Tuesday 20 March 2018

Mkhitaryan main focus as 'new' Arsenal catch fire

Henrikh Mkhitaryan in action for Arsenal against Everton at Emirates Stadium. Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
Henrikh Mkhitaryan in action for Arsenal against Everton at Emirates Stadium. Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

Aaron Ramsey gathered the match ball after the first hat-trick of his career, but it was Henrikh Mkhitaryan who rightly drew the majority of the plaudits after he followed Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah in emerging this season from Jose Mourinho's blind-spot.

A hat-trick of assists was the salient statistic behind a performance better than anything Alexis Sanchez had produced this season in an Arsenal shirt and, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also scoring during a devastating opening blitz, there was something new in the Emirates air. Smiles. Joy. Optimism. Hope.

Even Arsene Wenger's biggest critics appeared mildly excited as Aubamayeng's presence and obvious charisma lifted the mood.

There have, of course, been far too many false dawns to draw any definite conclusions, and the Premier League table still tells a fairly sorry story, but the start of what we might call the fifth age of Wenger could barely have gone any better.

After his first two teams shone so brightly during the first decade of his tenure, only for the next two sides to fall short when it mattered most, did it also feel to the Arsenal manager like a new cycle had begun?

"Let's see how we go into the next game against Tottenham," said Wenger.

"If I tell you the same and have a positive mood after the next game, we'll say 'yes' and be positive until the end of the season."

Mkhitaryan encapsulated Arsenal's play and, from Wenger, there was just about the ultimate compliment.

He said that the 29-year-old's performance had reminded him of Santi Cazorla, a player whose absence has most coincided with Arsenal's dips over recent years.

"There are similarities there," said Wenger. "Santi was an exceptional football player. I met Mkhitaryan before (he joined Manchester United) and I have always liked his game.

"He's a player dedicated totally. He comes from a country, Armenia, where you need special character to become a great football player. He looks happy to play football simply because he just loves it."

Wenger is certainly some contrast to the man-management style of Mourinho and, according to all reports from Arsenal's training ground, Saturday was typical of what Mkhitaryan has been delivering on a daily basis since leaving Old Trafford.


What was especially eye-catching was the way Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang, Mesut Ozil, Alex Iwobi and Ramsey were so confident in constantly interchanging positions and thus revolving the focus for Arsenal's attacks.

"Your main target is to get the players to enjoy the game they play and to share it with the fans," said Wenger.

"When you have new players it always gives a little positive swing, and it wakes everybody up as well, because there's suddenly competition."

It was certainly Arsenal's most fluent performance this season and it was surely no coincidence that it has followed the removal of long-term doubt about the entire attacking unit after Ozil's decision to extend his contract.

Ramsey and Jack Wilshere will be Arsenal's next priorities and, according to wing-back Hector Bellerin, the players were always sure that Ozil would stay.

"Everyone in the training ground and everyone in the team knew - he's a guy who loves London, loves Arsenal and he gets really angry when things don't go well," said Bellerin.

"When you see the players we have up front and the players on the bench who can come on, you're thinking of the creativity and the electricity they bring into the team, and it is something very rare."

Such cohesion was certainly not evident in Everton who, even with Theo Walcott so determined to shine on his return to Arsenal, merited manager Sam Allardyce's blunt assessment.

"Pathetic," he said. "I am not going to say, 'Oh, I didn't see this', or 'They were unlucky'. They know in the dressing room you cannot defend the indefensible."

Allardyce admitted he had taken Walcott off after 61 minutes to protect him and rejected any suggestion that his switch to a back five following the midweek win against Leicester City had been a mistake.

"It was the implementation," he said. "Systems and tactics mean nothing if the players play crap." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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