Sports: Is Mourinho to blame for Mkhitaryan’s woes?

The Independent - UK
January 1, 2018 Monday
Is Mourinho to blame for Mkhitaryan's woes?
by LAWRENCE OSTLERE
Henrikh Mkhitaryan stared after the ball, his eyes narrowing as it
bounced. Manchester United had been on a breathless counter-attack,
Marcus Rashford's legs in fast-twitch mode as he dribbled at two
remaining Southampton defenders. He had sprayed a pass left to
Mkhitaryan before sprinting to the penalty area, urging for a return
which never arrived.
What followed instead was a wild cross, landing 30 yards from its
target. Mkhitaryan briefly stood still on the Old Trafford pitch and
watched the ball run away towards a tower of supporters groaning and
cursing. He seemed to analyse, before jutting his tongue into his
cheek a little rebelliously and turning away. We can't know what
Mkhitaryan was thinking at that moment, 20 minutes into Saturday's
goalless draw, but it looked like the face of a man who was thoroughly
fed up.
The Armenian has been a peripheral figure this season and looks likely
to depart in January, perhaps returning to Borussia Dortmund, only 18
months after he was announced as one of Jose Mourinho's first
statement signings. Which raises a question - how has it come to this?
Mkhitaryan arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 2016 for £30m - a
sizable sum before PSG's Neymar apocalypse. At 27 he was at the height
of his powers, the reigning Bundesliga players' player of the year
switching to the Premier League. At his unveiling Mourinho hailed a
versatile goalscorer with the ability to create chances and goals,
blessed with athleticism and intelligence - in short, the complete
supporting forward.
He has shown glimpses of that brilliance in the intervening season and
a half, enough to know that the player who starred in Shakhtar
Donetsk's irresistible title-winning team and ripped through defences
in Germany has not simply evaporated away.
But he is also thoughtful and astute, a polyglot who studied economics
and law; he has spoken of the importance of his father and idol,
Hamlet, a successful striker whose death at 33 had a profound impact
on the seven-year-old Henrikh. Mkhitaryan gives the impression of
holding a talent to be nurtured, to be coaxed rather than demanded. It
is clear he has it within him to play at United's level; what is less
clear is whether Mourinho has it within himself to rouse it.
In the days after Mourinho's second Chelsea reign ended in the sack,
Jon Obi Mikel gave a revealing interview. He was asked how the new
manager, Guus Hiddink, had positively impacted the squad. "It's the
way he communicates with the players," the midfielder responded.
"Maybe that's what the players felt they didn't get from the previous
manager. Sometimes players - not just because they're not playing -
you need to communicate with them. You need to speak to them and don't
just ignore them because players like to be communicated to."
Mikel conjures an image of an unapproachable manager, a far cry from
the story Frank Lampard tells of the day Mourinho told him in the
shower that he was the best midfielder in the world and he believed
it. That was 2005, and somewhere along the way Mourinho changed. It is
hard to pinpoint an exact moment, but his return to English football
has felt altogether different; the manager who emotionally embraced a
crying Marco Materazzi on his departure from Inter seems some distance
away now - would any player shed tears for this Mourinho?
Perhaps Mkhitaryan is to blame for his own struggles. Perhaps he
failed to adapt - but it was Mourinho who said his new signing was a
perfect fit for the Premier League. Perhaps Mkhitaryan hasn't tried
hard enough - but this is a player with a reputation for an
exceptional work ethic, whose former manager Jürgen Klopp once said:
"There's a reason why the world's best chess players come from Armenia
like Mkhitaryan. They're thinkers, they're hard workers, they graft."
Managers have been letting players falls by the wayside for years and
this is nothing new for Mourinho, who has experienced relationship
breakdowns far more damaging than this one. But it does not reflect
well that one of his marquee signings is already on the verge of
departing in failure, the Old Trafford groan ringing in his ears,
looking forlorn and fed up.

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