Sunday 23 April 2017

Jose Mourinho warms to ostracised midfielder as Henrikh Mkhitaryan finally comes in from the cold

Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan is challenged by Tottenham Hotspur's Danny Rose. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan is challenged by Tottenham Hotspur's Danny Rose. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

Paul Hayward

Few big signings have paid such a high price for one bad half as Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose tame performance in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford in September cast him into the wilderness. That was not the end of his agonies. Revived and restored, United's match winner left the game he had decided on a stretcher, though he should be back in action in time for the Christmas period.

Mkhitaryan had been the story of this sometimes febrile game for all the right reasons. His first-half goal from a sweet pass by Ander Herrera was his second for United in four days. His first, against Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League in Odessa, might have been dismissed as a goal for a fringe player in one of the less important competitions. But this one, against Spurs, spoke of power, pace and poise against front-rank Premier League opposition. Mkhitaryan's career in England is taking off.

Grappling for possession with Danny Rose five minutes from time, Mkhitaryan twisted as he fell with damage to an ankle. It was one of those leg wrenching falls that suggest the victim might be in serious trouble. To see him carted off with a blanket over his chest was to witness the gains he had made in his United career yanked away again.

The earliest suggestion was that the ankle was only twisted and would keep him out only for two matches.

On a wider scale, Mkhitaryan was one of the United players who have failed to meet either price tag or expectation. Across Jose Mourinho's squad you see players who have been hiding behind managerial upheaval or generally falling short.

To pin that verdict on Mkhitaryan after his 45-minute cameo against Manchester City on 10 September still feels cruel. In that derby, United were dazzled by City's passing and Mkhitaryan was not the only one off the pace. Jesse Lingard was also hooked at half-time and criticised by his manager. But Mourinho seemed particularly incensed by Mkhitaryan's inability to impose himself on the action.

Slowly, Mourinho is reducing the number of United players you might have serious doubts about. The team are playing with more shape and purpose.

Fewer United players are stuck at ambling pace. And Mkhitaryan brings something the team has lacked over the last three seasons: pace, not along the touchline, but certainly in a wide area. His goal derived from the kind of burst that was once intrinsic to United's style of play.

Remarkably, Mkhitaryan didn't feature in the Premier League from September 10 to November 27, when he came on against West Ham. Since then he has started every game: a sequence that will now be broken in the Crystal Palace and West Brom fixtures (Mourinho expects him back against Sunderland the day after Christmas).

A £26m buy from Borussia Dortmund, and the Bundesliga players' player of the year in 2015-16, Mkhitaryan had to go to Odessa to make his imprint as a goalscorer. "He has a strong mentality," Mourinho said on Thursday night.

"He was very determined to fight against his difficult adaptation, and he's doing that in the best way. He fought to improve tactically, he fought to improve physically, and now he is playing good in the Premier League, good in the Europa League and the EFL Cup, and now evolving a bit more happiness for him, so I'm very pleased."

Adaptation was an issue. "I think the football is much more intense in the Premier League," Mkhitaryan said recently. "It's definitely more intensive here. There are more battles on the pitch and it's a high-tempo game."

United's energetic performance however challenged the theory that Thursday night Europa League games are a weekend passion killer. Instead they went after Spurs from the start, hence the change in Mourinho's demeanour.

Morose for much of the last four months, United's manager is now kicking every ball again, and can see a positive response to his coaching from the players, even if Anthony Martial, on the opposite flank to Mkhitaryan, is still off his game.

Mourinho seems so sure of himself again that he defied the crowd by sending on Marouane Fellaini at the end, despite his win-sacrificing error at Everton, to groans and even boos from the stands.

Surely Fellaini will never be integral to United's revival, but Mkhitaryan could be a fixture, if he maintains this level of enterprise. His first three months in Manchester have been a honeymoon period in reverse: more of a pending divorce. Now, though, United have a fresh thruster to slice into defences.

"That's why Man United bought him," Zlatan Ibrahimovic said. "They know his quality, we know his quality, we see it every day, and now the world can see his quality." So we are all agreed then. Mkhitaryan has come in from the cold.

Irish Independent

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