Henrikh Mkhitaryan finally thriving at Manchester United after slow start
Yes, it's only Swansea and West Ham United. And yet the statistics are impressive -- two 4-0 wins in Manchester United's first two Premier League games, with goals from four different scorers. Lying just beneath these numbers, too, is a hugely encouraging figure for United supporters, which is that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has provided four assists.
It has been an interesting year for the Armenian playmaker, and that is putting it mildly. If, last summer, you had argued he would be his team's danger man, many would have said something like: "You know, that's completely possible. He was the leading assist provider in Germany in his last season at Borussia Dortmund, and he'll thrive in such a gifted attack."
However, if you had argued something similar just four months into his time at Old Trafford, many more would have looked at you in disbelief, mixed with perhaps a little concern, that he might be sold. Not now, though. Mkhitaryan looks as central to United's attack as Kevin De Bruyne does at Manchester City.
The striking thing is that Mkhitaryan was not necessarily a continual threat in either of these opening matches. His creativity has come in bursts, as has mostly been his way since he arrived at United, but it has come at crucial moments. On both occasions, he has supplied his team's second goal for Romelu Lukaku -- a combination which will be of great value in the months ahead. He is patient in possession and decisive when needed -- a marked contrast from his early performances for United, where he often squandered the ball in promising areas. That trait can be put down in some part to a desperation to impress and cost him so severely in his derby debut against Manchester City last September.
Of course, Mkhitaryan, should he go on to thrive at Old Trafford, would not be the first United star to bounce back from a disastrous full debut. Patrice Evra had a horror show in January 2006 against Manchester City, a 3-1 defeat where Sir Alex Ferguson found the Frenchman's performance so numbingly awful that he was withdrawn at half-time.
Indeed, in an uncanny symmetry, Mkhitaryan was also taken off after a torrid 45 minutes against City last season. Evra, though, is probably viewed by most people as having a much tougher mentality than the Armenian, who spent months out of the starting lineup. Yet that might be unfair -- it is no small feat to make a career in Ukraine, Germany and now England, three countries with vastly different cultures. And most important, the attacking midfielder has long since found both form and favour under his new manager.
Look at the brilliance of his improvised finish in last season's Europa League final, a goal which sealed a 2-0 win over Ajax and qualification for the Champions League. Or his positioning in the United team, where, despite his pace in wide areas, he operates more commonly as the No.10, with Juan Mata cutting in from the right flank on to his left foot. His tactical deployment demonstrates that Mourinho trusts him.
Perhaps this was always Mourinho's plan. Whatever the case, it is now certainly working. Swansea and West Ham are two of the more limited teams United will face this season, but they are sides Mourinho's men have previously struggled to dispatch. Mkhitaryan's growing importance to his team has given them the fluidity in attack to break down some of the most cautious defences. Of particular note is the chemistry he has struck up with Paul Pogba, with whom he supplied a pass for United's third. Pogba was readily criticised for not scoring enough goals last season -- part of which can be attributed to his continual clattering of the woodwork with shots from distance -- but this year it seems as though Pogba will have the chance to run through on goal substantially more.
Mkhitaryan has also been aided by the arrival of Lukaku, whose transfer deserves an article all its own. The intelligence of Lukaku's movement has given Mkhitaryan many more yards in which to work. Crucially, too, this new factor means Mkhitaryan is just one more player whom opponents see arriving at speed through the middle of the pitch. Too often last year, he was given the main responsibility of carrying the ball forward at pace. Now he does not need to lead the counterattack so much -- he is free to go about orchestrating it, a role in which he is far more dangerous.
So far, so good -- with the obvious caveat that there are far sterner tests to come. Mkhitaryan, though, has already shown that he can create chances for this team in a variety of ways -- set pieces, dribbles and one-touch passing. Despite the array of attacking tools at Mourinho's disposal, the Armenian may just prove to be the sharpest of them all.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.