Henrikh Mkhitaryan might have had a wry smile on his face last week when his old club Manchester United were swatted aside by Tottenham at Wembley. Barely a week later, and fresh from laying on a hat-trick of assists, it is now the Armenian’s turn to take on Spurs, this time with their north London rivals – and his new club – Arsenal. He will hope his new manager does not take the same approach as Jose Mourinho.
Mkhitaryan put on a thrilling display in his full Premier League debut last time out, setting up two of Aaron Ramsey’s three goals. With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, assisted by his old Dortmund teammate, also scoring on his debut, fans have understandably started to get very excited about Arsenal again.
The former Borussia Dortmund playmaker already looks at home in an Arsenal kit. The Gunners play a much more creative and attacking brand of football, and it was obvious in the evisceration of Everton that Mkhitaryan suddenly had so many more options to play with, and so many more players on his wavelength. ‘It was not very difficult to make this decision,’ explained the 29-year-old, ‘because I think the way that Arsenal play [make] it a dream for every player to come here and play offensive football.’
United never felt like the perfect match for Mkhitaryan. At Dortmund he had played in a side that counter-pressed relentlessly under Jurgen Klopp, then dominated matches and suffocated opponents under Thomas Tuchel. Under Mourinho he suddenly found himself in a team that frequently played counter-attacking football, while when United did attack they lent more on individuality and spontaneity rather than the constructs Mkhitaryan had become used to.
Premier League assists 2017/18
Kevin De Bruyne11Leroy Sane10Paul Pogba9Henrikh Mkhitaryan8David Silva8
Mourinho’s approach to nullifying opponents was also more negative and reactive than he had experienced before. When Dortmund, or Shakhtar Donetsk before that, had taken on bigger sides looking to dominate possession, they pressed high and tried to stifle their build-up in what was essentially a front-foot approach.
But Mourinho sits off opponents, deliberately drawing them into his own half. When his sides counter, they do so over much long distances, practically from one box to the other. It requires pace and athleticism, neither of which are exactly strong suits of Mkhitaryan. It is also why a swap deal for Alexis Sanchez made so much sense, with Mourinho’s gameplan only as effective as the attacker he lets tear into the space left by opponents. By extension, Mkhitaryan is only as effective as the movement and runners around him. At Old Trafford he had little of either.
There is also a sense that Arsene Wenger’s softer approach will get the best out of Mkhitaryan, whereas Mourinho’s harsher, more abrasive style knocked his fragile confidence. In discussing the genius of Sir Alex Ferguson on Monday Night Football, Wayne Rooney made the point that the Scot handled every player differently – for example, when he wanted Nani to stop dribbling he would tell others, rather than single out of the temperamental Portuguese.
Mourinho lacks such tact and so often wages an almost psychological warfare against his players, deliberately putting them on edge or trying to create a siege mentality. But Wenger has always been more of a nurturer. At Dortmund, Tuchel prescribed Mkhitaryan with books to read (Timothy Gallwey’s ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ cured his worrying), and you can imagine Wenger dusting off a few tomes of his own to help his new signing out.
Wenger on whether Aubameyang & Mkhitaryan will start against Tottenham
‘These guys have the experience. They have played top level games and they know what is most important to do. They all just need to focus on the performance and how we want to play the game tactically. I think we are in the middle of the season, why would these guys not repeat those kinds of performances.’
Tactically, the Frenchman has never shared the more pragmatic tendencies of Mourinho either, and has already hinted at a different approach when he visits Wembley on Saturday lunchtime, saying that the best way to stop Spurs’ many-pronged attack, led by division top scorer Harry Kane, is to ‘take the game to them’. Admittedly, it’s easier said than done.
But is also feels crucial to getting the very best out of Mkhitaryan. There are still legitimate question marks over his signing – he is, after all, at the backend of his peak years and his first assist at the weekend ended a run of 722 minutes without creating a Premier League goal – which an easy win over a poor Everton win should not erase completely. He still feels like a player in the process of being fixed.
Facing Tottenham provides the first real test for both player and manager. Typically Spurs dominate possession and chances, having firmly shaken off their Wembley hoodoo, and most managers would look to absorb pressure and counter. That would only play into Spurs’ hands.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side look most vulnerable when they are pressed and harried, when they are prevented from playing on their own terms. Even in the FA Cup against League Two side Newport County, simply denying Spurs’ back-line time to build possession rattled them. Arsenal did this incredibly well in the reverse fixture earlier this season too and a repeat of that approach not only offers their best chance at victory now, but the best means for maintaining Mkhitaryan’s form.
Mourinho’s constant need to prioritise stopping the opposition hamstrung the Armenian more than most, and Wenger is faced with the same dilemma now. Does he put on the handbrake and risk Mkhitaryan retreating into his shell, or surround and hound Spurs and invite Mkhitaryan to pick holes in the defence. If it is the latter, then he must prove that he can be as destructive against a big team as he is against relegation fodder, and perhaps prove that Mourinho should have taken a bolder approach in the biggest matches.