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The Main Man: Why Henrikh Mkhitaryan must play centrally

Going into Jose Mourinho’s second season in charge, optimism has returned to the Manchester club. Having won the domestic title with every team he has ever managed in his second season, things are looking up. Interestingly, one of the central figures to United’s early season renaissance has also taken some time to get comfortable. But if history has shown us anything it’s that once he settles in; look out.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan, after two difficult seasons with Borussia Dortmund, was all but written off by the BVB fan base. However, with a new manager in charge, the Armenian would go on to amass an incredible 56 combined goals and assists in 52 appearances in the 2015-2016 season. A mind-boggling return which was sparked by a simple yet important move. Playing most of his time at Dortmund on the right-wing, manager Thomas Tuchel’s decision to play him centrally was a stroke of genius. One that Mkhitaryan repaid ten-fold.

Similarly, Mourinho preferred to play the Armenian out wide last season. Often opting for a 4-3-3 with Mkhitaryan on the right. However, in the first three games of the 2017-2018 season, Mkhitaryan has played centrally in a 4-2-3-1 formation. In those games, he has recorded a record tying 5 assists and has been at the heart of United’s strong start.

With fan favorite Ander Herrera on the bench and a historically impatient manager calling the shots, it may take only one poor performance from Mkhitaryan to see him ushered back out wide. But that would be a big mistake. Don’t believe me? Well here are three key reasons why Mkhitaryan must play centrally for Manchester United.

1. Supporting Lukaku in transition

One of the key changes Mourinho has made to Manchester United this season is their ability to transition quickly from defense to attack. Last season, United struggled to break away from the slow build up play that former manager Louis Van Gaal had implanted in their brain. Not helping was having a forward in Zlatan Ibrahimovic who preferred to drop deep and have others run off him. However, with the addition of Romelu Lukaku, United have shown that they can break quickly once again. Key to this change has been the role Mkhitaryan has played supporting Lukaku.

Manchester United’s second goal against Swansea is a perfect example. A direct ball from Marouane Fellaini is chested down by Romelu Lukaku, right into the path of Mkhitaryan. Lukaku then turns and begins running towards goal. It may not seem like much, but in a split second United could transition into attack. If Lukaku is alone, he struggles to hold up the ball and has to play it back to a midfield. By this time the defense has been able to get back into position. However, with Mkhitaryan standing right there United can strike quickly.

2. Pressing the opposition

Mourinho teams are not renowned for their pressing style. However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t press at all. Mourinho prefers to play with a deeper defensive line, allowing teams to build up out of the attack. Once they crossed the half way line though, that is when they strike. This technique allows the opposition to move forward and get comfortable. By winning the ball off the opposition in their own half, Mourinho wants his teams to counter quickly and efficiently.

For all Lukaku’s skills, running all day and pressing the opposition is not one of them. What we have seen so far this season, is that with Mkhitaryan playing centrally he can take the bulk of the pressing roles. A role often fulfilled by Herrera when playing the 4-3-3, Mkhitaryan is a more natural playmaker. Making him an ideal candidate to press higher up the pitch. If a turnover occurs, he is the guy you want to have the ball at his feet. Not only can he make long mazy runs on his own, but he also has the vision to pick out a pass. By playing him centrally, United’s pressing game is much more effective.

3. Allows his vision to shine

One of the most important players in a Jose Mourinho team is the #10. With much of the unit focused on maintaining control of the game, Mourinho’s central playmakers are vital to the attack. Wesley Sneijder at Inter Millan, Cesc Fabregas at Chelsea and the original, Deco, all spearheaded title-winning sides. Blessed with incredible vision and technique, they could start moves from the center of the pitch to dangerous effect.

No player in United’s team fits the bill better than Mkhitaryan. Out wide, the Armenian’s options are limited. The boundary to his right takes away from his creativity and does not allow him to move as fluidly throughout the pitch. Fantastic at finding space, Mkhitaryan has the technique to control the ball and spread it out to United’s various attackers. As the team floods forward, he has the awareness to know where everyone else is at all times. Think about United’s third goal against Swansea. His ability to sense Pogba would continue his run and then to play beautifully weighted through ball is exceptional. If United want to continue their strong start, then Mkhitaryan must continue playing through the middle.

United’s first three games have been against weak opposition and that is important to remember. However, that should not discount the brilliant start the team has had. A start that has reminded all of United’s fans, and hopefully the boss too, that Mkhitaryan will play a central role if they want to become champions once again.

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