Our tactics columnist, Lewis Ambrose, takes a look at new arrival Henrikh Mkhitaryan, an and profiles the player Arsenal are getting, his strengths and weaknesses, what we can expect, and asks if he can recover fully from his disappointing spell at Manchester United.
“His footballing intelligence – his ability to read the game – is perhaps his greatest quality, alongside his speed, power, and technique. He belongs to a group of players who can interpret what their coach wants. Working with players like that is pure fun.” – Mircea Lucescu
Borussia Dortmund fans would agree on Lucescu’s assessment of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was a key part of his exciting Shakhtar Donetsk side. Manchster United fans, not so much.
The player on display at Old Trafford for 18 months wasn’t quite the same as the one lost by Dortmund in 2016 and there’s every chance Mkhitaryan – now Arsenal’s highest-paid player – stutters into a side that often looks dysfunctional and simply falls down an enormous hole left by the Alexis Sanchez. This is no sure thing and a risk has been taken.
On the other hand, the move could spark something of a renaissance for the 29-year-old and prove to be a stroke of genius as he arrives for no fee in place of a player we would have lost for nothing in just four months.
Mkhitaryan is no normal footballer, at least not as far as stereotypes go. There aren’t many world famous players from Armenia. On top of that he is incredibly intelligent, speaking six languages, and sophisticated, listing reading and chess among his favourite past times.
When he does line up in an Arsenal shirt, we will hopefully see a malleable and multi-faceted attacking midfielder. As Lucescu rightly pointed out, Mkhitaryan’s greatest ability is to understand what his coach wants and what his team needs from him. Having talent is one thing but understanding when, where, and how to apply it is another matter altogether.
Let’s begin with a look at Mkhitaryan’s play with the ball. Quick feet and clever combinations around the box we have come to associate with Arsenal should see him fit in well. The 29-year-old is a classy dribbler, hardly losing any speed when he runs in possession of the ball, and is able to beat defenders with deft touches without breaking his stride.
Thanks to his excellent technique and cool head, Arsenal fans may well see Mkhitaryan aid the side when we face pressing. We’ve probably not had a player so resistant to pressing since Santi Cazorla’s series of unfortunate events and could really benefit from Mkhitaryan’s coolness in such situations.
Under pressure, Mkhitaryan finds Weigl in space who can exploit the gaps in Mainz' weak midfield pressing structure. pic.twitter.com/eX0mnyfRkH
— Tom Payne (@TomPayneftbl) August 17, 2016
— Tom Payne (@TomPayneftbl) March 6, 2016
As for his passing ability, the Armenian loves to move the ball quickly but is rarely rushed – if a team-mate is running in to space, Mkhitaryan will wait for the ideal moment to release a through ball.
When Arsenal are on the front foot, they can expect their new midfielder to consistently make the right choices: if a player is in trouble, he will either come short to provide an option or make a run to create more space.
Making decisions to benefit the team isn’t limited to being on the ball, either. Without possession, Arsenal have signed a player willing to make runs behind the defence when spaces are there to be exploited. If not, he will make runs to drag a tight defence out of shape or even move towards a team-mate in support, starting quick combinations and dodging opposition defenders by moving to their blind side to appear in space that hadn’t existed seconds earlier.
Despite all that, he did not have a good time under Mourinho (who would?) and there are considerable doubts that he will not perform in the Premier League, perhaps isn’t as good as people thought, and/or does not have the mental strength to recover from the last 18 months.
So let’s address those worries with some hefty caveats. First and foremost, Mkhitaryan started just one game in the Premier League before December in his first season and he was subbed after 45 minutes. This is hardly a platform for success.
From a stylistic perspective, Manchester United’s attacking style has been very different from Arsenal’s. Though both sides are fairly free form going forward, United haven’t tended to commit too many bodies to attacks. Unless counter-attacking, players are too often left without options, especially from wide areas.
Mkhitaryan thrives in more fluid teams and at least somewhat-improvised attacking scenarios, which may explain (to some extent) why he didn’t suit the needs of Mourinho. You want to see Mkhitaryan in situations where he can read the game and is free pop up where he is most needed, not unlike Mesut Ozil.
As for the concerns surrounding Mkhitaryan’s mental ‘fragility’, just two years ago I said he was “essentially the poster boy of all of Borussia Dortmund’s misgivings under Jurgen Klopp” as he failed to replace Mario Gotze, became remembered for misses, and ultimately endured a six month goal drought. He’s been through this before and came through it to deliver an astounding season under Thomas Tuchel before leaving Germany.
“When Tuchel came, we started to play a different kind of football,” Mkhitaryan told Lars Pollmann in an exclusive interview as he tried to explain his upturn in form under a new head coach. “We try to keep the ball more, we try to pass it more and play very offensive football.”
It almost sounds as though history could be repeating itself. Something notable during Dortmund’s horrendous 2014/15 campaign was that Mkhitaryan never hid. No matter how many things didn’t come off and team slipped all the way into a relegation battle, he demanded the ball from his team-mates over and over again.
Finally, on the subject of Manchester United, Mkhitaryan managed 23 goals and assists in 3914 minutes during his time there. A goal or assist every 170 minutes is by no means disastrous.
Those goals and assists nicely show Mkhitaryan’s superb dribbling and passing ability on the ball and his impressive movement to get into dangerous positions.
Playing on either flank would suit Mkhitaryan at Arsenal, as he’ll be given the freedom to drift centrally and drive forward at will. His defensive work is impressive for an attacking midfielder and it was interesting to see Arsene Wenger point to that after announcing the deal – some have posited the idea of the 29-year-old taking up Santi Cazorla’s playmaker role deeper in the park and that’s something we can’t rule out, especially as he advances into his thirties.
There are never any guarantees and Mkhitaryan may well be damaged goods but his time at Manchester United was better than people would have you think, he has reovered from worse spells in the past, and at Arsenal he should an environment more suited to his style of play.
When Arsenal targeted Mkhitaryan in the summer of 2016, he was coming off the back of a season that had seen him rack up 23 goals and 26 assists. To expect the same from him would be mad but the idea we have captured something in between that player and the one Manchester United were so willing to let go is realistic and exciting.
If there’s one real criticism of Mkhitaryan’s attacking game it’s his finishing. That shouldn’t matter, though, as Arsenal seem to want a pure goalscorer to work alongside their new signing anyway.
“It’s a big pleasure to play with him,” Mkhitaryan told Pollmann back in 2016. “You can understand during just one look what he wants to do. Just give him the ball and he scores a goal.”
He was talking about Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Obviously.