MANCHESTER, England — Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s goal proved enough for Manchester United to claim a home win over Tottenham, but the Armenian’s injury was a blow:
1. Mkhitaryan’s success overshadowed by injury
It would be a cruel blow for Henrikh Mkhitaryan if the ankle injury he suffered toward the end of Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham halts his progress at Manchester United.
In September, Mkhitaryan paid a heavy price for failing to play to instructions during United’s 2-1 defeat at home to Manchester City: The Armenian was cast into the Old Trafford shadows for two months afterward by Jose Mourinho. But the midfielder has undoubtedly proved his worth in recent weeks.
Mkhitaryan’s inability to press City’s full-backs that day led to both goals by the visitors, and Mourinho’s fury resulted in the summer signing from Borussia Dortmund being forced to watch from the sideline for what seemed an eternity until he returned to the fold in November with a 30-minute substitute appearance against Fenerbahce in Istanbul.
But since Mkhitaryan was handed his return to the starting XI against Feyenoord three weeks ago, there has been no looking back for the midfielder, who followed up his first goal for United against Zorya Luhansk in midweek with his first in the Premier League — a stunner against Tottenham.
The 27-year-old’s form asks whether Mourinho was too tough on him during his lengthy spell out of the team, but perhaps the United manager called it correctly.
He has spoken of needing to work on Mkhitaryan’s physical attributes as well as his tactical strengths, and it is fair to say that neither were particularly impressive during his humbling 45 minutes against City in September.
Whatever Mourinho’s motivation, Mkhitaryan’s recent performances — he was excellent once again against Spurs — are justifying the treatment he received from his manager.
Mkhitaryan looks hungry and determined, and he is becoming a driving force in games for United. He has added adventure and invention in the final third, offering more mobility than Juan Mata and quicker feet than Wayne Rooney.
Danny Rose’s late challenge on Mkhitaryan did not look good, however, and United and Mourinho will now be hoping he recovers swiftly.
2. Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo looking solid
Two players who appeared to have little or no future at Manchester United under Mourinho are beginning to forge an impressive defensive partnership that could yet persuade the manager to abandon thoughts of adding to his defensive line in January’s transfer window.
Jones’ fitness record was a major concern — he was beset by injuries for a very long time — while Rojo’s unpredictability at the back prompted United to listen to offers for the Argentine in the summer.
But injuries to Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly have opened the door for Jones and Rojo, and aside from Rojo’s reckless two-footed challenge on Idrissa Gueye at Everton last week, the pair have shown signs of becoming a solid central defensive pairing.
Jones is more comfortable on the ball than many would acknowledge, but his readiness to put his body on the line is unquestioned. Rojo, meanwhile, possesses all the attributes to be a top-class defender — he is athletic, quick, tall and left-footed — aside from the crucial qualities of concentration and focus.
Mourinho appears to have begun to smooth off Rojo’s rough edges, while Jones is displaying the confidence of a player who is starting every week. His fitness is also improving.
With Smalling not due back until Christmas and Bailly due to depart for the African Nations Cup with Ivory Coast next month, Jones and Rojo have become crucial figures for Mourinho. For now, they are delivering for their manager.
3. Tottenham missing Eric Dier’s influence
Dier was forced to watch from the sideline as Tottenham suffered their second away defeat in two weeks, with manager Mauricio Pochettino selecting Victor Wanyama ahead of the England midfielder.
One of England’s few positives from Euro 2016, Dier has struggled to reproduce the form he displayed for Spurs last season, but Pochettino’s team are a poorer one without him in it.
Wanyama has settled in well at Spurs since his summer arrival from Southampton, but he lacks the all-around abilities of Dier, and his presence denies Tottenham the roving and passing abilities of the former Sporting Lisbon youngster. Dier is more mobile, possesses a greater eye for a pass and is also a big threat in attacking areas with his aerial ability.
Wanyama’s awful miss from 6 yards — when he headed wide from point-blank range — was the kind of chance that Dier has converted for both club and country, and it ultimately cost Spurs a point.
When Spurs lost to Chelsea last month, Dier was forced to play at centre-back, where he is far less comfortable. Against United, meanwhile, he did not even kick a ball, but it might not have gone unnoticed by Pochettino that, in both games, his team lost having failed to dominate in midfield.
Restoring Dier to the team in his favoured midfield role would be one way of rectifying that.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_