If stories of backroom deals are to be believed, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s time at Manchester United was flawed from the beginning. Signed in 2016 for just over $50 million, the Armenian was part of a package deal in Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s move to the English club spearheaded by super agent Mino Raiola. The lukewarm manner in which manager Jose Mourinho treated the playmaker gives credence to the belief that the manager never wanted him in the first place. Mkhitaryan’s high moments were followed by bouts on the bench, and he was never able to develop any momentum or rhythm. His introversion clashed with Mourinho’s personality. In effect, his United career was finished before he ever set foot in a match.
Exhibiting as many modern traits of the football game off the pitch as on it, Mkhitaryan’s story represents the murkiness of third party ownership highlighted by his move to Dortmund in 2013 in which half of his $33 million transfer fee went to Shakhtar Donetsk, which the other half split between his two previous clubs in Armenia. For those outside of the Eastern Europe football space, his talents came to the fore that 2013 summer with a rumored move to Liverpool. With his ability to move along deep lying and attacking midfield positions, then Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers tried to convince the versatile playmaker to join an attack featuring Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard as the final piece of a title run. Jamie Carragher remembers Rodgers being devastated when Mkhitaryan shunned the Premier League to join Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund instead.
The German club represented the first of two times he would fill Shinji Kagawa’s playmaking shoes. Whereas Kagawa is a quick footed dribbler with an eye for creating havoc in a backline, Mkhitaryan was a slightly more unorthodox, slightly more awkward combination of that dribbling and pace. In analyzing his goal against Italy that put Andrea Barzagli on his back, he found an opening in opposition space and attacked it clinically. But most importantly, he had an instinct for the unquantifiable characteristic of tempo. He was at his best interpreting and attacking open spaces under Thomas Tuchel’s quick passing, quick thinking set up in which the geometry of the field was already laid out. It was an example of a gifted player fulfilling their potential under the right system and right manager (there is also the theory that the manner in which he left Dortmund - with a powerful agent forcing a club to sell a player – foreshadowed how future players like Ousmane Dembele would handle forcing moves from the German side).
Which is why it would have been difficult to succeed in a brute force, transition focused United, with defensive work rate a nonstarter and overshadowing his subtleties as an attacker. As Armenian national team manager Artur Petrosyan acknowledged, Mkhitaryan is more suited for his new club Arsenal’s style as he can play without the pressure of defending. If there are questions of what type of playmaker Mkhitaryan is, the last two seasons at United showed what type of player he is not. Wesley Sneijder is often identified as Mourinho’s ideal attacking midfielder with his incisive passing on counters, timely long range strikes and most importantly, how those traits fit into a counter attacking system.
Yet Mkhitaryan is a playmaker who moves defenders with his presence and movement into space. He is not one to invent an attack out of nothing, but instead, expand upon the tempo and structure already set in place. Predicting he’ll hit his best form in two seasons at Arsenal is no stretch. But how he’s ultimately evaluated during his upcoming years in London is only half in his control.
According to Mourinho, Alexis Sanchez’s transfer price would have been somewhere between $150 and $200 million had the Chilean been under contract past this season. The furious posturing and rumors ended with a straight swap with Sanchez headed to United to unlock Mourinho’s counter attack and Mkhitaryan headed to his spiritual home at Arsenal. With the transfer garnering comparisons to American sports trades, the two will inevitably be linked with each other regardless of how different they are as players. If Mkhitaryan augments what’s already in place, Sanchez’s free wheeling approach is the system.
Mkhitaryan joins a club cutting ties with its past this winter window beyond Sanchez. Theo Walcott, perennially on the verge of breaking out and reaching his potential only to be cut down by inopportune injury, left Arsenal after 12 seasons. Midfielder Francis Coquelin left for Valencia, nine years after making his Arsenal debut. Alongside Santi Cazorla’s injury rumored to keep him out until 2019, the three players combined for 27 years in an Arsenal shirt and represented an era around the turn of the decade filled with youthful promise that never quite peaked.
Mkhitaryan as the only return piece to show for the years of development in Sanchez, Coquelin, Walcott and Cazorla – for now - is devastating when taking a long term perspective of the last decade. But as we’ve seen many times, highlighted by Valencia’s dressing room overhaul last summer, what a side loses in individual talent can be made up for in a cohesive side. Mkhitaryan is a versatile player, and he and Mesut Ozil compliment each other in terms of intelligence, technique and recognizing open space. However fleeting, they should have genuine moments of link up play at pace that rivals any side in England. As for the personalities, Mohamed Elneny tweeted that the side is now filled with players ready to fight for the Arsenal badge.
Mkhitaryan stated in 2009 that Arsenal was his favorite team for how they played under Wenger. In his first interview with the club, he expressed his admiration for Thierry Henry. While the comments will go far to win supporters, one could ask who on this current Arsenal side would garner a level of nostalgic admiration as to excite a player to join the club a decade later? Mkhitaryan will have his moments at Arsenal, leading to Arsenal to mimic the style of those sides from the early 2000s – he and Ozil alone are too good not to. Whether it’s enough to inspire the next Mkhitaryan to fall in love with the club, in the ever increasingly competitive global landscape, is its own metric of success resonating beyond a battle for a Champions League position this season.