Comment - Manchester United have no easy answer to their Henrikh Mkhitaryan problem
Romelu Lukaku has attracted much of the criticism for Manchester United's recent sub-par performances, but with Zlatan Ibrahimovic still sidelined, Jose Mourinho has little option but to defend his “untouchable” striker and persist playing him.
The Portuguese has other fires to fight in any case and the most urgent may be located directly behind Lukaku, where the decline of United's creator-in-chief needs to be quickly arrested.
Take a glance at the basic raw numbers and it is hard to deny that Henrikh Mkhitaryan enjoyed an excellent start to the season. The playmaker registered five assists in his opening three league games, each of which was an authoritative United win that promised much for the season ahead.
Mkhitaryan was more than meeting his quotas back then, even if some of the assists had more to do with the scorer’s finishing than his own vision and passing. When the final of the five came, a deflected corner that Marcus Rashford volleyed home against Leicester City, the Armenian's productive start all seemed a little unsustainable. Indeed, so it was.
His personal numbers since those first three games do not make for pleasant reading. Mkhitaryan has failed to set up one of his team-mates in the league since August and he has scored just once all season, notching with a late finish against an Everton side ready to throw in the towel. A single strike and a single assist on the Champions League trip to CSKA Moscow is all he has managed in other competitions too.
It is, all told, seven games since his last goal or assist. Rather than playing ‘in the hole’, Mkhitaryan seems to have fallen down one and United have suffered as a result.
Incredibly, since the start of September, Mourinho’s side have created less than Stoke City, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, three clubs experiencing difficulties at the wrong end of the table. Who are the Premier League's five most inventive teams in the same period? United’s direct title and top-four rivals, of course. Is it any wonder then that the displays against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea were poor on the whole, even if the results were mixed?
Mkhitaryan has to take a portion of the blame for these recent struggles and if the Armenian’s time on the pitch is anything to go by, Mourinho has realised as much. The Armenian has been substituted in all 10 of his league starts this season and he is gradually being taken off earlier and earlier. Whereas at the beginning of the campaign he was only withdrawn after the 80-minute mark, Mkhitaryan is now trusted for little more than an hour.
The nadir of his season so far came at Stamford Bridge on Sunday when he was replaced after 62 minutes. He could have no complaints. While Cesc Fabregas, operating alongside Eden Hazard and behind Alvaro Morata, laid on six chances for Chelsea that afternoon, Mkhitaryan could not manage one. Marouane Fellaini, his replacement, fashioned two despite being on the pitch for the half the time.
It seems the right moment to pull Mkhitaryan out of the firing line and hope the rest will help him rediscover some form. A dose of tough love certainly appeared to help last season, when his full integration into life at Old Trafford was postponed until November.
Yet if he is to drop out of the side, who should replace him? Juan Mata, the natural choice, is quietly getting away with an even less productive season. The Spaniard has scored just once and is yet to assist. Jesse Lingard could fill in but his audition during the defeat to Huddersfield Town was hardly convincing. Injuries mean Ander Herrera is needed deeper, while Fellaini is more of a ‘Plan B’.
Therein lies the rub. In Mkhitaryan, Mourinho has a second out-of-sorts player who still starts week in and week out despite his slump in form. There are too few alternatives in United's squad and ultimately, none of them can compete with the invention of a player who is capable of racking up 32 assists in a single season.
That was the Henrikh Mkhitaryan who arrived in Manchester for £26.3m during the summer of 2016. United desperately need to see that player again.