Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a player mirroring United’s story
For a while it appeared that Henrikh Mkhitarayan’s Manchester United career would never get beyond the “what if?” stage. The Armenian seemed destined for an ignominious exit, with José Mourinho unimpressed. Yet, the summer signing from Borussia Dortmund is now in the team, making a second Premier League start against Everton, months after that fateful début against Manchester City in September. Then came that spectacular goal in Ukraine on Thursday. It may be too soon to start celebrating, but there are signs that the tide is slowly turning in Mkhitarayan’s favour. Can he can finally light up Old Trafford? One hopes – and for a long time to come.
It certainly hasn’t been easy for the United number 22, with rumours swirling about his future, and attitude, since the autumn. Those murmurings have grown louder with each occasion that Mourinho has opted to go with alternative options.
Yet, Mkhitarayan’s time in Manchester is also an odd mirror of United’s performances this season. There was an initial phase of excitement, followed by period of frustration, but the seeds of hope, it seems, have started to germinate.
Mkhitarayan’s performance against West Ham in the EFL Cup gave supporters a reason to dream, while he looked dangerous in a disappointing draw at Everton. Fans have yet to see the very best of Mkhitaryan, but there are signs that his Old Trafford career is ready to take off after a stuttering start. The Armenian’s goal at Zorya Luhansk was simply world-class. Similarly, United hasn’t hit any heights yet, but if performances can be translated into victories then the shackles may come loose.
Would it be a serendipitous piece of synchronicity if United’s results perked up with Mkhitaryan restored to the starting line-up or an indictment of Mourinho’s inability to get the £26.3 million signing up to speed much sooner?
It’s certainly tempting to believe that had United’s summer signing played for the full 90 against Burnley, Stoke City, West Ham United and Arsenal, Mourinho’s side would have ended up with eight extra points. It would have left the Reds sitting in a far better league position. It is, of course, equally valid to argue that Mkhitaryan would have made no discernible impact on four very disappointing draws.
Much like United, Mkhitaryan is trying to find out how to be relevant in an environment where a constantly changing football ethos is exacerbated by the demand to remain not just competitive but successful. Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, United has struggled to find a new identity, let alone rediscover the one built by the Scot. And let’s not forget that a good start to life at Old Trafford is no guarantee of a long and illustrious career. Ángel di María is the classic example.
Whatever the rumours, Mkhitaryan’s attitude appears to be right. There’s a passage in his column for The Players’ Tribune that offers pause for thought. The winger recounted a time playing for the Armenian youth national team where he’d been warned by his mother, who worked at the Armenian FA, not to lose his cool. “Henrikh! What are you doing? You must behave or I’m going to have trouble at work!” When he tried to justify his reaction his mother’s reply was simply “no, no, no. You must always be polite!”
It’s a lesson Mkhitaryan has taken to heart, because even though it appeared that Mourinho held some form of irrational vendetta against the Armenian, the player has never spoken ill of his treatment. If anything, Mkhitaryan has worked hard behind the scenes to fight his way back into his boss’ plans.
"For a while it appeared that Mkhitarayan’s United career would never get beyond the “what if?” stage. Now the summer signing is in the team, with signs that the tide is slowly turning in the player’s favour."
Again there’s a parallel. Mkhitaryan seemingly realized the size of the task that stood before him. It is no easy feat to become a United first team player, no matter the dross that has pulled on a red shirt over the past three years. He recognized the work he had to put in, and won Mourinho round.
Similarly, United demands success as an institution, but the widespread belief that success would follow quickly in the post-Fergie era has died. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal discovered to their cost that there’s no quick fix. Mourinho is contending with the prospect that he will require more time that he thought.
Speaking to Sky Mkhitaryan admitted that he expected to be a first team player when he initially signed, but his immediate hopes didn’t pan out. The player’s performance against City proved to be an eye-opener for player and manager. Rather than sulk about it, the former Dortmund man remained “polite”.
“There was no bad relation with him [Mourinho], it was always good but the problem wasn’t him, it was me,” he said. “Now I understand why I have got my chance and I will keep it, I will hold it, because it is very important for me to play, to be a part of Manchester United.”
Mourinho has argued that “Mhiki needs time to become the top player he knows he can be. We believe him and, sooner or later, there will be no problem.” Sound advice, it seems.
“Some players find it very easy whereas others need more time,” added the Portuguese. “They need time to feel the intensity, the aggression, the game without the ball and the competitiveness. The realities are often different, particularly in terms of the competitiveness. It doesn’t matter who you are against, you have to play at the highest level, otherwise you will not be able to do it.”
The playmaker’s acclimatization has taken longer than expected. Perhaps too long for the club to achieve anything of note in the league for this campaign at least. Yet, if any player is a reflection of United then it is Mkhitaryan. It’s been a difficult time, but not only has United’s number 22 reflected on his plight, but he fought back and has turned the ship around.
Similarly, United has been slow to reestablish the team’s credentials as heavyweights, but progress, albeit laborious, is being made. The points tally doesn’t yet reflect that observation, but performance levels are encouraging, at least in comparison to anything served up under Moyes and Van Gaal.
There is some poetry to the situation; a simultaneous upturn after a long and frustrating process. Now the stage is set for United’s Armenian artist to perform in the Theatre of Dreams.