Henrikh Mkhitaryan: The Quiet Man Who Could Have Big Say in EPL Title Race

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistAugust 21, 2017

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has started the season in outstanding form with four assists already for Manchester United.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has started the season in outstanding form with four assists already for Manchester United.Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

After milking his Christ the Redeemer celebration, Romelu Lukaku pointed to Henrikh Mkhitaryan and ushered him over. Like a camera-shy architect reluctant to be photographed standing next to one of his creations, the quiet Armenian ambled over to accept his portion of applause. It was plentiful.

The Manchester United away end inside the Liberty Stadium on Saturday looked and sounded like it was finally waking up from the post-Sir Alex Ferguson ennui years. Liberation is a wonderful thing.

Mkhitaryan's pass for Lukaku's goal, the second in a 4-0 rout of Swansea City more ruthless than emphatic, was as clear-eyed as the antique dealer who spots the piece they want before a car-booter has got all their junk out of the trunk. He did the same for Anthony Martial against West Ham United in United's previous game with a similar first-time ball of scalpel-like precision.

Long passes are vanity; short ones are sanity. Few are better at killing teams with a five- to 10-yard ball than Mkhitaryan.

Lukaku had barely put him down when Paul Pogba became the next recipient of Mkhitaryan's wit in the final third. Another rapier-like counter-attack from United culminated in the Frenchman being slid in to net with a dinked finish so precocious it probably demanded its own dressing room.

Mkhitaryan's ability to do justice to a driving run in the final few minutes by concluding it with a subtle pass demonstrates a quixotic mix of a technician's brain with sprinter's feet. It was his smart movement to the right of Pogba that opened up space on the other side for Martial to add United's fourth.

Regardless of whichever variant of Lukaku, Martial and Marcus Rashford is on the field at any given time, United have it in their armoury to leave opponents looking like Stretch Armstrong (look him up, kids). Though they can drift in and out of games like students do consciousness in a lecture theatre, Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata are the perfect players to join the dots in the spaces vacated between the lines.

The Armenian, in particular, has the capacity to look as though he may be sleeping before springing into life, which is perhaps why his manager usually keeps him on.

Compared to last season, the freedom they have been granted is the difference between the life of a battery chicken and its free-range equivalent. Each of them owes Nemanja Matic a drink pub already. Whether tucked in behind Lukaku or moving infield from the right, Mkhitaryan looks as though he has the bit between his teeth and no intention of relinquishing it. 

Pogba and Lukaku have emerged as twin totems of a new Manchester United that is starting to look suspiciously like the old one. Saturday's win on the road is the first time in 110 years United have opened a league campaign with wins by four or more goals in their first two matches. The athleticism and dynamism the pair provide is a given, but just as important, if not more so, is how they have injected life into a dressing room that had felt stale to the point of being moribund.

No one wants to Snapchat a wake.

To his detractors, all Lukaku has done since moving to United in the summer is score goals, which to is akin to reluctantly accepting Buzz Aldrin's achievements while questioning whether he could have done more with the powdered food provided.

That the Belgian had three fewer touches than David De Gea has drawn criticism. Call me a heathen, but if one of 25 ends up in the back of the net, I'd happily give my striker Monday off.

Making light of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's absence was hardly an open goal for the new boy. While it would be foolhardy to write-off the Swede's 28-goal contribution after just a couple of games, admittedly ones that have seen United play more eye-catching football than at any point last term, talk of his re-signing, as Andy Mitten reported for ESPN FC, has just the slight whiff of the fun but drunk uncle who never quite knows when to leave the party.

The Swede's charisma was just the tonic in a transitional year never likely to have been pretty, but given his personality casts a shadow over all those in its presence, it could prove counterproductive. Martial may never smile again.

"We played into their strengths, 2-0 down, trying to get a goal back, a loose pass, you get hit on the counter-attack and then another counter-attack," was Swansea boss Paul Clement's verdict when speaking to reporters after the game. Attempting to play counter-attacking football with Ibrahimovic in the team is the equivalent of trying to play hide-and-seek in an empty room.

