Assists aplenty for Mkhitaryan, who must now increase his goal output
Nemanja Vidic knows a thing or two about what constitutes a danger to defenders. So, when the former Manchester United and Serbia captain speaks highly of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, it is praise indeed.
"[He] is a great player, great on the ball and always a danger to defenders," Vidic tells ESPN FC. "But the only thing I'd like to see from him is more goals. It seems like he enjoys to create more than score them, which is a nice quality for the team, but I think he should be more selfish and score more himself. I remember Dimitar Berbatov when he came to United. He seemed keener to set up a goal rather than score. We wanted him to score goals and the message got through to him and started scoring."
Two games into the Premier League season, Mkhitaryan already has four assists, quadrupling his total from last season, a campaign in which he endured mixed fortunes after his transfer from Borussia Dortmund.
"He should be scoring 10-15 league goals each season," says Vidic. "United have needed to score them from different positions for a couple of years now. The team can't just rely on the strikers; you need players in midfield and defence scoring. It's good that [Paul] Pogba is scoring and, while the season is very early, hopefully the team will continue as they have started."
To the surprise of some, Mkhitaryan has started every game so far this season. Given the presence in Jose Mourinho's squad of United player of the year Ander Herrera, as well as Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba, who is expected to play a more advanced position, nobody was quite sure how Mkhitaryan would fare. Yet some seasoned United watchers expressed a preference before a competitive ball was kicked.
"Herrera seems to be a player that a lot of people like, but for me as a forward who has seen a lot inside football I would have Mkhitaryan, with Matic behind and Pogba to the left," said ex-United forward Brian McClair last month.
Speaking after the win vs. Manchester City in Houston during United's preseason tour of the U.S., Mkhitaryan appeared to be in a better frame of mind than last season, when Mourinho rightly judged him not to be ready to play Premier League football.
Perhaps it was a bit harsh to make his first start for the club a Manchester derby last September, but the manager's tough love worked; Mkhitaryan toughened himself up, didn't moan about his situation and, by the end of the season, started the biggest matches in the Europa League as United moved towards the final in Stockholm, where he scored the second goal in a 2-0 win over Ajax.
The Armenian international midfielder is one of several players who must step up, be more consistent and score more as he did in Dortmund, where his final season brought 23 strikes in all competitions. His first campaign in England yielded just four in the league, which was not enough, though his scorpion kick against Sunderland at Old Trafford was the club's best of the season.
He was more prolific in Europe, scoring six in 11 games, but was his first season a success? Not really; it merely mirrored what United were: A sixth-place team lacking consistency, goals and great moments. Mkhitaryan also managed just five assists, compared to 24 in his last season in Germany. That was the player United bought, not someone unable to create and assist against average Premier League teams at home.
He's not the tallest player in "Jose's Giants," but his chunky, Mark Hughes-sized thighs help and he's looking more confident at the start of his second season. He's settled in Manchester, no longer living in a hotel and has got to know his teammates. He's proud of where he's from -- he met members of Los Angeles' Armenian community on the preseason tour -- and where he's at.
Mkhitaryan told United when he joined that it was the only club for which he would have left Dortmund. Doubts about that decision would have been understandable during his early days at Old Trafford and especially when he was abruptly substituted at half-time vs. City, having been outplayed by Kevin De Bruyne.
He wouldn't start another league game for three months and fans wondered why he'd been signed for such a huge fee, if he wasn't to play. There were even conspiracy theories that he'd been brought to keep his agent Mino Raiola sweet ahead of an impending move for Pogba. But that was then and Mkhitrayan has since proved he is a very good player in his own right.
Mkhitaryan is expected to start again when United host Leicester on Saturday, in what should be the team's toughest test so far. Given his form, missing matches for following next three months is unlikely. The assists have started to flow in United's rapid, ruthless attack. Now all that is needed are his goals.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.