Henrikh Mkhitaryan: The Quiet Creator

Manchester United have started the season on fire, scoring four goals in consecutive matches home and away against West Ham United and Swansea City, respectively. Responsibility for the performances have been shared throughout the staff and squad. Phil Jones and Eric Bailly’s budding partnership at the back have provided a reliable platform and Nemanja Matic has snuffed out danger and covered for the full backs, allowing United’s front five to overwhelm their opponents with incisive attacks. United’s French-speaking continent have filled up the score sheet with striker Romelu Lukaku scoring three goals, Paul Pogba scoring two from midfield, Anthony Martial scoring two and Eric Bailly chipping in with one.

Lost among all of these goals has been the creative influence of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Perhaps its his tendency to drift out of games or his unwillingness to demand the ball from his teammates; either way his incisive running and accurate pass delivery has been integral in United’s attacking play. Mkhitaryan has played exclusively in attacking central midfield this season, a position known to be taxing on a player’s football intelligence as the player is asked to operate in the limited spaces between the midfield and defence. This is made even more difficult at United by the tendency of his two wide men, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata to drift into the same spaces.

Pogba has also been free in getting forward further limiting the spaces for Mkhitaryan to manoeuvre in. Fortunately for United, the aforementioned attacking midfield quartet have been excellent at exchanging positions and finding space against their opposition, both of who set out to prevent United by getting a breakthrough by defending in numbers. Compared to his teammates Mkhitaryan has been the best at picking up the ball in tight spaces, turning and putting pressure on the opposition. The fact that he has a 90.3% pass success rate is a testament to Mkhitaryan’s ease and comfort in playing under these difficult conditions.

The four assists and 4.5 key passes per game Mkhitaryan has provided further compound how impressive Mkhitaryan’s performances have been as they demonstrate a willingness to make decisive passes not just safe passes. When Mkhitaryan has received passes in space, he has been devastating in transition, gobbling up ground and slicing through defences with his dribbles. Finally, he has delivered well from set pieces setting up for Lukaku to head home with an accurate in swinging cross. Mkhitaryan’s ability to create in all of these different ways has activated his teammates and made them all scoring threats on every possession.

It is worth asking whether Mkhitaryan can maintain this level of performance considering he struggled to create in the Premier League last season, only providing one assist, Mkhitaryan did manage four goals despite not playing more than 60 minutes until December. The Armenian has struggled to settle at every new club and league he’s moved to. He has, however, raised his level in each year he has been at a club and he’s been good enough to move on to more challenging leagues every few years. Clearly Mkhitaryan is already showing that he is adjusting again.

Although he hasn’t been able to put his name on the score sheet yet, Mkhitaryan is doing everything he needs to do to change that. Against West Ham, when Marcus Rashford was released in behind by a defence splitting through ball from Pogba, had the young striker looked up to see if anyone was in support before trying to curl a shot inside the far post, he would have seen Mkhitaryan stealing a yard on his defender and making a timely arrival into the box for an easy tap in. Similarly, Mkhitaryan could have been on the receiving end of the type of through ball that he has been known for providing his teammates with had Martial chosen not to go it alone in the fading moments of the game against Swansea.

Of significance to Mkhitaryan’s fit both into the team and his ability to please his manager, is his determination and ingenuity in winning the ball back for the team.  After all, every time possession is won, there is another opportunity to create.