While Pogba and Lukaku look set to dominate the headlines, it should not be understated just how key a role the more understated Mkhitaryan could play in any renaissance. He has been responsible for setting up four of the eight goals United have plundered in the Premier League this season, with the club's supporters keen to inform how this is only three fewer than Philippe Coutinho's best total during a campaign for Liverpool.

Despite finishing last season strongly, ending with 11 goals in all competitions—including one in the UEFA Europa League final win over Ajax—he remains something of an enigma. He was arguably the competition's most influential player, but on terra firma, to borrow an unkind quip from Brian Clough aimed in the direction of Trevor Brooking back in the 1980s, he too often floated like a butterfly and stung like one too.

Perhaps that's unfair given his goal-of-the-season scorpion kick against Sunderland on Boxing Day was a feat of such outstanding natural beauty the National Trust get a royalty every time it is broadcast.

On his full Premier League debut, against Manchester City at Old Trafford in September last year, he looked so overwhelmed it was as though he had been plucked from the crowd because of a shortage of numbers.

Somehow contriving to lose the ball 12 times despite being anonymous, his first-half performance was so bad he not only got hooked at the break but spawned a Jose Mourinho tough-love routine many of his team-mates have since become acquainted with. He would not make another start in the league until December.

Victor Lindelof is the latest to get the treatment. Post-Mkhitaryan, United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward could buy Mourinho a Ferrari and it would still be in the garage six months later on the grounds it doesn't have a big-enough boot.

Mkhitaryan is a huge talent, without question, but one Mourinho will have expected more from given United paid £26.3 million (what a difference 12 months makes) for him on the back of a remarkable combined 55 goals and assists in his final season at Borussia Dortmund. That's one more than United scored in the league last term.

In 24 Premier League appearances last term, Mkhitaryan managed four goals and just one assist. Mourinho was not alone in taking a season to find his feet. The Armenian is a notoriously slow starter at new clubs to the point he may be the first streaky season player. It's usually the third.

Throughout his career, he has required at least 12 months to acclimatise to new surrounds. In an age of instant gratification that thinks nothing of swiping left or right on a player after just a few games, Mkhitaryan was never likely to prove an instant match.

At Shakhtar Donetsk, it was only in the final of three seasons there that he found his true goalscoring form, setting the record for the Ukrainian Premier League in 2012/13 to earn a move to Borussia Dortmund. Mkhitaryan explained in a must-read piece for The Players' Tribune how, as a non-striker, his haul of 25 goals helped to "shut the mouths of those who said I couldn't make it there as an Armenian."

Similarly at Dortmund, it was in his third season in the Bundesliga when he made the step from being one of the most promising players in Europe to simply one of the best.

In those first few months at Old Trafford, when Mourinho made Mkhitaryan the unhappiest former Dortmund playmaker at Old Trafford since the last one, Shinji Kagawa, his open questioning of the player's capacity to handle the mental pressure of playing in the Premier League seemed boorish almost to the point of bullying.

Yet trawling through archives of various interviews Mkhitaryan has given over the years, what binds them together is a frequent expression of doubt that borders on neurosis. Mourinho may have been trying to protect him.

Mkhitaryan is a fascinating character—unique, almost, in his quiet openness. A surfeit of talent and absence of ego is a rarefied thing, none more so than in professional football. Delicate souls rarely flower in an industry so cutthroat even its biggest sharks see psychiatrists on the quiet. By his own admission, the thinking fan's footballer of choice probably thinks too much.

A gifted polyglot, he speaks six languages fluently, including excellent Portuguese from when he spent four months living on his own in Brazil as a 13-year-old at the invitation of Sao Paulo. He roomed with two other Armenian kids who had made the same trip and a Brazilian named Hernanes, who would go on to play for the full national side and JuventusMkhitaryan may be prone to introspection, but he's tough with it. 

The 28-year-old was forced to grow up quickly. His father was just 33 when he died of a brain tumor. Hamlet Mkhitaryan was playing football professionally at the time, a striker with ASA Issy in France. When he fell ill, the family moved back to Armenia.

