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The making of Henrikh Mkhitaryan: from Armenia to The Emirates

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has spent his entire life batting adversity, in various forms. Those who are only aware of him from his Premier League spell might mistakenly think the most significant test of his mental fortitude came during his fractious period under Jose Mourinho’s management. However, those who have followed his career more closely will understand his time at Manchester United was nothing compared to the path that took the Armenian to Old Trafford.

In 1989, Armenia was incredibly turbulent. The Cold War had just ceased and in its place arrived the Autumn of Nations, a revolutionary wave that swept across Eastern Europe as uprisings occurred to dissolve the Soviet Union and gain independence.

Couple this with the fact Armenia had just entered conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the territory now known as Artsakh, and it becomes apparent the nation was an abhorrent area to live, let alone spend your childhood.

Over the following five years, independence was won, and a Russian brokered ceasefire occurred, but this came at a cost. An estimated 2000 civilians were killed, 1000 went missing, and 100,000 were displaced from their homes. To add to this, the switch to a market-based economy financially crippled Armenia for over a decade, and consistent electricity wasn’t restored until 1996.

To further compound this suffering, aged seven, Henrikh Mkhitaryan lost something so precious it cannot be replaced, his father. What makes this even more harrowing is the man was just the tender age of 33.

Hamlet Mkhitaryan was a professional footballer who played as a striker for FC Ararat Yerevan in Armenia, but beyond that, he was a role model to his son.

Henrikh idolised his father, soaking up his every word even at such a young age. As his son’s mentor, Hamlet would give his son useful footballing advice and laid the foundations for the consummate professional his protégé would later become.

Supporters fortunate enough to witness both of them in action have commented on how closely their styles resemble one another; this is no doubt due to the many hours Henrikh studied his father during training and matches.

Even in his formative years, it was quite apparent Henrikh’s appetite for football was insatiable. To satisfy his cravings, he joined the youth team of FC Pyunik, where he would remain until he made his senior debut for the club in 2006. Though even at 14 he was beginning to attract attention, a trial at Sao Paulo alongside Oscar and Hernanes was unsuccessful, but at the very least the interest from a Brazilian giant must have provided an abundance of motivation.

The Armenian Premier League might have been Mkhitaryan’s launch pad; however, four consecutive titles with FC Pyunik made it abundantly clear he was beyond his home league’s level. This extraordinary talent needed to travel further afield to flourish. Even Vardan Minasyan, his manager at the time, admitted he would love to see his prized asset “playing in a stronger league”.

Minasyan’s wish came true the following summer. Matalurh Donetsk of Ukraine qualified for the Europa League and were in need of reinforcements. Acutely aware of the Armenian’s potential, much optimism surrounded his arrival. The burden of expectation often causes young creative players to wilt; however Mkhitaryan thrived, so much so at 21 he was made the clubs youngest ever captain. This was undoubtedly a testament to his incredible dedication and maturity.

Shakhtar Donetsk have one of the greatest scouting networks on the planet, but they needn’t travel far to perform reconnaissance on Mkhitaryan. His instantaneous adaptation to life in the Ukrainian Premier League was enough to convince the reigning champions to part with $7.5million in 2010.

As with so many playmakers who came before him, the Donbass Arena provided an exquisite site for the Armenian international to develop his abilities away from the unrelenting pressure of Europe’s major leagues.

During this time Shakhtar certified their supremacy over Dynamo Kyiv to become Ukranian footballs dominant force; through winning a domestic treble in Mkhitaryan’s initial season, with a double the following term.

However, during his final year in Donetsk, the Armenian achieved almost unthinkable levels of excellence. No striker had ever scored 25 league goals in a Ukrainian Premier League season, Mkhitaryan managed this feat from midfield. His devastating combination of passing and dribbling ability meant from deeper positions he was able to link with strikers; alternatively, if the passing lanes were blocked he was able to use his raw speed to drive forward and shoot. What makes this all the more staggering is that it took just 29 games to reach the landmark achievement.

Suddenly in the summer of 2013, the Armenian captain had Europe’s full attention. Borussia Dortmund appeared the frontrunners, due to Jurgen Klopp’s comparable ideologies. After extensive negotiations, he became the German clubs record signing. Justifying the €27.5 million price tag was always going to be difficult, but after brief acclimatisation, Mkhitaryan began to pay dividends emphatically by recording a brace to dispatch Eintracht Frankfurt 2-1.

