Thursday, 7 March 2019

Henrikh Mkhitaryan showing his class for Arsenal as Alexis Sanchez's Man Utd misery continues

Arsenal face Manchester United live on Sky Sports on Super Sunday

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has impressed for Arsenal recently

Henrikh Mkhitaryan is finally showing the Premier League just how good he can be. Nick Wright examines his quiet rise to prominence ahead of Arsenal's Super Sunday clash with his former club Manchester United.

There will be no Alexis Sanchez when Manchester United face Arsenal on Super Sunday. The Chilean is facing six weeks out with a knee injury, but even if he had been fit it is unlikely he would have started. Sanchez has had a wretched time of it since moving from the Emirates Stadium to Old Trafford in January of last year.

For a long time, it seemed neither side would benefit much from the swap deal which took Sanchez one way and sent Henrikh Mkhitaryan the other. But while Sanchez's Manchester misery continues, Mkhitaryan is belatedly blossoming at Arsenal. Since his return from injury at the start of last month, he has arguably been their best and most important player.

He made his comeback in the 2-1 win over Huddersfield, playing a key role in Alexandre Lacazette's decisive goal at the John Smith's Stadium, and that was followed by a string of goals and assists against Southampton and Bournemouth. On Saturday, he produced another impressive display in the north London derby against Tottenham.

It is probably Mkhitaryan's best run of form since his arrival in England in 2016. The Armenian joined Manchester United to great fanfare following an outstanding season with Borussia Dortmund in which he contributed 19 goals and 24 assists, but it never quite clicked for him at United and his inconsistency continued in north London.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan celebrates his recent goal against Bournemouth

There were flashes of inspiration, most notably a hat-trick of assists on his first Arsenal start, a 5-1 win over Everton in which Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also shone, but while his former Dortmund team-mate continued in the same vein afterwards, Mkhitaryan found it trickier. Injuries and indifferent form made it feel like the Premier League might never see the best of him.

The outlook is far brighter now.

Mkhitaryan's recent flurry of goals and assists has taken him to six and four respectively this season, meaning he is averaging a goal involvement every 116 minutes. That puts him ahead of Sadio Mane, Christian Eriksen and Anthony Martial, to name a few. Only Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have been more productive at Arsenal.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan averages a goal or assist every 116 minutes

It helps that Arsenal have consistently played to his strengths in recent weeks. In the 5-1 win over Bournemouth and the 1-1 draw with Tottenham - a game Arsenal were unfortunate not to win - there has been an emphasis on counter-attacking. According to Opta, Arsenal made as many 'fast breaks' in those two games (five) as in the previous 11 combined.

It is in transition, breaking forward at speed, that Mkhitaryan is at his most effective. That was apparent during that dazzling 2015/16 season at Dortmund, when Thomas Tuchel's side blitzed their opponents on the break, and it the same story now.

Like at Dortmund, Arsenal's counter-attacks tend to travel through Mkhitaryan and it is no coincidence. The Armenian is always alert, always looking forward, and when the opportunities arise he also has the vision and technique required to pick the right passes and execute them.

Against Spurs, he was at the heart of almost every attack. Midway through the second half, he sent Aubameyang through on goal with one perfectly-weighted slide-rule pass. Then, in the closing stages, he released the Gabon striker to win Arsenal's penalty following another excellent run which started with a dribble around Jan Vertonghen in his own half.

Crucially, Mkhitaryan was also invaluable in a defensive sense, tracking back diligently and ensuring makeshift right-back Shkodran Mustafi was well-protected against Danny Rose and Heung-Min Son. His efforts were recognised by Emery, who lauded his "big performance in both boxes, defensively and offensively" afterwards.

Emery also talked up Mkhitaryan's "intensity". The Premier League tracking data showed he made more sprints than any of his team-mates against Spurs, while only Granit Xhaka covered more ground. Mkhitaryan clocked the highest top speed on the pitch, and there were also important tackles, interceptions and ball recoveries.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan's industry against Spurs

11.1km covered (2nd)

14 sprints (1st)

Six recoveries (4th)

34km/h top speed (1st)

That level of industry and discipline is vital for Emery - it is part of the reason why Mesut Ozil has struggled to win him over - and the Spurs game was not the first time Mkhitaryan has showed it this season. He ranks above any of Arsenal's other attacking midfielders for sprints per 90 minutes, while only Lucas Torreira and Xhaka make more recoveries.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan averages seven recoveries per 90 minutes

Together with his technical quality, those attributes help to explain how, free from injury problems, Mkhitaryan has become so important to his manager. Since his return to action last month, it is no coincidence that he has started six consecutive games in all competitions.

That only happened once during his time at Manchester United, but Mkhitaryan is likely to be one of the first names on Emery's team sheet when Arsenal face his former side on Sunday. Sanchez will be nowhere to be seen, nursing the injury which has thrown his Manchester United future into doubt, but recent evidence suggests Mkhitaryan will be hard to miss.

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