Henrikh Mkhitaryan had been a man of mystery before the game against Feyenoord – you could see why the fans were celebratory as his name was read out at the start of the game. Hailed as one of the signings of the summer following his £26.3million switch from Borrusia Dortmund, the attacking midfielder found himself on the outskirts of the United team since his underwhelming performance against Manchester City on his debut where he was hooked off at half-time.
He didn’t even make the substitutes bench against Arsenal as Mourinho stated he wasn’t ready for the pressures and rigours of the game which then led to much disagreement to Manchester United fans across Social Media. Jose Mourinho had inadvertently put pressure on Mkhitaryan by stating that Feyenoord was a better game for him to play his normal game rather than the heated rivalry with Arsenal. As a result, this admission had prompted fans to question the mentality of the former Dortmund star.
However, Armenia’s record goalscorer was hungry to show that he can handle the big stage at the infamous Theatre of Dreams. Making his first start since the Manchester derby back in September, Mkhitaryan put in a performance that reminded everyone around the club and most certainly Jose Mourinho of his ability in the 4-0 win against Feyenoord.
At the start of the game, there was a huge sense of intrigue as fans were waiting to see what the midfielder – who recorded 11 goals and 15 assists last season for Dortmund in the Bundesliga last season – could do in Manchester United shirt, given another chance.
Fans were enthused by the inclusion of Mkhitaryan and by the time he was taken off on the stroke of the 82nd minute he had already put in a man of the match performance which would have certainly made a case for a more prominent starting berth as the season progresses.
There’s no doubt about it, the performance against Feyenoord certainly kicked off his United career in earnest.
Nominally starting on the left of an attacking trio along with Wayne Rooney, Mata behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic – a flexible front four – he was immediately involved with the build up play. His link-up play with Carrick and Rooney certainly was impressive. Within the first minute of the game, he ghosted into the box. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s header back across goal nearly fell for the Armenian – it was clear he would be an immediate factor in United’s performance.
There was no escaping the look of a play who was hungry for the challenge after being starved of first team action. His ability with the ball and without it certainly showed, he played a sumptuous one-two with Wayne Rooney which would have put him in for his first United goal only for Wayne Rooney’s return to be slightly over hit. That piece of play told the story for the whole night as Mkhitaryan, Mata and Rooney simply were too good for the Feyenoord defence. The fluidity and movement in around Zlatan Ibrahimovic certainly Mourinho much to think about as he continues to find the perfect balance to his attacking trio in behind Zlatan.
The midfield looks to be sorted out with the trio of Carrick, Pogba and Ander Herrera certainly providing United with the power, tenacity and composure to control matches but its in front where Mourinho is still searching for the guaranteed attacking trio, and Mkhitaryan certainly would have got Mourinho pulling his hair out after his man of the match performance.
Every time Pogba or Carrick were on the ball, they were provided with the luxury of options as Mkhitaryan constantly disrupted the Feyenoord backline with his penetrative runs in behind and silky movement in an around the final third.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a clear target for his hold-up play and flick-ons. A buzzing playmaker making things happen. Juan Mata certainly had a partner in crime, another play who possesses the ability to thread the eye of the needle pass and the ability to fashion chances for themselves.
Even Wayne Rooney who has struggled for form all season looked like a man possessed. Starting on the left, Rooney and Mkhitaryan constantly exchanged positions in a fluid system that left Feyenoord in a big spot of bother. Rooney relished his time on the left simply because Mkhitaryan was so good in the middle that he managed to find himself in lots of space.
There were other glimpses of neat footwork and tidy dribbling which were hallmarks of his play at Dortmund – but there’s no doubt Mourinho would have demanded more from his man at half-time.
He got it. Within moments of the re-start Mkhitaryan, pressing with renewed verve, nearly nicked the ball off the visitors’ right-back Rick Karsdorp and then battled his way through two challenges as he drove towards the Feyenoord area. On 49 minutes his left-foot snap-shot was blocked at close range.
Sixty seconds later Mkhitaryan had United supporters out of their seats again with a surging, slaloming run from his own half deep into enemy territory past three Feyenoord defenders. He was bundled down 25 yards from goal, yet remarkably Jens Toornstra’s challenge went unpunished.
Not shot shy
Henrikh Mkhitaryan hit a game-high six shots in the match, two more than he had managed in his previous 134 minutes of action combined for Manchester United this season in all competitions.
While Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Mata and Ibrahimovic may not provide Mourinho with the kind of pace he desires, the neat one-two passes and quick link up play did inject much needed verve which has sorely been missing from United at times this season.
Substituted late on to appreciative applause, Henrikh Mkhitaryan certainly played his way back into contention. Maybe Mourinho was right to starve the Armenian of first team action because the energy and willingness to prove his doubters wrong certainly showed against Feyenoord. Mkhitaryan may not have scored or assisted, but he still played with the assurance and dynamism that endeared him to the Dortmund faithful. The stats on the night exemplified a quality showing, with six shots, three chances created, two take-ons won, won 100% of his tackles, 67% of his aerial duels and completed 85% of his passes.