Something has changed in the air. The cliché term, ‘dream club’, is now being used by a player with regards to joining Manchester United and not when leaving. That in itself must be part of the José Mourinho effect. Borussia Dortmund star, the Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan, is another client of (super) agent Mino Raiola linked to the Manchester club. From all reports, Mkhitaryan is pushing for the move which has Man United as slight favourites over Arsenal and Manchester City for his services next season. This is indeed if he does move. He currently has one year to go on his contract and it’s reported he won’t sign another. Most transfers are looked at from the club perspective. We know why Man United want him. He will bring much needed goals and assists from mainly the right and left in what we assume for now will be a 4-2-3-1 formation. Looking at the recent history of the player will offer insight on what kind of fit this will be for him.
In their current incarnation, Dortmund are the better performing team (note though that they have already lost Mats Hummels and İlkay Gündoğan in the off-season). Man United have under-performed and underwhelmed for three seasons now and if Mkhitaryan had based his decision solely on what is currently evident to the eyes then Man United would be a step down. We know this isn’t the case. New manager, new signings, and new optimism means that a sleeping giant might just awaken to frighten lesser opponents once more.
Mkhitaryan would be leaving a team stuck as the spoilers in what is mainly a two team league. England offers a more realistic shot at a domestic title than if he remained to battle against a constantly strengthening Bayern Munich juggernaut. At Man United he would be most at home on the right side of an attacking three, a position of weakness for the club of late. His move from Shakhtar Donetsk to Dortmund which cost £23.6m was done amidst interest from Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp’s current club. The German had the utmost confidence in the fit of the signing, memorably saying “Mkhitaryan fits us like an a** in a bucket. What he offers is exactly what we need.” However, the marriage wouldn’t end well as he struggled for the most part (mainly in his second season after a decent first) with the demanding Gegenpressing style as the Klopp era unravelled.
Mkhitaryan really came into his own under the watch of Thomas Tuchel. Previously, favourable words about Klopp and how he helped him to adjust gave way to comments about Klopp being a ‘football madman’.
The more possession based system which allowed him time on the ball instead of the reliance on high pressing, pressure and counterattacks translated into his best season by some way. Can Mkhitaryan expect to put up comparable numbers in England if he does indeed move? There are a few factors to consider. It seems like an obvious match for him at right wing given the history between the current occupant at Old Trafford, Juan Mata, and the boss. Mata, played out of position, has been largely ineffective out in the wilderness on the right and created 53 chances in 38 league matches for six goals and five assists. Mkhitaryan, on the other hand, created 82 in 31 matches for 11 goals and 15 assists. Clearly we must qualify these statistics by the overall stats of both teams. This would be some sort of leveller but in no way detracts from the fact that the Dortmund man is a far better fit and is most likely seen as the answer to a problem position inhabited by a player with a problem relationship with Jose.
When it comes to playing style, Mkhitaryan should be concerned since Mourinho does like his teams to press high and he does like his teams to counterattack. Mourinho has to be tactically astute enough to continue somewhat what Louis van Gaal had instituted in the way of possession football and marry that with his higher tempo game. There is the issue of Mourinho’s aversion to attacking football against any team he feels outmatched against. This may not suit Mkhitaryan best but he wouldn’t be totally at sea counterattacking having done so under Klopp. An attacking midfield three of Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and Mkhitaryan wouldn’t be shabby and whichever striker leads the line would be infinitely happier than under Van Gaal. In Marcus Rashford, Martial, and himself Man United could see a trio of dribblers that harken more to years past.
It’s a transfer that makes sense for the player, not immediately, since there is no Champions League football this season which BvB do have and Manchester United is a project at ground zero. However, should José find his touch in the second season, a then 28 year old man should be firmly in his prime as Man United make an assault on multiple competitions.
His main competition would be a man previously scorned at one of the five biggest clubs in the world. The others are Memphis Depay and Jesse Lingard; enough said. He has a chance to be a part of a project which promises to be a media dream and coming off his best season the call must be answered. The question is now just how good Man United are at doing business with a club willing to run down the last year of a contract as they try to come up with something that will satisfy BvB’s reported €40 million valuation of the player.