Henrikh Mkhitaryan played a starring role as Armenia’s captain vs. Kazakhstan on Sunday, scoring the first goal — extending his national record to 20 — in a 2-0 win. The chances of Armenia reaching a first-ever World Cup finals appear slight but they are just one point outside a playoff place at the halfway stage of qualifying.
Mkhitaryan is his nation’s greatest-ever player, having won the first of his 62 caps as a 17-year-old over a decade ago. Without him, Armenia lost their first three World Cup qualifiers. With him, they’ve won their last two and the Russian speaker would dearly love to play in that country next year while he’s at his peak. Armenia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, only played their first international in 1992.
Mkhitaryan flew from Yerevan to Manchester after Sunday’s game and will go straight into training with United. It will likely be the last week before the end of the season when the club don’t have a midweek match.
The midfielder has not started a Premier League game since the home win against Watford on the Feb. 11 and has only been in the United line-up for 10 of 27 league games overall, but that stat belies his importance and influence, which will be key in April when United play nine matches.
The first is on on Saturday at Old Trafford against 8th-placed West Brom and, with Marouane Fellaini missing Belgium’s Tuesday friendly vs. Russia with a toe injury, Paul Pogba having pulled his hamstring two weeks ago, Ander Herrera suspended and Bastian Schweinsteiger departed for Chivago Fire, United could have a shortage of midfielders for the game.
At least Michael Carrick is fit. I spoke recently about Mkhitaryan to the 35-year-old, who will have a testimonial at Old Trafford on June 4.
“The first time I saw [Mkhitaryan] was on the first day of preseason when I thought ‘he’s going to be a proper player,'” said Carrick. “I said that within minutes to [Ashley Young]. Sometimes you see it in players; sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you see it all the time. He can use both feet, he turns, he’s direct and quick. I thought ‘he’s got the potential to be whatever he wants to be.’ He can turn off both feet; he’s clever with the positions that he takes up. I like the way he plays the game.”
Carrick adds that Mkhitaryan is always looking to “get behind” opponents: “You play against some players who are talented but don’t really hurt you. They might have all the talent in the world but they’re not that hard to play against because they don’t really test you. Henrikh does and he’s not easy to play against because he wants to get into the holes, the pockets, where he twists and turns and goes forwards.”
Mkhitaryan prefers a central attacking midfield role, even if Mourinho uses him mostly on the right. He wasn’t in the squad when United won 2-0 at West Brom in December, a game the home side’s players felt they were never truly in as United dominated and scored two exceptional team goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Backed by the support of one of the best away followings of the season, who enjoyed the early evening kickoff, United played 4-3-3 against Tony Pulis’ side with Pogba, Carrick and Herrera behind Ibrahimovic, Jesse Lingard and Wayne Rooney.
That victory was one of the most impressive of the season and, as the fourth in succession, also came at a time when the mood among fans was peaking. In all, United won nine straight in December and January and played the best football of the campaign so far. Pogba was excellent and the run also coincided with Mkhitaryan starting consistently.
The 28-year-old added class, creativity and spectacular goals and helped draws become wins. The run ended in January with an Old Trafford draw against a Liverpool side already wobbling; points dropped at home have been one of the unfortunate stories this season for Mourinho’s side.
There is a chance to right that next week when West Brom’s visit is followed four days by that of Everton, currently seventh. Cup commitments means United have only played two league games since Feb. 11 but the Reds need points if they’re to finish in the top four, especially with away games to follow at Burnley, Manchester City, Arsenal and Spurs.
Mkhitaryan, who has been rested by Mourinho when he feels fatigued, can play a huge part in the games to come. He has no international games until June and has started just 20 games in all competitions for United. Pogba, by contrast, has made 40 starts so far.
The pair were two of four 2016 summer signings by Mourinho and all have impressed so far, more so than the previous year’s intake. Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Memphis Depay have already left the club, while Matteo Darmian is a bit-part player. Only Anthony Martial has been a consistent starter over the last two seasons.
Mkhitaryan has played well since a tough start when Mourinho toughened him up. Meanwhile, Pogba is having things tough right now after his performance levels dipped after Christmas, Eric Bailly would be helped by playing in a more stable defence and Ibrahimovic will be judged by his immense goalscoring record. He has 26 so far.
Mkhitaryan has scored a creditable seven so far himself, having netted 23 last season in 52 games for Borussia Dortmund. It’s time for him to finish this season as one of United’s best players; he certainly has the talent.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.