Why Henrikh Mkhitaryan is Arsenal’s key man moving forward
It was a performance that we have all been waiting for. A 5-1 demolition job of Bournemouth was befitting our level of ability. Arsenal gave the Premier League – and Spurs – a timely reminder that we are alive and kicking.
The disaster in Borisov has seemingly provided the kick up the ass we needed. 10 goals in the subsequent three-match outings signalled one of our best goal returns over similar periods this season.
In the immediate aftermath of the performance, it was Mesut Özil that – expectedly – drew much of the attention. Certainly, he did deserve praise. His now-recognisable chip opened the scoring, while he assisted our second and was directly involved in the build-up to Koscielny’s goal early in the second half. It was an all-action display from the former German international, but the player who was even more influential was Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Directly involved in four out of our five goals on the day highlighted what was, without question, his best performance in an Arsenal shirt. He started the sequence that led to Özil’s opener, combined brilliantly with the German for his goal, and then again for his assist on Koscielny’s finish. But it was his second assist on the night that, for me, was the most important.
Picking up a loose ball on the right-side edge of our area, his darting solo-run to midfield before putting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into acres of space and through on goal was a throwback to what was a regular occurrence at Borussia Dortmund.
Mkhitaryan was sensational on and off the ball all night. His understanding with Özil – indicative by them combining for our first three – was lovely to see. He seemed lively, finally enjoying his football.
The Armenian captain had failed to hit the heights expected when he first moved to the Premier League. Coming off a masterful season with Dortmund in 2015-16, much was expected of the Yerevan native upon arrival to Old Trafford in the summer of 2016. Sufficed to say, United supporters couldn’t wait to see the back of him after a torrid season and a half.
He arrived at the Emirates amidst that all-too-familiar divisive atmosphere. Many were less than thrilled with his acquisition, citing his time at United. Yet others still looked back to his days in the Ruhr valley as to what we could be getting.
Early doors it was a mixed bag of evidence that he presented us with. Good performances during our Europa League run were countered by a fair dose of inconsistency in the league. A knee injury on the back-end of the season – where he missed six matches – didn’t aid in his attempts to settle in.
Despite another injury, this current campaign – a metatarsal fracture that kept him out for 10 matches – his performance on Wednesday finally gave us the best bit of evidence into who he can be for us.
Mkhitaryan’s tactical flexibility has yet to truly been on exhibit for us until the Bournemouth game. Many have – incorrectly – designated him as just a wide player. While it is true that he has made a combined 150-appearances on both flanks, he has appeared 152-times as a central attacking midfielder.
What is telling, however, is that his best season at Dortmund came while being deployed on the flanks. But only on paper. This is where his flexibility, and everything that he can truly add to our XI, comes to the fore.
By now it is clear that many of our chances for the rest of the season will lay at the feet of our French-speaking striker bromance. This is something I am more than okay with, but as we have seen at many points during the campaign, we have left them isolated. With the still uncertain nature of the status of Özil and whether he will feature more frequently, a genuine creative – and mobile – player is needed in the team.
Whether if Unai Emery opts to go with a three at the back deployment with two attacking players behind the striker, or a 4-2-3-1 like against Bournemouth, Mkhitaryan still seamlessly slots into both.
Presumably, a 4-2-3-1 would feature either Özil, Aaron Ramsey, or even Denis Suarez just behind the striker, with Mkhitaryan deployed on the right. But, as mentioned before, he would only be on the right in paper-form. In many moments on Wednesday evening, Mkhi popped up centrally and on the left, where that understanding and interchangeability with Özil really paid dividends.
Mkhitaryan in possession
Strength and ability on the ball, subtle creativity, and willingness to drive play forward when the opportunity presents itself, make Mkhitaryan the perfect creative partner for Mesut who so often controls proceedings directly. This ability in tandem was on display against Eddie Howe’s side, particularly for Koscielny’s goal.
The nature of Emery’s approach of building play from the back so often means we are left with a difficult low block to break down. Here too, Mkhi would play a vital role. The most effective way to break down a low block is to – if my history nerd nature permits me – utilise bewegungskrieg; a war of movement.
Essentially, the best way to break through opposition lines is to find the gaps and exploit them quickly before the defence has time to react. We see Barcelona achieve this with ease quite often. Though a possession-based side, perhaps no one can strike quickly into gaps in the lines like the Catalan side can.
The entire purpose of possession is to open the defence up, and within three forward passes, create a scoring chance. To do this successfully, highly competent movement off the ball is required. We see this in England at Manchester City and Liverpool especially.
Mkhitaryan can – and should – be added to the list of players we have at the club who excel in this area. Where we have struggled over recent seasons, however, is the speed in which we exploit the weak points we create.
At Dortmund, Mkhitaryan excelled in this area, and that was certainly partly because it was key to Dortmund’s way of playing. During the 2015-16 campaign, under the direction of the tactical mind of Thomas Tuchel and in an attacking set-up that included Aubameyang as well as Marco Reus, Mkhitaryan produced the most complete season of his club career. He owed much of that success to such a system, and it certainly can be postulated that its why he struggled so mightily at United under José Mourinho.
Quickly breaking into space between or behind their opposition was Dortmund’s lifeblood. So too should it become a keystone for Emery given the players at his disposal?
Perhaps the proof is in the pudding. Despite his injury this season and lacking regular football, Mkhitaryan has a better overall goal involvement than Dele Alli, Wilfried Zaha, Jesse Lingard, and Willian; players of comparable roles in their respective teams.
Still only 30-years-old, it was a short stint at the top in 2015-16 when many considered him, on form, one of the best players in Europe. Though there is no telling if he will ever reach that level of production again, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s ability as a footballer is undeniable. Unai Emery would do well to give him every possible opportunity to hit the heights he is capable of. We wouldn’t regret it.