One game – or, more accurately, one half‑game – dominates the memory of Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s time at Manchester United. In the league derby at Old Trafford last season, the first meeting in England of José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, the Armenian looked lost. He was partly responsible for the opening goal because of the way he initially did not press Pablo Zabaleta and then finally went far too late, and he was withdrawn at half-time. He did not play for two months after that.
That seems to have contributed to a general sense that Mkhitaryan was somehow lightweight, unsuited to the defensive demands Mourinho makes of his players. It is true that Mkhitaryan is not as robust as many in this United squad, which is, after all, the tallest of any team in Europe’s five major leagues. It is also true that, although he had occasional flurries of good form, most notably in the Europa League towards the end of last season, there were far too many games in which he wandered about uninvolved, looking dispirited and vaguely confused.
The accusation was that Mkhitaryan was flaky, not quite up to it. Given the struggles of Shinji Kagawa and Nuri Sahin to impose themselves on the Premier League, was there something about Borussia Dortmund that meant their alumni were unsuited to English football?
There is, of course, always an issue when a player leaves an environment as idiosyncratic as Dortmund was under Jürgen Klopp, but the idea that Mkhitaryan did not fancy the defensive side of the game makes little sense given the success he had both with Dortmund and Shakhtar, teams whose style was rooted in hard pressing, in which there is no place for shirkers. In his three seasons in the Bundesliga, Mkhitaryan regained possession through tackles and interceptions 2.7 times per game, 3.2 times per game and 3.2 times per game.
The Ukrainian league perhaps would not offer a fair comparison, even if the data were readily available, but in three Champions League campaigns at Shakhtar, albeit that being a small sample size, he regained possession 4.0, 6.1 and 4.4 times per game. And yet, at United, he regained possession just 1.9 times per league game last season and just 1.5 this. That suggests the issue is not an inherent failing, but perhaps to do with how he was used.
United under Mourinho do not press in anything like the consistent or concerted way that Dortmund and Shakhtar did. Only occasionally – as for spells in the Europa League final last season, when Mkhitaryan was excellent – do they play with a high line. Often Mkhitaryan found himself having to provide the creative link between a deep-lying rearguard and holding midfield and a distant striker. It was then that he seemed uncomfortable.
Arsenal probably do have a policy on pressing, although it has not been readily discernible for some time. Given Arsène Wenger’s obsession with the Ajax team of the early 70s, Arsenal’s glut of technical players and their lack of players with traditional defensive qualities, they should be a high-tempo, high-line side. But there have been times recently when they have been almost as lax in that regard as they are with extending players’ contracts. But their best recent performances – in the FA Cup semi‑final and final last season, at home against Tottenham this season – have been based on an energetic press and Mkhitaryan should fit comfortably into that.
Precisely where he fits in a formation is a little trickier to say. Arsenal this season have used 3‑4‑2‑1 and 4-2-3-1. On Saturday, in the 4-1 win against Crystal Palace, it was 4-3-3. Although Mkhitaryan can play wide – in the Europa League final, for instance, he started on the left of a 4-3-3 – the general perception is he is more comfortable through the middle, which could potentially create problems if Mesut Özil were to agree a new contract and stay.
Could you play Mkhitaryan and Özil together? Potentially, in a 3-4-2-1. With one of them wide, though, there may be a lack of dynamism on the flanks. Certainly with Mkhitaryan and Özil in tandem, there should be no lack of supply to a central striker (albeit there is a danger that an approach based on through-balls falters against a deep-lying opponent). It is a measure of how detached Mkhitaryan often seemed at United that, having registered 15 assists in his final campaign in the Bundesliga, he set up only six goals in his season and a half at Old Trafford, five of them in the first three games of this season.
In a sense Mkhitaryan is an indulgence. There are far greater priorities at Arsenal than another technically gifted attacking midfielder. He will not plug the yawning hole at the back of midfield, he will not stiffen defensive sinews and he will not make Petr Cech five years younger or David Ospina five inches taller, but at a club of diminishing star power he does at least begin the process of creating a squad for the future.
The Guardian Sport