His first season under Klopp was a learning curve but still yielded a combined 19 goals and assists. Furthermore to this, Klopp’s management developed the playmaker’s style by deploying him in a role more akin to an inside forward who dropped centrally behind Marco Reus and Robert Lewandoski. Mkhitaryan’s in-game intelligence allowed him to create a considerable amount of space for his fellow forwards with intelligent movement from this position drawing his markers across.

Injuries then blighted the following campaign for the then 26-year-old, which resulting in hot and cold form, and a disappointing seventh-place finish.

Thomas Tuchel replaced Klopp as the Dortmund manager for the 2015/16 season, and his first game signified the outstanding output Mkhitaryan is capable of; the midfielder secured a late hat-trick to record a 5-0 victory in their Europa League qualifier against Wolfsberger AC of Austria.

Combining Reus, Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang proved fatal for opposition defences; Tuchel found the perfect system to deploy the trident and their productivity was phenomenal. That term produced a combined 73 goals for the trio across all competitions. Although, once again it was the Armenian who shone. His statistics were almost beyond comprehension, a combined goals and assists haul of 55 in all competitions rightfully led to him receiving the Bundesliga Player of the Season.

With just a year left on his contract and the biggest clubs in the world knocking Borussia Dortmund’s door down, they had no choice but to agree to let him go after that outstanding campaign.

Jose Mourinho knocked the loudest, as he set about rebuilding Manchester United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. In doing so, he made Mkhitaryan the first Armenian to play in the Premier League, and optimism surrounding Old Trafford heightened significantly, thanks to the further additions of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Finally, it appeared United were able to acquire the targets they required to challenge for the title.

Bizarrely though Mourinho decided not to start Mkhitaryan in any of the opening three games, only being used instead for late substitute appearances.

Questionably the Portuguese tactician suddenly started Armenia’s record goal scorer in the fourth game of the season, against predicted title challengers and local rivals Manchester City.

It’s fair to say his surprise inclusion didn’t go to plan. Manchester United found themselves fortunate to be just a goal behind after a woeful start to proceedings, which was so typically uncharacteristic of Mourinho’s teams.

Changes had to be made, and Mkhitaryan was sacrificed at halftime. From this moment onwards his confidence, especially in the Premier League, appeared shattered by his manager’s lack of faith.

When justifying the criticism he faced due to the decision, Mourinho compared the management of his new attacking midfielder to how he formerly integrated Willian at Chelsea. Although, he was incorrect to assume both players required the same treatment because the Brazilian didn’t have the stratospheric levels of momentum Mkhitaryan created in a hugely comparable league.

No matter what the Armenian achieved from that moment onwards, it felt like Mourinho had a predetermined opinion the 28-year-old wasn’t to be relied upon. His manager remained using the midfielder cautiously in the league.

Nevertheless, Mkhitaryan was given plentiful opportunities in that seasons Europa League campaign. Undoubtedly desperate to regain his manager’s trust, he impressively found the back of the net five times in 10 appearances on his way to helping Manchester United secure a place in the final. There they came up against a free-flowing Ajax who’d been the surprise package that year.

Strong performances en route to the final meant Mkhitaryan was rewarded with a starting role, finally some faith from his boss. Sensing his moment just as he’d done previously in his career, the 28-year-old didn’t let it slip.

Pogba put United in control 18 minutes in, courtesy of a deflected strike that Ajax could only watch sail into the net.

By the time halftime came around, regardless of sacrificing a significant proportion of possession United had faced little threat from the Dutch giants, who only managed a single shot on target.

Then three minutes after the restart Mkhitaryan’s rapier wit and outstanding athleticism made him the ultimate opportunist.

Juan Mata’s corner found Chris Smalling’s head on the edge of the six-yard box, but the Englishman’s weak connection left the ball bouncing in the box. Mkhitaryan instinctively reacted fastest. Despite having his back to goal, the midfielder acrobatically spun to sweep home a strike which didn’t give Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana a chance to react.

