What the hell went wrong for Mkhitaryan at Manchester United?

Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Man Utd
The Armenian looks set to join Arsenal, having spent two long spells out of Jose Mourinho's squad during his 18-month stint at Old Trafford

It was shortly before Christmas 2016 that Henrikh Mkhitaryan finally began to make an impression on Jose Mourinho, ending almost three months in isolation to truly announce himself as a Manchester United player.

But little more than one year on, the Armenian looks destined for a move to Arsenal as a makeweight in United's move for Alexis Sanchez, with a run of only two starts in 16 appearances coming off the back of a string of poor performances.

After Mkhitaryan’s all-or-nothing existence at Old Trafford took a turn for the worse in November against Chelsea, it became clear that despite having suffered a difficult first few months under Jose Mourinho, it was unlikely he was going to survive a second period of isolation unharmed.

Mkhitaryan’s malaise was one of the most curious narratives during the early stages of Mourinho’s tenure in M16. After seemingly switching off in the build-up to a Manchester City goal in his full debut in the red shirt, the former Borussia Dortmund man had to wait until December for his next league start.

“At the beginning, we had some difficulties,” Mkhitaryan told the BBC in February 2017. “It’s not very easy because you know when you have a new manager you have to try to adapt yourself to him, to the team, to the training session, to the game.

“But, at that time, even when I wasn’t playing, I always had a smile on my face because if I would be sad or if I would be mad, nothing would help me. That’s why I was just being patient, waiting for my time. I was sure that my time would come and I would have one more chance.”

He took his chance alright, becoming one of United’s key players on the way to Europa League glory in the second half of the season and he even started the current campaign as first-choice No.10, repaying Mourinho for his renewed faith with two goals and six assists in a barnstorming beginning to the season.

However, as the team’s style changed somewhat and their fortunes began to change, Mkhitaryan’s form dropped off a cliff. The attacker was particularly anonymous in the fixtures against Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea in successive Premier League outings, and he featured for only 20 minutes in the nine games that followed the loss at Stamford Bridge.

Mourinho had refused to give him any more leeway after those let-downs, and when asked about Mkhitaryan’s continued absence during the latest isolation the manager delivered a forthright response.

“I can only have six outfield players on the bench and I try to have some balance on the bench – I have had two defenders and [Daley] Blind who can play in different areas," the Portuguese explained. "I had Ashley Young to cover me all of the wing and the wing-back position.

Mkhitaryan, Mourinho, Man Utd

“I had [Ander] Herrera as a midfield player, Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] as a striker and Marcus [Rashford] as a second striker and winger. I played [Anthony] Martial, [Juan] Mata and [Jesse] Lingard in the team. To have Micki means that I don’t have one of them and, in this moment, I believe the other ones they deserve [the chance to play].”

Word at the time was that Mkhitaryan had blamed his downturn on the increased defensive responsibility requested of him by Mourinho, and that would certainly explain the timing of his bad run which coincided with a run of poor results for the team. However, the 28-year-old could not say he had been caught by surprise by his manager’s demand for harder work off the ball given what he went through the previous autumn.

Romelu Lukaku rightly drew some criticism for the flaws in his all-round game in the loss at Chelsea, but Mkhitaryan also disappointed in his inability to influence the game whenever United were under the cosh.

It was much the same story against Liverpool and Spurs too, but while Lukaku was seen working hard in the channels to turn his form around in just such games, his team-mate was of a far quieter disposition.

United have a lot of cash and faith wrapped up in the Belgian, meaning he was always going to be given more time to come to terms with life at Old Trafford, but Mkhitaryan soon found himself becoming an expendable piece in the United jigsaw once his form had dropped markedly for a second time in barely 12 months.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan Man Utd stats

It comes as little surprise against such a backdrop that Mkhitaryan was earmarked as the man to make way for Sanchez's arrival. United don't need the money that his exit will save them, but they need the Armenian sat in the directors' box for another six months, or more even less.

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And with the Chilean arriving, there is simply no space for Mkhitaryan at Manchester United anymore when the likes of Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba and Juan Mata can all claim to have been a great influence in the attacking midfield line over the past few months.

It took a lot of hard work and adaptation for Mkhitaryan to win Mourinho over during that difficult 2016-17 campaign, but he eventually did so to become the hero of their Europa League-winning run. But it was always going to be asking a lot for the manager to overlook a second lengthy period of lost form.

Unfortunately, for all concerned, this was one transfer that was just never meant to be a long-term fit, and his departure has become an inevitability.