates into play. Once he is fully up to speed with the Premier League, chances are the number of key passes played will increase significantly.
What’s more though is that Mkhitaryan boasts the necessary selfishness that comes with playing his position. Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic (4.9) is having more shots per 90 than him (3.3), with the Armenian willing to chance his luck in front of goal when the opportunity presents itself. One of the main critiques of United last season under Louis van Gaal is that the players were fearful of testing the opposition goalkeeper, noted in that only a handful of teams - including relegated trio Norwich, Newcastle and Aston Villa - averaged fewer shots per league game than United (11.3) last season.
With Mourinho at the helm, however, that figure has increased to 16.3, one of the best returns in the Premier League. When handed the chance, Mkhitaryan evidently boasts the attacking capability to really hurt opponents and offer another dimension to the attack. A prime example came in the 4-1 EFL Cup win over West Ham, where Mkhitaryan turned creator for Ibrahimovic’s first goal. He made a darting run across the final third, which was excellently spotted by Wayne Rooney. His backheel pass then found Ibrahimovic, who was left one-on-one with Adrian.
It’s this willingness to drift infield to open up space in search of possession that has helped win Mkhitaryan so many admirers in recent years and why supporters are so keen to see more of the summer signing. Injury means they will have to wait that bit longer but if recent form is anything to go by; there is certainly more to come from Mkhitaryan for United.