Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s career at Manchester United has been a confusing time for everyone. In the 18 months between the Armenian’s arrival last summer and his dispatch in the direction of Arsenal, his contribution has been so mixed that it has been nigh-on impossible for many to form a decisive conclusion on whether he did indeed have what it takes to be a success at Old Trafford.
Jose Mourinho is not a man prone to indecision and his mind has been made up for a couple of months now. Having dangled the carrot and thrashed his stick, the United boss concluded that Mkhitaryan cannot be relied upon to offer the consistency required to thrive in a Mourinho team.
That is ultimately what has done for Mkhitaryan at United. He has shown flashes of the creativity that tempted the Red Devils into paying around £30million for the playmaker, but spurts of form between periods of maddening anonymity won’t cut it under Mourinho, especially when the manager stated from the outset what he expected.
“Micki is a fantastic player,” Mourinho said upon signing the playmaker in July 2016. “But what I like more is something that is undeniable, which is the number of goals that he scores by not being a striker. His number of goals per season is really high for somebody that is not a striker. The number of assists is also very clear because it shows clearly his creativity, his vision and his concept of collective play, and that is something that I believe is really important for a club like us.”
Mkhitaryan’s creative impact at Borussia Dortmund was indeed undeniable. In the last of three seasons in the Bundesliga, the Armenian offered 23 goals and 32 assists; Mikhitaryan was directly involved in a goal every 80 minutes.
Mourinho expected similar consistency from his new recruit, if not straight away. Mkhitaryan was eased into the Premier League, with three cameos before his first start in the Manchester derby in early September 2016. All the evidence during a truly wretched 45 minutes proved he was not yet ready.
It is hard to overstate how badly Mkhitaryan’s full debut went. In fairness, he was not alone in his struggles against a City side that offered an early glimpse of what we have now come to expect from Pep Guardiola’s side. Jesse Lingard and Mkhitaryan were both hooked at half-time, though Mourinho admitted after the game that he would have acted after 20 minutes had he not been concerned about the players’ confidence. His concern was not so great as to keep that particular revelation to himself, of course.
“We were below the level to play this match. You have to be completely ready in terms of the speed of your thinking and decision-making,” said Mourinho. He was talking about the whole team but he might well have been referencing Mkhitaryan individually. On the right, the new boy lost possession 12 times in 45 minutes, but one incident summed up his afternoon – he went to press a City defender by his own corner flag before stopping, going again, then stopping again, all of which earned a rocket from skipper Wayne Rooney. Mkhitaryan simply turned towards the bench and threw his hands in the air as if to ask: “What the hell am I supposed to be doing?”
In fairness, Mkhitaryan was carrying a minor strain into that derby, but he was given a longer period to recover while Mourinho removed him from the spotlight. “Sometimes we don’t play players, we protect them, and Mkhitaryan was one of these cases,” said the manager, with the No.22 made to wait almost three more months before being trusted with another Premier League start.
Then came his first goals, with the winner at home to Spurs coming before a stunning scorpion-kick against Sunderland offered further encouragement that Mourinho – for all the flak he copped – might have got his treatment of Mkhitaryan bang on.
But his domestic productivity was limited to four goals and a single assist, with Mkhitaryan seemingly far more comfortable on the Europa League stage, on which he netted six times, including a crucial second for United in their win over Ajax in the final.
Mourinho had yet to be convinced that Mkhitaryan could cut it and his patience was waning as United faded in the league. “I am not happy with Mkhitaryan’s performance in the last match,” the manager said after dropping him to the bench following yet another home draw, that particular April stalemate against West Brom being the eighth of ten at Old Trafford.
Mkhitaryan’s form at the start of the current season suggested he had finally found his rhythm in the Premier League. He doubled his number of assists from last season in United’s Premier League opener and by the end of their third match, he’d laid on five goals. While such productivity may not have been sustainable, all he had to do was maintain a level of consistency that he had not managed so far at Old Trafford.
It was not to be. Despite being played in his favourite central position, with Juan Mata shunted to the right, Mkhitaryan – as Mourinho put it – ‘disappeared’, both physically and metaphorically.
“I wasn’t happy with his last performances,” said Mourinho when he was asked to explain why Mkhitaryan had been dropped altogether for the win over Newcastle. “I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five.
“He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goal-scoring and assists, high pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a No.10, were decreasing.
“That was enough, because the others worked to have a chance.”
That may have been enough but Mkhitaryan perhaps hammered the final nail into the coffin of his Old Trafford career the following week when he reportedly clashed with Mourinho during a video analysis session in the wake of his 25-minute appearance off the bench against Brighton.
Seven matches followed with Mkhitaryan nowhere to be seen. He showed up off the bench twice before getting a couple of starts against Southampton and then when Derby visited in the FA Cup. He was hooked on both occasions after miserly performances, with his confidence visibly shot during his final United appearance against the Rams. Mourinho apologised at half-time for replacing Mkhitaryan, but it was the obvious change and the manager’s sympathy was perhaps evidence that he knew the Armenian’s United career was toast. The manager had lost the will to scorn.
Despite his struggles, you will be hard-pushed to find any United fans or anyone connected with the club that holds a grudge against Mkhitaryan. There was never a lack of effort, and when many players would have made their feelings clear to the press over Mourinho’s tough love last season, the player kept his head down and continued to graft. Indeed, the manager used him as an example of how to react when Anthony Martial, or more specifically his agent, had the hump over his treatment.
Martial may sometimes have seemed to lack the drive Mourinho requires but his self-confidence is rarely in doubt. To the outsider, Mkhitaryan’s self-belief appears more fragile and Mourinho supposedly doubts whether he has the required mentality to succeed in the long term at Old Trafford. Many who have watched him from the stands there have wondered the same thing.
Still, despite an overall rate of being directly involved in a goal every 163 minutes – half his Dortmund level of productivity which decreases further to 207 minutes if only Premier League action is considered – some supporters believed he did not deserve to be written off just yet. But surely no one will argue that Mkhitaryan is a sacrifice worth making to grease the wheels of the deal to sign Alexis Sanchez.
Mourinho said of Mkhitryan when he signed that “his capacity of acceleration of the game” will be crucial for United: “He has a change of speed with the ball and without the ball, and that is very, very important for a club like ours.” To put it another way, he was expected to supply some oomph into United’s attack that simply never materialised. Now that burden falls on Sanchez, and ultimately, it is as the makeweight in this deal that Mkhitaryan’s time at Old Trafford will be most remembered.