It was around this time last year that Jose Mourinho kept reiterating that he was not trying to push Morgan Schneiderlin or Memphis Depay out of Old Trafford when, in reality, their positions at Manchester United had become hopeless and a move was the only logical solution.
Depay duly left for Lyon, Schneiderlin for Everton. The tune was much the same on Friday when Mourinho admitted he would not stand in the way of any unhappy player leaving United in next month’s transfer window as long as the price was right.
It is a tried and trusted tactic – put the onus on the player at the same time as creating circumstances that leave him with his back against a wall.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is not quite at that point, but his United career is at a crossroads 18 months after his £26.3 million move from Borussia Dortmund. The question is now less about his role in Mourinho’s starting XI and more about whether his exile from the Portuguese’s 18-man squad is temporary or something more serious.
The Armenian playmaker has been omitted from seven of the past eight squads, and few will be surprised if he is left out again against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on Sunday.
Mourinho has taken to tiptoeing around the Mkhitaryan debate, instead talking generically about others being more deserving of their place, but he had no qualms about going in with two feet last month when he accused the player of a gradual “disappearing” act.
“His performance levels in terms of goal-scoring and assists, high pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a No 10, were decreasing step by step,” Mourinho said. But is it as clear-cut as that? Or might there be a fundamental clash of philosophies and styles here, as Alan Smith, the former Arsenal striker, suggested this week. “He has not been playing well enough, but maybe the system doesn’t suit him,” Smith said.
It has long been fashionable to compare and contrast Mourinho and Pep Guardiola’s brands of football, but it is not unreasonable to wonder if Mkhitaryan’s skill-set, turn of speed and technique would be better suited to Manchester City’s attacking system than United’s more rigid set-up.
There was never any chance of City’s creative sparks being asked to tackle Spurs on Saturday night in the way Mkhitaryan was predominantly tasked with trying to cut off Tottenham’s out-ball to Harry Winks at Old Trafford in October, for example. Creator effectively became makeshift destroyer – chasing, screening, harrying, grappling. This reactive role was not what Jurgen Klopp or Thomas Tuchel ever really envisaged for their creative fulcrum at Dortmund.
Mkhitaryan created one chance, attempted 37 passes, made three recoveries and ran 8.2 kilometres in that Spurs game compared with averages of 10.54 kilometres covered, 50 passes made, 5.8 recoveries and 3.4 chances fashioned in his opening five league games of the campaign when the accent was on attack. Against Liverpool and Chelsea, he made an average of 28.5 sprints compared with 51.6 in those first five fixtures.
There was plenty of interest in Mkhitaryan when he joined United and there still is as clubs monitor his situation, poised to pounce if it becomes clear there is no way back under Mourinho.
Mesut Ozil is an interesting one because, for all the clashes he had with Mourinho at Real Madrid, the German is not averse to working with the Portuguese again as he weighs up whether to swap Arsenal for United next year.
Stories Mkhitaryan has been going in on his days off or doing extra work to try to win back Mourinho’s trust ignore the fact that he has always done that.
Tuchel tells how at his time at Dortmund they had returned home from a European game in the early hours and noticed Mkhitaryan’s car at the training ground long after everyone had gone home. Curious as to what was going on, Tuchel found Mkhitaryan sat in an ice bath at 4am. Klopp spoke of a player who was the harshest of self-critics. Professionalism has never been an issue. Whether Mkhitaryan and Mourinho’s footballing attitudes are compatible, though, is another matter.