Henrikh Mkhitaryan: How do you invert a number ten?
Prior to Manchester United’s weekend Premier League match against Brighton, manager Jose Mourinho admitted he had excluded Henrikh Mkhitaryan from the previous two matches because he had “disappeared” in recent matches.
The Armenian’s start to the campaign, five assists in four matches, offered a taste of the dominance he had displayed with Borussia Dortmund under Thomas Tuchel. Save for the odd sensational goal, he had struggled in his debut season at Old Trafford.
Only a fool would think Mkhitaryan could maintain his torrid pace through an entire Premier League season, and Mourinho is no fool. Still, all or nothing as the only two options wasn't a menu the Portuguese could stomach. A little something every match would have been more palatable.
Yet, the manager’s expectations are partially responsible for the feast-or-famine meal plan Mkhitaryan has served up in Mancunian red. Mourinho notoriously favours big athletic footballers. He prefers power and speed to technical ability. It’s why he made the former Shakhtar Donetsk and BvB marauder one of his first acquisitions as United boss.
Mkhitaryan will run at people all day long. If he can wrong-foot a defender, Mkhi will be in on goal or free to make a slide-rule pass to a teammate who is.
Premier League defenders may be slow. They are not stupid, however. They adjust quickly, learning to shunt dribblers into their support. Sometimes, the best way to create space is to drop off, be still, allow markers to concern themselves with other runners, or hold them in place so those runs can go unchecked.
United has runners in abundance. Romelu Lukaku is a handful up front. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial represent different threats on the left flank. The precocious Englishman is a traditional winger, pushing fullbacks to the endline. His French counterpart plays the inverted style, cutting inside, putting fullbacks on their weak foot, allowing Daley Blind, Ashley Young, and now possibly Marcos Rojo to overlap. The diminutive Juan Mata lines up on the right flank, although you never know where he’ll pop up.
The Spaniard possesses technical ability and vision rather than winged feet and broad shoulders, however. Mourinho doesn’t play him in the middle, likely because Mata lacks the ability to track back or muscle opponents off the ball. Yet his attacking abilities more closely match the ideal attacking central midfielder than anyone else in the United squad.
The team lacks a Cesc Fabregas, Luka Modric, or Isco, who can find space in the middle like a poacher camping out at the far post, someone who can be the calm eye, watching Martial, Rashford, Mkhitaryan, and Lukaku swirl around the box like storm bands in a hurricane, picking out the right one to feed at the right time to inflict maximum damage. Modric and Isco team up well to do that for Real Madrid.
Mourinho has acknowledged the problem.
A team that plays the way we play so many times, I think we should score more goals than we do. The team that excites more is the team that after five chances is winning 4-0. That's a team that excites more.
He is right, albeit he fails to acknowledge it’s the manager’s task to find the right players, formation, and tactics to maximise United’s effectiveness in attack.
Michael Carrick might have proved an able creator from a deeper role. Sadly, his recently revealed heart problem rules out his immediate return. Mesut Ozil would be another option, although Arsene Wenger ought to be reluctant to sell him to a top-four rival in the winter window.
Certainly, Mkhitaryan is not the central solution, playing as he does. With a team that counterattacked as maniacally as Dortmund, he was an ideal number ten. United is a side with the quality to dominate through possession far more than they counter, however. Either the Armenian must develop more patience on the ball, or be positioned on the right flank, where his marauding instincts will force defenders to spread out, accounting for both him and Rashford (or Martial), creating more space for Lukaku (or Zlatan Ibrahimovic).
Mourinho can then deploy Mata and Paul Pogba to pull the strings in the middle as United’s Mutt and Jeff version of Modric and Isco. The Portuguese signed Nemanja Matic this summer to provide defensive cover in the middle. Against most Premier League sides, Mata’s defensive limitations shouldn’t be a problem.
On the bench, Mkhitaryan is no threat to opponents. Rather than punishing him for not being a more static playmaker, Mourinho should put him in a position to optimise his strengths. Let him take flight as an inverted winger.