By Iwan Lehnert
The game was essentially safe at this point, anyway. By the time Henrikh Mkhitaryan decided to define Boxing Day’s football offerings with an outrageous back-flick of his boot, Manchester United were already two goals to the good against Sunderland, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 82nd minute strike calming any nerves around Old Trafford. United fans have earned the right to be sceptical and downright petrified when the score reads 1-0, given that the connotations of this team holding on to a single-goal lead with time ticking down are less-than positive this season. What they weren’t expecting was a goal like United’s third.
Sure, he was offside, but frankly, who cares? Ibrahimovic’s cross wasn’t exceptional; what was exceptional was Mkhitaryan’s speed of thought, and the presence of mind to even attempt to connect with a ball that was arriving behind him. The subsequent flick was exquisite, leaving Jordan Pickford in goal with no chance and adding several layers of gloss to a win that replaced David Moyes’ understated return to his old club as the game’s main story.
Mkhitaryan’s contributions in a red shirt over the last month have certainly justified the £27-or-so million pounds that United sent Borussia Dortmund’s way last summer. Course, there remains a lingering frustration, however slight, that he wasn’t allowed to strut his stuff when Mourinho’s team were struggling for results a few months ago. The official line, toed expertly by both manager and player was that the Armenian captain needed time to adjust to his new surroundings, the football and, if reports are to be believed, the weather. The last one is perfectly understandable; it’s a universally accepted truth that Manchester can be wet. There could easily be more to it than that, given how wide the gulf between training ground truths and public utterances can be, but it’s nigh-on impossible to suggest that Mkhitaryan couldn’t have had some sort of impact for United when this team were struggling so deeply in front of goal earlier in this campaign.
Still, here we are, in the last few days of 2016 with a genuinely world class attacking talent on our hands. The sort with the ability to burst games wide open with his pace, technique and skill, and a player that Mourinho can rely on to create something out of nothing. He’s scored in his last three appearances, and each one has been a treat. His excellent solo strike against Zorya Luhansk broke the 0-0 deadlock, in which the Ukrainian side backed off him until they were essentially outside of the stadium was a treat, a surging run with a lovely low finish; the rasping drive after latching onto Ander Herrera’s through-ball against Tottenham Hotspur was the only goal of a tight affair, and was hit with such power as to render Hugo Lloris redundant; then, there’s the scorpion flick against Sunderland, which does Mkhitaryan something of a disservice; no scorpion’s ever been as flexible as that, at least not in my experience. Then there are the assists in an admittedly routine 4-1 victory over West Ham United, in which his timely backheel set Ibrahimovic on his way to opening the scoring barely one minute in, and he found Anthony Martial in acres of space for United’s second.
Point being that United’s no.22 has swiftly established himself as a clinical presence in this United side, which, even with Ibrahimovic currently mocking strikers a decade his junior with his recent output, is hugely welcome. For most of the 3.5 years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, this has been a seemingly solid side with a frustratingly fragile mentality; talented players have struggled to make their mark or offer consistency, and two managers have already come and gone having brought nought but pain, solemn eyes and the promise of death by a thousand passes.
Matchwinners have been thin on the ground at Old Trafford since 2013, which makes Mkhitaryan’s presence all the more important. Sure, Ibrahimovic’s unerring eye for goal and Paul Pogba’s clear quality are both of great value to their manager, but Mkhitaryan’s ability to deliver from out wide offers United something different in area of the pitch in which they’ve struggled to consistently create. Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, even Wayne Rooney have all been trialled on either side of the big Swede, and even though three of them are far better suited elsewhere on the pitch, Mkhitaryan has arguably offered more than all five despite only really coming into this side on a regular basis in November.
As our own Richard Cann alluded to on this week’s podcast, there’s something genuine about the man, too. There’s barely any bravado or explosive ego in how he presents himself; just an understated man doing what he enjoys. Watching him glide along the pitch with the ball at his feet seems like a trick at times; like he’s hovering a few centimetres above the grass. He seems at odds with a lot of his peers, not through any fault of his own but by pure virtue of not being your typical footballer. In that sense, he’s a breath of fresh air.
In a way, Mkhitaryan’s struggles with his new club mirror the general tone of United’s season so far; it’s been about change, about adjusting to another new way of doing things, which at least is beginning to look like it might bear some nice fruit. His emergence and the sight of this team becoming a more competent unit aren’t coincidental, either. Injuries have also played their part since August, but even with the likes of Pogba and Ibrahimovic staking their claims as big characters for the big occasion in this new United side, Mkhitaryan can make himself just as vital when he’s in this sort of form.