Jose Mourinho spent much of the build-up to his side’s Champions League fixture against Benfica explaining how and why a draw would be an excellent result, but Manchester United have followed the four other English clubs in placing one foot in the knock-out stages. There will be tougher tests to come than a club with no points and one goal in their three matches so far, but it matters little. Job almost done.
This was hardly a free-flowing, counter-attacking response to criticism after the 0-0 draw at Anfield, you understand. United were dismal in the first half, devoid of attacking ambition or the ability to even string multiple passes together, but did improve markedly across the pitch after the break. BT Sport showed the game on their free-to-air channel, and we only got our money’s worth in the second 45 minutes.
Marcus Rashford’s winner owed plenty to Benfica’s 18-year-old goalkeeper Mile Svilar’s inexplicable decision to carry a free-kick over his goalline, but he merited his fortune. We’re in danger of Repetitive Compliment Injury here, but it was Rashford who provided the zip in getting the ball from midfield to the final third better than any other attacking midfielder or wide forward.
In fact, it is Rashford’s injury and enforced substitution that will most concern Mourinho as he heads back to Manchester. Would United’s manager have preferred a 0-0 draw and the continued good health of his wide forward? Of course, even given Anthony Martial’s ability to step into the breach.
Yet there is another attacking headache that might trouble Mourinho over the next few days before his side face Huddersfield in their third away game in succession. Henrikh Mkhitaryan started the season with five assists in his first three matches against West Ham, Swansea City and Leicester City, but his form has tailed off sharply. A list of his chances created in league games in chronological order neatly demonstrates the decline: 5, 4, 4, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1.
Against Benfica, Mkhitaryan found a new low. His passing in the first half was abject – he completed only 63% of them – and twice he lost the ball in his own half and put his team under pressure. After last season’s struggles, Mkhitaryan knows only too well that ceding possession cheaply is one way to seriously irk his perfectionist manager. Crosses hit the first man, passes were over hit, blind alleys were ventured down.
If the passing radar is off, Mkhitaryan’s dribbling has become non-existent. He has completed three dribbles in United’s three Champions League games this season, compared to 2.7 per game during his Champions League campaign with Dortmund in 2014/15. If Mourinho’s plan away from home is to sit back and hit teams on the break at pace, Mkhitaryan is playing little positive part.
The problem is that Mkhitaryan is also not getting close enough to goal to effect games. He has had a measly three shots on target in the league this season and failed again to have a single one against Benfica. For a player picked in an advanced central midfield role, these are meagre returns.
The inevitable question is then clear: what is it that Mkhitaryan is doing? The chances created have dried up, the rain of shots never even started to fall and the Armenian is not helping United transition from defence to attack quickly enough either. If you wonder why Romelu Lukaku looks isolated up front, here is at least a part explanation.
There are three possible answers to Mkhitaryan’s travails. The first is that it is Mourinho’s strategy of opposition containment that is holding him back. If so, it would be foolish to expect this managerial leopard to change his spots.
The second explanation is that Mkhitaryan is missing Paul Pogba more than any other Manchester United player, and that seems a reasonable assessment. Without him, Mkhitaryan is forced to drop deeper to look after the Pogba-shaped space, and forced to stay more central too rather than drifting out to the right. Plenty of Mkhitaryan’s success at Borussia Dortmund came on the flanks, and staying central would certainly explain the miserable dribbling statistics.
The final explanation is the simplest: Mkhitaryan is just badly out of form. If that is the case, Rashford’s injury may have come at an opportune time. With Juan Mata capable of playing the central role and supporters crying out for Martial and Rashford in tandem, Mkhitaryan might have a few games to re-prove his worth in this Manchester United attack. Mourinho is not a man to suffer fools or stragglers gladly.