Manchester United’s performance against Leicester City was nothing short of spectacular, regardless of all the big-name players on the sidelines. Anthony Martial was injured, while Wayne Rooney was left out due to problems with form. However, many United fans overlooked the absence of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, an injured player who has done nothing to warrant his exclusion from the first team in Jose Mourinho’s first two months as United boss.
Mkhitaryan’s unique blend of explosive pace and flawless passing makes him one of the most versatile threats in the Premier League- no other player at Manchester United offers as wide a variety of threat from an attacking perspective. This ‘attacking versatility’ allows Mkhitaryan to play in many roles on the pitch, and he could likely fit in any of the attacking three roles at United right now. Below is Manchester United’s lineup against Leicester, based on how they looked on the pitch.
The obvious place in which Mkhitaryan would fit is in Juan Mata’s role. The Spaniard was fantastic against Leicester, earning a goal and assist while being the hardest-working player on the pitch. Instead of being a traditional attacking midfielder, Mata was more of what Pep Guardiola would call a “free-eight”, occupying deep areas and moving forward with the team.
Watching Mkhitaryan’s few appearances at United, he often likes to pick up the ball in deep areas and break forward. He offers a lot more defensively than Mata (though that is changing as Mata develops into a different player), and also the breaking pace that Pogba offers. Mkhitaryan showed the work-rate to play in a midfield three quite often, as long as he starts in advanced areas and the shape changes (the way Mata did against Leicester).
I also think Mkhitaryan could play the role Jesse Lingard played, though, as an inverted right-winger. Dovetailing with Mata, Lingard spent a lot of the time in the middle of the pitch, and his 79 sprints in 90 minutes illustrated the fact he was there to make quick runs. For Mata’s goal, he made the final pass after Pogba’s lobbed ball over the defence, and I think Mkhitaryan is always a good man to play the final pass. He would undoubtedly prefer to be in the centre of the pitch than out wide, but if the system is slightly tweaked to get the best out of him, a creative trio of Mkhitaryan, Mata and Pogba could be lethal.
Finally, I think Mkhitaryan could be an option in Rashford’s role. Quite often, Rashford had the tendency to move far inside to the edge of the box, with Daley Blind providing the width down the left. At the edge of the box on the left, Mkhitaryan would be able to look simply for the final ball or shot, and he could become a goal/assist merchant from that position. However, it isn’t as good as it sounds in some respects because it could also go very wrong for the playmaker. Without any player to run into the left channel in front of him, Mkhitaryan will no longer have a player to pass to- Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t the right player to run into the channels. Subsequently, Mkhitaryan could spend too much time on the ball and lose out as a result.
Overall, it is obvious to think Mkhitaryan would slot into Mata’s position, as Young does into Lingard’s and Memphis does in Rashford’s. Even if he doesn’t play all the time, it doesn’t mean he isn’t a regular option- United is in a great position to be able to choose from the talented players they have, and as long as the best can be coaxed out of all of them, there will be many goals to appreciate this year. After all, Mkhitaryan’s main job this season should be to settle into the side- next year, when United is (probably) in the Champions League, is the year United needs to begin to reach the next, world class level. Players of the ilk of Mkhitaryan will be talismanic in any attempt to be successful at the highest level.