Arsenal’s decade-long slide to the periphery of the elite was encapsulated neatly on Sunday as they were swept aside by the reigning champions, and two formerly pivotal playmakers were rendered peripheral figures.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil made their names as string-pulling central No.10s but neither could escape the game’s fringes against Manchester City. As they ambled around in tandem, the two resembled a pair of creative geniuses stricken by writer’s block, endlessly mooching about in the kitchen rather than knuckling down at the typewriter.
The importance of endeavour is often overstated in English football but here City’s attackers, all frenzied energy and edgy hunger for the ball, bent the game to their will while Arsenal’s looked on listlessly.
But while Ozil and Mkhitaryan put in similar performances, they are two very different cases. After all, Ozil has never been one for heavy exertion, and most fans have long since gotten used to the fact that his Cheech-and-Chong levels of unhurriedness represent the flip-side of a nonchalant and potentially match-winning artistry.
An explosive presence
Mkhitaryan, however, made his mark at the top level as part of Jurgen Klopp’s ferocious Borussia Dortmund side, whose relentless running and bloodthirsty pressing ushered in a whole new tactical era. He then went on to improve even further as an explosive deep-lying attacker under the more versatile Thomas Tuchel.
It’s fair to say that there’s been little explosiveness on show of late. While it may be tempting to explain this away as a function of late Wenger-era Arsenal, casting him as yet another victim of the contagious stasis at the club’s core, the truth is that Mkhitaryan’s alarming regression precedes his arrival in London. In fact, his move to the capital in January 2018 was supposed to provide him with some much-needed rejuvenation after a season-and-a-half of shackled-up stagnation under Jose Mourinho.
The Armenian was largely handed a free pass for a desperately underwhelming 18 months at Manchester United. His coach’s conservatism was generally presented as the reason behind the sharp nosedive taken by a player who notched the frankly absurd tally of 55 combined goals and assists during his final season at Dortmund.
Mourinho vs Mkhitaryan
Certainly there is truth to the idea that Mourinho’s management elicited next to no decent football from Mkhitaryan: a two-month exodus early on appeared to splinter the forward’s confidence, and after that his United career was a middling affair. The 29-year-old's remarkably productive run in the 2016/17 Europa League campaign proved an exception to the forgettable norm.
Upon his departure, Mkhitaryan himself cited differences in “footballing philosophy” between himself and Mourinho, and the hope was that Wenger’s less tentative tactics might release the handbrake on an attacking midfielder capable of full-throttle brilliance.
Yet Mkhitaryan succeeded only in replicating his Old Trafford form for a new audience. In both cases, the very occasional glimpse of genius – a scorpion-kick goal here, a three-assist display against Everton there – has punctuated protracted spells of mind-numbing mundanity.
Mkhitaryan has lived in six countries, speaks seven languages and comes from a family steeped in football. His father was a striker who played for his country, his mother has worked for the Armenian FA and his sister is a UEFA translator. He is a keen chess player, he studied economics at the St Petersburg Institute and at his best, his game is defined by an instinctive intelligence; the ability to create space under severe pressure. He is clearly no fool and will not need telling that the need for improvement is critical after failing to impress under both Mourinho and Wenger.
An argument – and a pretty generous one – could be made that Mkhitaryan has struggled in two dysfunctional teams, under two ailing managers. The rejoinder would be that the common denominator is not the club or the coach, but the player.
Now or never
The early signs are that Unai Emery will look to implement a more frenetic playing style, one far more akin to what Mkhitaryan flourished under at Dortmund. But any teething problems had better be resolved quickly, because Mkhitaryan is not someone who can afford another season of drift.
If his heroics at Dortmund weren’t enough proof that he is a player for the here and now, then his age – he turns 30 in January – certainly is. Time is not on his side, even if at times on Sunday he played with all the urgency of a honeymooner uncorking a beachfront bottle of chardonnay.
In mitigation, Manchester City are likely to be the toughest opponents Mkhitaryan faces this season, and he was hardly helped by the painful limitations of certain team-mates. But equally, the Armenian is a senior player of elite-level pedigree, voted by his peers just two years ago as the Bundesliga’s best player. It is not unreasonable to expect him to affect the biggest games.
Or indeed any game. Since arriving in England in 2016, there have been 16 goals altogether, a meagre seven in the league. And this from a supposed specialist in obvious output. Unlike Ozil, whose influence can be belied by the stats, Mkhitaryan forged his reputation with cold hard numbers: 44 goals in three seasons for Shakhtar, 41 in three years at Dortmund.
If the frustration of Ozil is a propensity to decorate rather than dominate, Mkhitaryan’s is that he currently does neither. A man who once wowed the crowd with moments of magic is in danger of becoming renowned only for his disappearing acts.
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