Back in August, with the first three Premier League gameweeks in the books, Henrikh Mkhitaryan looked one of the sharpest, most productive attacking midfielders in the division.
It was the sort of red-hot start that saw people nodding in approval—the sort that seemingly justified the faith many had kept in him following an up-and-down maiden campaign in England. Manager Jose Mourinho held him back in 2016-17, the argument went, and he was showing his true colours.
But as we prepare to flip the page into 2018, with just over half of the season completed, it's not Mkhitaryan who leads the charge in Mourinho's midfield; he failed to take advantage of his momentum, soon drifting out of games and barely making an impact, resulting in not just a benching but a temporary exile.
He hasn't added to that tally of five assists in 16 attempts and has only scored twice this season. Starting with Watford away on November 28, the Armenian missed five consecutive matchday squads with no reported injury as the cause.
That evening in Watford turned out to be seismic with regard to United's midfield pecking order. The man brought in to replace Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard, took full advantage of the space afforded to him by the hosts' tactical setup. One assist and one goal-of-the-season contender there was followed by a blistering brace against Arsenal four days later, sparking a scintillating run of form.
Now, "Messi Lingard" is the people's champion, while Mkhitaryan is floating on the periphery. On paper, they offer something quite similar, but the results have been worlds apart.
Lingard's had to fight harder than most academy products to earn Old Trafford's warm embrace and has only recently become a universally accepted figure in the side. Despite developing an exceptionally useful habit of offering key contributions in big games, it's taken this recent purple patch to endear himself to the supporters.
Six goals and four assists in 747 Premier League minutes is an outstanding return. This surface-level measurement of his impact isn't what defines Lingard as a player, but it has acted as a gateway for fans to take to him. And from there, they have been more able to appreciate his subtler acts and tendencies in midfield.
United's performances with and without Lingard are night and day. The draw with Burnley on Tuesday was a perfect case in point; 2-0 down at half-time, lacking fluency or a consistent threat, Lingard was sent on and responded with two goals to earn the Red Devils a point.
No matter the shape Mourinho utilises, be it three or four at the back, a No. 10 behind two strikers or a regular 4-2-3-1, Lingard and Mkhitaryan would largely be tasked with the same role should they feature in the side: play in the No. 10 spot, counter into space whenever possible, use directness and speed to push United up the pitch and utilise energy off the ball in order to make life hard for the opposition.
With Romelu Lukaku occupying defenders and Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial's speed out wide, the attacking midfielder gets plenty of room to work with, and the narrow counter-attacks we have seen from United are a perfect fit for either player's skill set on paper, as it allows them to drive forward at speed.
But whereas Lingard seems constantly involved from this role—be it surging forward, drifting laterally to pick up passes or create triangular sequences or pressing tirelessly in order to regain the ball—too often Mkhitaryan has faded into background. Their position represents an important conduit for the ball when moving it forward fast, so that can't happen.
On the counter or moving into space, Mkhitaryan's tendency to lose the ball on the run has frustrated onlookers immensely. There are games wherein he's a direct threat, but there are others in which he's tackled constantly, trapped by opposing presses easily or just simply runs into opposing players clumsily.
In possession, his impact has always been somewhat capped, but as his form dropped off, he became more and more timid with the ball, interchanging positions nicely with Juan Mata but offering little. In hindsight, it's arguable his first three games this season may well have been overrated a touch, as he's a little lucky the only five good chances he created were converted ruthlessly.
Compare this to the combination of relentlessness, work rate, fluidity and goalscoring touch Lingard has provided, and it's easy to see one's name is being toasted, while the other's is uttered with concern.
Mkhitaryan is one-dimensional. Lingard is a multi-dimensional player, able to use all 360 degrees to turn, twist, pass and move. His bursting runs into space, pivotal goals and good decisions at key times may be his hallmarks, but his incisive runs into the box to sniff out goalscoring chances (like against Burnley), his ability to drift across midfield to create space for himself (like against West Bromwich Albion) and his non-stop movement make him an all-purpose performer.
It's little wonder Mourinho has taken to him; production, work rate and suitability to a counter-attacking philosophy are three of the biggest boxes on his recruitment tick list. Lingard already boasted the latter two qualities, but he has this season added the former and showcased them all in a surprisingly consistent run. Whether he sustains it will reveal whether this is another moment in the sun or the beginning of a late-blooming career at the top level.
At half-time on Tuesday, 2-0 down at home against Burnley, Mourinho sent on both Mkhitaryan and Lingard to salvage the situation. One rolled his sleeves up, snatched two opportunistic goals and geed up the attack; the other showed some nice touches but lacked an impact. That the former was Lingard and the latter was Mkhitaryan would have been scarcely believable as recently as September.
All statistics via WhoScored.com