Friday 19 January 2018

Comment: Paul Pogba could learn a thing or two from Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan celebrates
Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan celebrates

Tim Rich

When Henrikh Mkhitaryan explained the difference between playing for Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, he remarked that appearing at Old Trafford "means being part of a great story".

It might not have seemed so in southern Russia. Dortmund’s last European away fixture had been to Lisbon’s Stadium of Light. Rostov may be an engaging, friendly club but their soon-to-be-abandoned ground is utterly devoid of glamour and Mkhitaryan called the playing surface “an awful thing”.

It was something Mkhitaryan and Ander Herrera adapted to far better than Paul Pogba, who seemed affronted he was being asked to play on a pitch where the ball sometimes behaved bewilderingly.

There are some great sportsmen who demand conditions to match their ability. Don Bradman never appreciated having to change his game on a difficult surface. "Nobody," said the world’s greatest cricketer, "thinks Joe Davis (then the world’s finest exponent of snooker) ought to play on a bumpy table".

The surface would have been familiar to Mkhitaryan from his days learning the game in Armenia. Wayne Rooney, another highly-skilful street footballer, would have backed himself on that surface in a way Pogba never did.

Although Manchester United became the latest European aristocrats to fail to beat Rostov in their little proletarian stadium, the 1-1 draw should be enough to see Jose Mourinho through to the Europa League’s quarter-finals. Bayern Munich may have lost 3-2 here but they still thrashed Rostov 5-0 in the Allianz Arena.

The precious away goal that Mkhitaryan clipped home ensured he became the first Manchester United footballer since Rooney in 2010 to score in three successive European matches. Rooney’s goals came at San Siro, the Allianz Arena and at Old Trafford against AC Milan. Mkhitaryan’s were put away against Luhansk, St Etienne and Rostov. It is a sign of Manchester United’s times.

"They were nothing special besides the goal," said Mkhitaryan of Rostov. "I was happy to score but, unfortunately, we conceded and everything changed. Maybe we were not as focused in the second half. It was not a very interesting match but we played as well as we could on that pitch and for both sides the pitch was an awful thing."

Mkhitaryan saw the last of it just after the hour mark on Thursday night. Mourinho had agreed beforehand he would not play a full game, partly because the 28-year-old was not fully fit and partly because he might need him for Monday night at Chelsea.

When the draw was made for the FA Cup quarter-finals immediately after Manchester United’s 2-1 win at Blackburn that featured a pass from Mkhitaryan to set up Marcus Rashford’s equaliser that might be the ball of the season, Mourinho was furious.

Manchester United's Paul Pogba in action
Manchester United's Paul Pogba in action

Not because of the scheduling but because United’s record against the big beasts this season has been dreadful and their record at Stamford Bridge amounts to two wins in 15 years.

Mkhitaryan did not play in October’s 4-0 humbling. He was still recovering from the trauma of making his debut in the previous month’s Manchester derby and being substituted during the interval.

He will probably feature on Monday, not on the flanks where he failed entirely against City, but as a number 10, the role he played at Dortmund and the one he played in Rostov behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is suspended against Chelsea. However, the combination of Mkhitaryan and Rashford - Anthony Martial, like Pogba, was nondescript in Russia - might be an interesting test for Chelsea’s three-man defence.

In many ways Mkhitaryan had a lot to thank Pogba for. With all the focus on the world-record £89m fee Manchester United paid to bring Pogba back to Old Trafford, the money they shelled out for the other midfielder was overlooked – and Mkhitaryan made a far worse start.

The German newspaper Bild, which has strong links to the Armenian, estimated the deal cost Manchester United £85m – a £6.8m signing fee, a £35.7m transfer fee to Dortmund and an annual salary of £10.5m over the course of a four-year contract.

That kind of money demands more than goals against Luhansk and Rostov but, if they earn Manchester United the Europa League title and with it a place in the Champions League, a lot of those millions will have been paid back. 

Independent News Service

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