Manchester United’s pre-season tour of the United States kicked off with two wins from two against the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake. Both sides have struggled in MLS, and United took full advantage of their poor form to score a total of seven goals in both games. Although the two are lesser competition than what United will face for the rest of pre-season and the actual season itself, it was a good chance to get a look at some of the stand-out players, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan has certainly been one of them.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan Will be the Difference for Manchester United Next Season
The Armenian midfielder played a half each in both games and played a starring role in them. In the second half of the first game against LA Galaxy, he had a darting run forward, leaving several defenders behind in his near 60-metre dash before laying up a chance for Romelu Lukaku. He also scored in that game after capitalising on a mistake by the Galaxy defence.
His impact in the first half of the game against Real Salt Lake was even greater, as his fine finish after a wonderful team move put the scores on level terms before a sumptuous first-time pass to Romelu Lukaku allowed the Belgian to score his first goal for the club and give United the lead, and subsequently the win.
After a season marred by inconsistency where he only managed 24 starts in the Premier League, Mkhitaryan has shown more drive and hunger to succeed this season. The early part of last season was marred by injuries, and he was rightly kept out by José Mourinho until he regained full fitness. That was the case as he was at his best between December and February, but was hit by injuries and inconsistency again, before ending the season on a high by scoring in the final of the Europa League.
Second Season Syndrome
On a personal level for the Armenian, he has never shown his best form in the second season at any of his previous two clubs, Borussia Dortmund and Shakhtar Donetsk. In Germany, he, and the club, as a whole, struggled in Jürgen Klopp’s final season which impacted his form, scoring just five in 42 across all competitions and assisting four, while at Shakhtar, he had a better season than his first, but it wasn’t his best.
Based on his form in pre-season, however, there is an indication that this could be a better year than the last for him at Old Trafford. United have shown more fluidity in their attacking play, and Mkhitaryan has been central to that. In the first game against the Galaxy, he dropped deeper in midfield, allowing him to link up well with the likes of Pogba, Lukaku and Martial. At the same time, his positioning on the pitch allowed him to make forward runs with some success.
In the second game against Real Salt Lake, Mourinho set his side up in a 4-3-3 formation, rather than the 3-5-2 he used against LA Galaxy. This meant that Mkhitaryan had more action on the wings rather than centrally. Despite this, he was able to be equally as influential. He saw the ball more than the rest of the attacking trident and was able to drift into the middle where he is at his best. His ability also allowed him to play some sensational passes out to the full backs to spread play and create spaces amongst the Real Salt Lake defence. The left-wing was also where he set up Lukaku with a wonderful first-time pass to help United seal the win.
Signs of Improvement
Another aspect where Mkhitaryan has improved is his defensive contribution. The 28-year-old was signed last season to provide more support at the back, but often failed to show that. This year, however, he has been tracking back with more intent, especially after losing the ball and his contribution to the side off the ball has increased immensely.
Where Mkhitaryan can progress further is, surprisingly, his finishing. Despite scoring in both games, there have been instances where smart movement and passing passages have been let down by his finishing. In the game against the Galaxy for example, he had three chances, one of which he scored, but he wildly lashed at the other two. Another area to work on is the timing of his runs—they’re too early, and they’re putting good moves to waste by being caught offside.
There is no doubt that United will face tougher opposition for the rest of the season, but if Mkhitaryan is able to carry on his early pre-season from into the main season, he will dazzle in the Premier League and Champions League as he was expected to do when he first arrived at the club. He looks better and is performing in a superior mindset compared to the last campaign and by the early looks of it, he could be at his very best in the upcoming season.