The second goal put the tie out of reach for the underdogs and in the process made Mkhitaryan the first Armenian to ever win a major European trophy. Furthermore, victory meant in spite of finishing sixth United would compete in the Champions League the following season.

Briefly, it appeared all of the 28-year-old’s issues at Old Trafford seemed to have been resolved when the 2017/18 campaign got underway; assisting a record-equalling five goals in his opening three games was a blistering start.

Unfortunately, though this form waned and the Armenian soon found himself with the reccurring predicament of being excluded from the starting XI.

At this point, it’s difficult to tell whether Mkhitaryan finally succumbed to his manager’s unrelenting lack of faith, rigid disruptive tactics, or if he felt he would be able to express his game under Arsene Wenger’s tutelage more effectively. It’s plausible the Armenian felt a combination of these feelings, it’s equally likely he didn’t have much choice.

Alexis Sanchez was making it abundantly clear he wasn’t going to remain at The Emirates and Mkhitaryan needed an exit route.

With next to no bargaining position due to Sanchez contract expiring at the end of the season, Arsenal were going to lose their prized asset. This would happen either for free in 5 months’ time or at a reduced price to direct rivals Manchester City in January.

That was until Manchester United hijacked the deal by offering Mkhitaryan as a makeweight. By doing so, they gave Wenger an option that couldn’t be refused, as the Frenchman previously complained about the lack of time to find a replacement. Jose Mourinho is the ultimate problem solver, even if that meant fixing some of Wenger’s undoings as well.

Inevitably keen to prove his critics wrong, Mkhitaryan produced a magnificent attacking display on his first start for Arsenal against Everton. He created a hat-trick of assists, which typify his sublime assets. The first, a pinpoint low cross, he clinically slipped through Aubameyang for the second and for the third exhibited great tenacity to win the ball back high up the pitch, even with the score at 4-1.

Since that performance once again consistency has proved a stumbling block though.

In the now 29-year-old’s defence though, Wenger’s final recruitment at Arsenal has to be questioned. Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan are all world class footballers in their own right; however, there isn’t a single system in the entirety of tactics that encompasses every one of those players in their natural position. Because of his pace, the Armenian is often pushed out wide even though remaining in those areas isn’t the most natural part of his game.

Summer recruitment under new boss Unai Emery has been significantly more logical. In spite of this though, the dilemma in attack remains.

The primary source of this issue is Ozil’s positional inflexibility, meaning he often occupies the same central spaces Mkhitaryan enjoys exploiting, rendering either ineffective when pushed out wide. However, if Emery can get the pair functioning efficiently in separate half spaces, with Aubameyang receiving the service of two majestic playmakers, the effects could be devastating.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s Premier League spell has been categorised by fleeting glimpses of excellence, the latest example of which came on Sunday in Arsenal’s loss against Chelsea. The Gunners might have left that game empty handed, but without the midfielders eye for goal and incisive vision the game would have never been within reach.

Maintaining the exceptional standards he has set himself, Mkhitaryan is capable of adapting to Emery’s management though this could prove to be his greatest footballing challenge; but from birth, adversity has surrounded Armenia’s greatest player. Past experiences have given him the resolve and intelligence to find a solution, and under Emery in North London at a crucial crossroads in his career, this could be Mhkitaryan’s time to shine.

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Premier League Table

# Team MP W D L P
1 Arsenal 14 12 1 1 37
2 Manchester City 14 10 2 2 32
3 Newcastle United 15 8 6 1 30
4 Tottenham Hotspur 15 9 2 4 29
5 Manchester United 14 8 2 4 26
6 Liverpool 14 6 4 4 22
7 Brighton & Hov… 14 6 3 5 21
8 Chelsea 14 6 3 5 21
9 Fulham 15 5 4 6 19
10 Brentford 15 4 7 4 19
11 Crystal Palace 14 5 4 5 19
12 Aston Villa 15 5 3 7 18
13 Leicester City 15 5 2 8 17
14 AFC Bournemouth 15 4 4 7 16
15 Leeds United 14 4 3 7 15
16 West Ham United 15 4 2 9 14
17 Everton 15 3 5 7 14
18 Nottingham Forest 15 3 4 8 13
19 Southampton 15 3 3 9 12
20 Wolverhampton Wanderers 15 2 4 9 10

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