"I think on one side, [my father's death made me grow up faster], but on the other, no, because it is very difficult when you grow up without a father because in the family you don't have a real man who can give you direction, discipline," he told the Daily Telegraph's James Ducker last year.

He studied economics at the Saint Petersburg Institute and graduated from the Institute of Physical Culture in Armenia. He says if he weren't a footballer, he may have been a doctor or lawyer. It's probably fair to speculate he didn't spend the summer engrossed in Love Island.

When Jurgen Klopp signed him for Dortmund, he turned down the chance to join Liverpool following several discussions with then-manager Brendan Rodgers. He explained his decision in the aforementioned Players' Tribune article: "Half of me thought I had to go there; the other half was not so confident, that the gap to the Premier League might be too big for a skinny player from the Ukrainian League."

On his early struggles at Dortmund, he said, per Bernie Reeves of the Bundesliga website: "People watching must have thought I was trying to miss. The biggest problem I had was that I came from a league which you can't compare with the Bundesliga."

The more you read, the more a pattern emerges. It is less he is defensive than searingly honest. It's almost as if he feels compelled to express his anxieties. No bad thing—refreshing, even. But it's uncommon.

When Lukaku joined Manchester United, he spoke of wanting to become one of the best players in the world. Mkhitaryan's opening gambit was a touch less punchy, per Mark Ogden in The Independent: "I never promise something. I always say that I will try. Because if you promise something and you don't do it, you will always be under pressure. I want to do everything to get to a new level."

After a decent first season at Dortmund, he was not alone in having a largely disastrous campaign in 2014/15, which proved to be Klopp's last with BVB:

"It was a very hard period for me. We were losing so much, and I felt like I was having no luck.

"I had been signed for a lot of money, and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I had many hard nights in my apartment in Dortmund, all alone, just thinking and thinking. I didn't want to go outside, even to have dinner."

He credits Klopp as helping him take a more philosophical approach to football. Though he admits he can still be "very serious," his former boss worked hard with him to help keep things in perspective.

"I took defeats too seriously—I would obsess about any chances I missed," he confessed to the Daily Mail (via ESPN FC), to the delight of Mourinho before adding the ultimate mood killer for the Portuguese: "In particular, [Klopp] helped me a lot because I was thinking too much about football."

That's nothing a couple of years with Mourinho won't sort out.

The manager who most got into his head was Klopp's replacement, Thomas Tuchel. Aware Mkhitaryan is an avid reader, he gave him a copy of The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey.

"It's like it was written especially for me," the forward said of a book about visualisation and clarity of thought, per Raphael Honigstein of the Guardian. "I used to make all the mistakes mentioned there. I'm really grateful that the coach has changed the way I think."

It's unconfirmed whether Mourinho gave him a copy of his biography upon arriving at Old Trafford. Either way, it looks as though Mkhitaryan may have spent the summer thumbing through Gallwey's magnum opus, first published in 1972. His clarity of thought has been second to none this term.

An interesting parallel can be drawn with how he has started this season compared to how his overall campaign panned out last time around in relation to the vast improvement he made between his second and third years at Dortmund.

In an interview with DW's Barbara Mohr in January 2016, he said of his final season in Germany:

"Last year, I didn't do too much. It was five or six goals in the whole season and seven assists. This season, the first few games were really very important for me because I got confidence in scoring and assisting.

"I have to continue like that because I'm optimistic and I'm going to do everything to do the best that I can."

He continued like that to the tune of 23 goals and 32 assists. Even Mourinho isn't that demanding, but if he can eke out similar from Mkhitaryan, there's little doubt United would be in the title running come May.

While it's nice to see a little optimism shine through, if a biopic were made of his life—however unlikely the fit on paper—Woody Allen needs to be cast as the Armenian. At the very least he should be charged with writing the screenplay.

There's a famous Allen line that would work as an apt epitaph for both of them: "The only thing standing between me and greatness is me."

Mkhitaryan is far too bright not to know as much.

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