Is Jose Mourinho really to blame for Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s demise at Manchester United?
It was no surprise on Tuesday morning when a difference in “footballing philosophy” was cited as one of the reasons behind Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s likely departure from Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.
As the Old Trafford hierarchy prepare to congratulate themselves on the unlikely signing of Alexis Sanchez, Mkhitaryan may well leave for Arsenal in exchange, quietly departing through a back door having never looked like a natural fit since arriving from Borussia Dortmund some 18 months ago.
At the time, this was the Bundesliga’s reigning Player of the Year, the scorer of 23 goals and the architect of a further 32 during the 2015-16 campaign. Thomas Tuchel had managed to extract the creative output from Mkhitaryan that his predecessor Jürgen Klopp never could.
A year-and-a-half later though, the Armenian will leave Old Trafford shorn of form, without a goal or assist to his name since September. How did one of European football’s most productive players come to have such a pitiful record?
The temptation is to point to Mourinho and that difference in “footballing philosophy” mentioned earlier. As has been argued time and again in the interminable debate over the United manager’s preferred playing style, he does not always work well with creative talent.
The number of imaginative and inventive players to have fallen by the wayside under Mourinho’s management is well-documented by now and it does not help his case that top of the list is the stand-out performer of this present Premier League season, Kevin De Bruyne.
However, much less is made of those who have thrived despite supposedly working with the chief advocate of anti-football.
Take Deco, for example, whose career was launched by Mourinho’s Porto. The former Barcelona and Chelsea midfielder has since been an advocate of his old coach’s particular brand of man management. “He knows better,” were his words to Mkhitaryan and other United players after Mourinho’s public criticism of them in October 2016.
Wesley Sneijder did not look like the fourth-best player in the world on leaving Real Madrid for Mourinho's Inter in 2009, yet that was how he ranked in the following year’s Ballon d’Or voting. At the ceremony, he felt compelled to describe Mourinho, sat next to Pep Guardiola at the time, as “the best coach in the world”. The Portuguese’s bottom lip noticeably quivered.
At Real Madrid, Mesut Ozil’s relationship with Mourinho was a touch more fractious but this did not hinder the playmaker’s output. Though his stay at the Bernabeu lasted just three years, tallying perfectly with Mourinho’s tenure, there were 82 assists for Ozil in that time. He retains an exemplary reputation in Spain.
Eden Hazard is another player who endured difficult relations with Mourinho but again, another whose best form coincided with working under the Portuguese. Even while coasting towards the Premier League title with Antonio Conte last year, Hazard failed to reach the heights of the 2014-15 campaign, when he was crowned both the Professional Footballers’ Association’s and the Football Writers Association’s Player of the Year.
Do these players have different “footballing philosophies” to Mourinho? Probably. Did that prevent them for enjoying success under him? No. It is therefore too simplistic to claim that Mkhitaryan's struggles are simply because he is also a creative player. Indeed, if that was the case, why sign him in the first place?
It may sound like a novel idea, but Mkhitaryan must shoulder a significant portion of the blame for his demise at Old Trafford.
He was Mourinho’s clear first-choice in United’s No 10 role at the start of the season but even as he registered five assists in his first three league outings, such productivity appeared unsustainable. His all-round performances were not inspiring, even though his team-mates were playing a relatively adventurous brand of football against weaker opponents and winning comfortably.
Still, even when the assists dried up and the performances fell well below an acceptable standard, he retained his place in the starting line-up. He was given more opportunities. It was mid-November before he was eventually taken out of the firing line, and the decision to drop him from match-day squads altogether undoubtedly hurt a player that was already bereft of confidence.
Perhaps it was meant to act as provocation, though. Mourinho has done the same to players before: some have rallied, some have wilted. Those in the former category have often had the mentality required to survive under a tempestuous and unforgiving manager. In Mkhitaryan’s case though, it now looks like he will fall into the latter group.
Ultimately, the Armenian’s likely departure mid-way through the second year of a four-year contract does not reflect well on either him or Mourinho.
Mkhitaryan would not be an expendable asset had his performances this season not been below-par. Mourinho, meanwhile, signed a player who was ‘not ready’ to play when he arrived and one that has responded poorly to his particular managerial techniques since.
At least both parties now seem to accept that it would be best to move on.