Henrikh Mkhitaryan drifts to periphery after losing Jose Mourinho trust
Poor Henrikh Mkhitaryan. When he left the field at half time in his first Manchester derby back in September 2016, taken off after losing possession and composure on several occasions on his Premier League debut, he may have consoled himself that he would never endure another occasion so dispiriting.
Yet a year later, with Manchester City again visiting Old Trafford, he somehow went one worse. This time, with his team in desperate need of creativity, he was left out of the squad altogether. The pain must have been worse given that Paul Pogba, the team's creative fulcrum, was suspended. Despite the Frenchman's absence, though, Jose Mourinho could not find room for a man who has already provided several assists in the top division this season.
In Mourinho's defence, the omission of Mkhitaryan from the squad may -- given the Armenian's appalling recent form -- have been something of an act of mercy. Yet Mourinho is one of a tough sport's more ruthless personalities, and so it is unlikely that his decision was motivated by compassion. The wonder, given Mkhitaryan's failure to emerge as a point of reference in this United side, is why Mourinho signed him at all.
When I spoke with friends who cover the German domestic game, they feared for Mkhitaryan at Old Trafford. The key impediment to his success, they all said, would be his mental state. He had struggled greatly with his confidence at Borussia Dortmund, only truly flourishing under Thomas Tuchel, and it was vital that he was handled properly. With the right man-management, he is one of the most devastating playmakers in Europe. But he finds himself supplanted by Jesse Lingard, who is a very good footballer but a rung below him in terms of skill and vision.
In Lingard's defence, he has been in outstanding form, with a superb goal against Watford and a decisive brace against Arsenal. Yet Lingard's prominence forms part of a pattern with Mourinho's tenure -- one where the less gifted players of his squad, such as Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini, go above and beyond their expected levels of performance, while the most gifted players, such as Luke Shaw, often sink far below. You could call it Mourinho's Law of Inversion, even though you probably shouldn't.
Lingard deserves every sentence of praise that comes his way. The problem for Mourinho is that Mkhitaryan is one of the few footballers in the world with the ability to unravel elite defences on a consistent basis, and yet he seems to have no idea how to coax this form from him. The Armenian is unrecognisable from the man who, when he left Dortmund, led the league in assists and chipped in with over 20 goals. It is poignant to note that Mkhitaryan was at the helm of the attack that gave Pep Guardiola his greatest difficulty at Bayern Munich -- the best Dortmund attack, in one friend's view, that he had ever seen.
Looking at Guardiola now, it is easy to imagine Mkhitaryan flourishing under his direction. Guardiola deploys David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne ahead of Fernandinho in midfield, and you wonder if Mkhitaryan, with Nemanja Matic behind him and Pogba alongside him, might thrive in such a possession-based formation. Yet that is the stuff of fantasy, and for Mkhitaryan to have that measure of freedom he may as well be at another club.
Mourinho can point to the last few weeks where he played Mkhitaryan for game after game, even though it was clear his attacker was well below his best. He can say that this was a sign of his support for the player, that he wanted him to find his form with a run of matches. Yet perhaps Mourinho's treatment of Mkhitaryan has badly backfired, to the detriment of everyone at Old Trafford. It is easy to argue that the footballer is merely not cut out for life at the elite level of the game, but his track record -- as well as the striking humility and determination with which he gave his first few interviews at United -- show a player desperate to take his chance on this stage.
If Mkhitaryan does feel his future lies elsewhere, then he would infamously not be the first creative player to fall foul of Mourinho, who from the latest derby showing looks severely distrustful of attacking enterprise. The sight of City enjoying the run of Old Trafford's flanks, despite one of their full-backs being on a yellow card from the very opening minutes, was especially telling.
On a night where, at his peak, Mkhitaryan could have exposed any available gaps and anxiety in City's makeshift rearguard, he was nowhere to be seen. Much is made of how much Mourinho needs to feel trust in his players -- how he needs to see that they are warriors, committed to his cause. Maybe the more pertinent question is the extent to which Mourinho's players can feel trust in him.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.