If ever there were two players designed to embrace the headlines and hype from Manchester United’s prolific start to the season they are Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba; their powerful and irresistible brand has been seamlessly recreated on the pitch.
Meanwhile, Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be glad to take shade from the exposure behind his more spotlight-hungry team-mates, having quietly laid on half of United’s eight goals.
It’s a supply line unmatched by anyone in the Premier League during the opening couple of matches, with only four other players – Christian Eriksen, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Granit Xhaka and Riyad Mahrez – boasting more than a single assist.
Similarly, no player has created more chances in open play, with Mesut Ozil, David Silva and Nathan Redmond also setting up eight opportunities. If Mkhitaryan can retain the levels of creative consistency shown by Ozil and Silva in recent years, then the £26.3million Mourinho paid Borussia Dortmund last year will be viewed in hindsight as an absolute steal.
And that now is the challenge for Mkhitaryan: maintaining this level of performance, even if it is too much to ask him to retain his current level of productivity.
Last season, the Armenian created 26 chances in open play from 1349 Premier League minutes – a rate of one every 52 minutes. In contrast, the division’s most creative talent was Eden Hazard, who laid on an opportunity in open play every 35 minutes.
Having been trusted with the No.10 role by Mourinho, with a wealth of attacking talent and firepower surrounding him, the manager will be expecting Mkhitaryan to join the likes of Hazard, Ozil, Silva, Eriksen, Alexis Sanchez, Roberto Firmino and Kevin De Bruyne in laying on at least one chance for a team-mate for each half of Premier League action. Put like that, it sounds possible.
The feasability of Mkhitaryan achieving that is far greater now than it was a season ago. Watching him thrive in United’s attack against West Ham and Swansea, it’s difficult to comprehend that his first start – in the derby when the campaign was three games old – was cut short at half-time after 45 minutes that left United fans fearing they had signed another Dortmund dud.
Played on the right, it is hard to overstate how disastrous a day that was for Mkhitaryan. One moment summed it up, when he went to press a City defender, stopped, went again and stopped again, which led to a rocket from Wayne Rooney and the Armenian throwing his arms in the air and turning to the bench with a look as if to say: “What the hell am I supposed to be doing?”
Mourinho took Mkhitaryan out of the firing line and limited his work to the training ground. Despite the pelters the manager received, the approach worked. Many called it ‘tough love’ but Mourinho knew his new boy was a different character to many of the egos he was used to handling. He was protecting a player who, unlike many, always looks at himself first when things are not going well. And even when they are going well, self-doubt is never far from Mkhitaryan’s mind.
The 28-year-old could have been playing for Liverpool had he not turned down the opportunity to join Brendan Rodgers’ side from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013 after a series of conversations with the then-Reds manager. “Half of me thought I had to go there; the other half was not so confident, that the gap to the Premier League might be too big for a skinny player from the Ukrainian League,” he later revealed.
Rather than make the leap to England, Jurgen Klopp persuaded Mkhitaryan to take the smaller, perhaps more sensible step to Dortmund. After a positive first season, the doubts crept back in once again during Klopp’s final season with the club.
“The first season was OK, but the second season was a disaster, not only for me, but also for the club,” Mkhitaryan wrote in a fascinating piece for the Players’ Tribune. “We were losing so much, and I felt like I was having no luck. Not only was I not scoring, but I was not assisting, which is very unlike me. I had been signed for a lot of money, and I put a lot of pressure on myself.
“I had many hard nights in my apartment in Dortmund, all alone, just thinking and thinking. I didn’t want to go outside, even to have dinner. But, as I said, fate can be interesting. A new manager, Thomas Tuchel, came to Dortmund before my third season, and he changed everything for me. He came to me and said, “Listen, I want to get everything out of you.
“I was kind of smiling and laughing,” wrote Mkhitaryan, who is smart enough to recognise bluster in six different languages. “I thought he was just trying to make me feel better. I was doubting his words. But he looked at me very seriously, and said, ‘Micki, you are going to be great.’ That meant everything to me. After the season I had, I didn’t think I could be a star. But he did it. He got everything out of me that season, and it was because I was happy again.”
Tuchel teased such form out of Mkhitaryan that he was named the Bundesliga Players’ Player of the Year after contributing 15 assists, proving that his introspection should not be mistaken for weakness. This is a man who lost his father aged six, and moved to Brazil and Ukraine to help achieve his goals. His strength is not in his muscles.
Only after doing the business in the Bundesliga did the attacker then feel ready for the Premier League. Not that he was going to crow about it.
“I never promise something, I always say that I will try,” Mkhitaryan told The Telegraph after signing for the Red Devils. “Because if you promise something and you don’t do it you will always be under pressure. I want to do everything to get to a new level.”
There was enough pressure without Mkhitaryan adding to it himself, especially after his derby debut disaster. Under-promise and over-deliver has been a running theme through Mkhitaryan’s career. But, despite the worrying start at Old Trafford and the scrutiny of Mourinho’s handling of the situation, the manager remained positive over his new recruit, affording him the patience to come out of his shell.
“Some players find it very easy whereas others need more time,” said Mourinho, who is using a similar approach with Victor Lindelof. “They need time to feel the intensity, the aggression, the game without the ball and the competitiveness.
“The realities are often different, particularly in terms of the competitiveness. It doesn’t matter who you are against, you have to play at the highest level otherwise you will not be able to do it. Micki needs time to become the top player he knows he can be.
“I think Micki will work here for sure.”
Mkhitaryan received different treatment to the likes of Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial because their different circumstances and characters demanded it. With Shaw and Martial, it was clear both were playing fast and loose with their final chances at Old Trafford; Mourinho was preparing Mkhitaryan to be able to seize his opportunities when they inevitably came.
Of course, his status improved to the point where he scored United’s crucial second in the Europa League final and the Armenian is now central to Mourinho’s “happy football”. The manager has created an attack that demands the best from Mkhitaryan but also now offers the best environment for him to provide it. With Lukaku and either Marcus Rashford or Martial pushing defensive lines towards their own goal, Juan Mata coming off the right flank to bounce the ball off and Pogba and Nemanja Matic demanding attention behind him, Mkhitaryan is finding the pockets of space from where he can do most damage.
At his present rate, he will have equalled Philippe Coutinho’s best season for assists by half-time of United’s fourth Premier League game. Of course, his current vein of form is not sustainable, and Mkhitaryan will drift at times this season, just as he meanders in and out of matches. But come May, it is not unreasonable for Mourinho to expect his creator-in-chief to be vying with United’s rivals’ playmakers if the Red Devils are to mount a credible title campaign.