Sport Soccer

Tuesday 12 December 2017

The inside story of how Man United's 'sensitive' big money signing has found himself frozen out

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has struggled to settle at Manchester United
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has struggled to settle at Manchester United

Jason Burt

In the directors' box at Old Trafford last Thursday sat Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He had been left out of the squad by Jose Mourinho for Manchester United's Europa League tie at home to Fenerbahce as he works on his fitness - even though those close to him say he is fit.

Mkhitaryan was not in the 18-man squad, and did not travel to London for the Premier League fixture at Chelsea on Sunday either, which ended in such an embarrassing defeat.

Read more: Man United stars left 'stunned' by Mourinho's hands-off approach to training

It now remains to be seen whether he is involved in tomorrow's League Cup tie against Manchester City that has suddenly taken on far greater significance for both clubs.

Logically Mkhitaryan should play and there is an expectation at United that he will be involved. Not least given how poor United were at Chelsea. And because he has the creativity, guile and pace that United have so obviously lacked. But it is far from certain.

There would be a symmetry if Mkhitaryan did feature against City, given his last appearance for United was in the derby on September 10 when he was hauled off at half-time having given the ball away a dozen times.

That was his only start for United, whom he joined for £26.3m from Borussia Dortmund having been named Bundesliga player of the season.

United have played 14 matches in this campaign and Mkhitaryan has not played more than 45 minutes in any of them. In fact he has played just 104 minutes of Premier League football. It is, to say the least, surprising.

Read more: Ryan Giggs attacks Jose Mourinho's Manchester United players for post-match conduct

Sat by Mkhitaryan (27) at Old Trafford last Thursday was John Murtagh, United's head of player performance, and the one David Moyes appointment who has survived at the club.

Mourinho has the final say on all United's transfer business but the suspicion is growing that although he sanctioned the Mkhitaryan deal, it was, of the four big signings he made in the summer, the one that predated him; the one that he effectively inherited.

Anyone who knows Mourinho's modus operandi will know that a player he does not sign may have to work that bit harder to convince him of his worth.

Mourinho inheriting a transfer - if that indeed was the case - is a far different proposition than him overseeing one.

Mkhitaryan may have come from the same stable of players as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, sharing the super-agent Mino Raiola, but the three did not arrive together as some kind of package.

Signing Mkhitaryan did not appear to put him on the same level - in Mourinho's eyes - as Pogba or Ibrahimovic. So far Mkhitaryan has been the odd man out.

Mkhitaryan already has his work cut out and other clubs are taking an interest. Should he still be struggling to make an impression when the window opens in January, then United will not be short of offers to take him.

Mkhitaryan has been suffering from a thigh injury, picked up on international duty.

At the time the Armenian Football Association said it would take him 10 days to recover.

"Mkhitaryan was found to have an injury in the lower third of the left thigh muscle," it said in a statement. "Such injuries usually require a week to 10 days to heal."

That made it surprising that he was then risked against City just 11 days later. The official line is that Mkhitaryan is fit but not match fit and still not ready with Mourinho talking of him having to "work to get the intensity and fitness to play at a high level", which is a fair enough assessment, although his phraseology would follow the theory that the manager is now testing the player. What does he mean by 'intensity'?

It is also surprising to hear Mourinho categorise Mkhitaryan as a "winger" who is in competition with Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial for one of two starting places.

"I am not an Einstein," said the manager. "I don't know a tactical system that can play with four wingers at the same time."

But is Mkhitaryan a winger? He is regarded as a sensitive character, something that can, at times, hold him back, and it certainly took him a long time to settle in Dortmund, so the same may now be applying

His last coach, Thomas Tuchel, for whom man-management is key, identified that and even examined his players' sleeping habits and state of mind.


Tuchel even prescribed that Mkhitaryan should read a book, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, by W Timothy Gallwey, which identifies and deals with issues such as self-doubt and anxiety.

"It's like it was written especially for me," Mkhitaryan later said, but it is hard to see it being a piece of work that Mourinho would recommend.

Instead he appears to be pushing Mkhitaryan in a different way, a tougher love approach which may prove to be as successful as Tuchel's more considered style but until he plays regularly for United the suspicion will grow that Mourinho was not sold on the idea of buying him in the first place.

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