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23rd Jan 2018

Dennis Bergkamp story shows why it didn’t work out for Henrikh Mkhitaryan at Manchester United

Mkhitaryan didn't fail at United, Mourinho failed him

Robert Redmond

The swap deal between Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan could be a rare example of a transfer working out well for every party involved.

Manchester United get a world class player at the peak of his powers and Jose Mourinho gets rid of a footballer he didn’t want. Mkhitaryan can now play for a team that better suits his attacking qualities, and United will provide Sanchez with Champions League football.

With the situation seemingly working out so well for all parties, it’s probably not worth dwelling for too long on what has passed. But, there’s still something that needs to be addressed – Mkhitaryan didn’t fail at United, Mourinho failed him. Anyone who views his struggles at Old Trafford solely as a personal failing, as though he didn’t have the “character” or the ability to thrive, either doesn’t understand what they’ve witnessed over the past season and a half, or needs to take a closer look at how he was used by Mourinho.

A story from Dennis Bergkamp’s autobiography, Stillness and Speed, helps explain why Mkhitaryan struggled at Old Trafford. Before arriving at Arsenal in 1995, Bergkamp signed for Inter Milan from Ajax in 1993. It went so bad that he contemplated retirement before turning his career around at the Gunners

Bergkamp was lost within the team’s defensive tactical plan, it was a culture clash between Catenaccio and Total Football. Inter defended deep, left two strikers up front and looked to get the ball forward quickly. This is was a a massive departure from Ajax, which Bergkamp described as “a place where everything is based on a system and patterns, and on playing creative attacking football.”

In Serie A, the Dutchman was up against packed defences, and was expected to be the difference when the ball came to him.

“I look back (after receiving the ball) and my defenders and the other midfielders are still deep in their own half. There’s a huge space between us and its dead space! It’s killing me.”

Inter defended deep, stayed in their own half and gave the ball to Bergkamp to try score. The Dutch forward was one of the best players of his generation, but he was never suited to this style. “I need other players around me,” he said. “That’s when I become a good player, because I need them to perform like me, and I need them to be moving for me.” Bergkamp didn’t have the platform to collaborate at Inter, and became disillusioned within the restrictive tactical framework.

He was, of course, a better player than Mkhitaryan. But the Armenian could undoubtedly relate to his difficult time at the San Siro. He left Dortmund, a team “where everything is based on a system and patterns, and on playing creative attacking football”, to play for Mourinho’s United, which is effectively a luxury version of Stoke City. Mourinho organises the defence, and leaves attacking players to their own devices. This is why he values tall players, like Marouane Fellaini, “big characters”, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, players who can improvise in the final third, like Sanchez, and players who can produce a moment of magic, like Paul Pogba. He keeps it tight, and expects individuals to makes the difference. It’s a reactionary way to play, and it is one where Mkhitaryan, a collaborator, was never going to thrive.

The forward was never the right fit for Mourinho, the same way the former Chelsea coach incredibly found no use for Kevin De Bruyne or Mohamed Salah – the two best attacking players in the Premier League. Like De Bruyne, Mkhitaryan arrived in English football after a brilliant season in Germany. He was voted Bundesliga Player of the Season in the 2015/16 campaign, in 52 games for Borussia Dortmund that year, he scored 23 goals and registered 32 assists – imagine what Pep Guardiola could do with such a player.

However, like De Bruyne and Salah, Mourinho focused on what he couldn’t do, and didn’t provide an attacking structure for him to thrive. He was left isolated in the away games to Liverpool and Chelsea this season, with scraps to work with, and Romelu Lukaku, a player who completed six passes against Manchester City, to try collaborate with. Mourinho instructed his team to stay in their own half and Mkhitaryan was effectively the fall guy for his crude tactical plan. Is it any wonder that, like Bergkamp at Inter 25 years ago, he was despondent?

Mkhitaryan lost his place and was even booed by some fans at Old Trafford when he was substituted against Southampton last month. However, the United fans were directing their frustration towards the wrong person. Mourinho’s limited tactical framework, and not Mkhitaryan, was largely to blame for his struggles. It was a systematic failing, not an individual one.

There seems to be an theory that Mkhitaryan didn’t have the “character” needed to be a success at United, but this is nonsense. When Mkhitaryan was seven, his father Hamlet died of cancer aged just 33. He had been a professional footballer in France, and the family had to move back to Armenia. Mkhitaryan overcame this personal tragedy, and went to Brazil alone as a 13-year-old to train with Sao Paulo for four months. He was the best player in Ukraine during his time with Shakhtar Donetsk and then the best player in Germany for a season with Dortmund. He speaks seven languages. He has met every challenge he has faced in his professional career, and overcome a difficult start in life.

There’s also an idea that he was too soft to thrive at United, that he wasn’t prepared to work hard. As Jonathan Wilson highlighted, “in his three seasons in the Bundesliga, Mkhitaryan regained possession through tackles and interceptions 2.7 times per game, 3.2 times per game and 3.2 times per game.” These aren’t the statistics of a player who is afraid to work hard.

Ultimately, United fans won’t particularly care that Mkhitaryan has left, because he has been replaced by Sanchez, a better player and one more suited to the current team. However, Mkhitaryan is just the latest creative player to have struggled under Mourinho, and he won’t be the last. His time at Old Trafford wasn’t merely a personal failing, but instead highlighted Mourinho’s shortcomings. Mkhitaryan could be reborn at Arsenal, the way Bergkamp was, (even if he’ll never be as good as the Dutchman). But, even if it doesn’t go to plan, at least he’s away from Mourinho, who has proved yet again that he discards creative talent.

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