After their 0-0 draw against Liverpool at Anfield, for which manager José Mourinho faced heavy criticism for his overly-defensive approach, Manchester United got back to winning ways by defeating Benfica in the Champions League on Wednesday night.
The Red Devils' performance at the Estádio da Luz was far from impressive, but the result, thanks to a bizarre Marcus Rashford free-kick, means they stay top of Group A on maximum points.
However, going into this weekend's Premier League fixture away to Huddersfield Town, the ongoing poor form of playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be a concern for Mourinho.
The Armenian schemer started the 2017/18 campaign brightly, registering an impressive five assists in the opening three games, delivering a cutting edge that United often lacked last term.
Mkhitaryan isn't the kind of player who'll conduct play for an entire 90 minutes, rather offering flitting moments of inspiration to unlock stubborn defences, either arriving in space in the final third to score or exploit gaps in the opposition's backline with his vision and passing.
But, while early positive performances were buoyed by statistics that perhaps overplayed his overall contribution, Mkhitaryan's recent form has slipped to a level where he is becoming burdensome to the team, and the stats that previously justified his continued inclusion have likewise fallen away.
The former Borussia Dortmund star has not registered an assist since the third game of the season. And, tellingly, his expected assists (xA) for the season so far is just 2.96, suggesting that the quality of the chances he has created has been outperformed by the quality of United's finishing – they rank joint-first in the Premier League for shot conversion, matching Manchester City‘s 23.6 per cent average.
Mkhitaryan made an impressive 13 key passes in United's first three Premier League games of the campaign – against West Ham United, Swansea City and Leicester City – but he has completed only nine in the five subsequent games.
Starting in his favoured No.10 position within Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 set-up, the 28-year-old is tasked with being the creative fulcrum of the United attack, the man through whom the majority of moves flow, and the player relied upon to find gaps that others can't see.
But, recently, he has too often been the point at which United's attacking play breaks down, either through an erroneous touch or a misguided pass. His pass accuracy for the season is currently a respectable 84.5 per cent, but in his last three outings in all-competitions, against Benfica, Liverpool and Crystal Palace, his pass completion dropped to 76.6 per cent, 79.3 per cent and 59.3 per cent respectively.
It wasn't until his third season at Signal Iduna Park that Mkhitaryan discovered his best form for Dortmund, gradually acclimating to the Bundesliga and admitting that, initially, the €25million fee that BVB paid to sign him from Shakhtar Donetsk weighed heavy on his shoulders. He will not be afforded the luxury of such a settling-in period at Old Trafford, however.
Indeed, upon moving to the Premier League last summer, Mourinho exiled the Armenian from the United first team for several weeks, claiming the player needed to adapt to intensity of the English top flight before he could be trusted to feature regularly.
Mkhitaryan overcame that setback admirably, and worked to become a key player for United down the stretch last season, contributing heavily to the club's first-ever Europa League success, scoring in the final against Ajax in May.
But, with his current form on the slide and his continued presence in the line-up borderline troublesome to United's offensive prospects, it is perhaps time for Mkhitaryan to be removed form the first-choice starting XI once again. This is not to suggest that the 68-cap Armenian international should face another exile, far from it – he is still capable of being a difference-maker and will have a route back into the side if he can rediscover his performance levels from the opening weeks of the season.
Time For A Change
For now, though, it is time for Mourinho to investigate alternatives. The most obvious of which is to move Juan Mata inside into the No.10 berth – that is, after all, where he prefers to play. The Portuguese coach has been reluctant to deploy the former Chelsea man in the role at Old Trafford, owing likely to a combination of the manager preferring a more dynamic option for the position, and one who can press actively without the ball.
But Mata has the ingenuity, technique and ability to run in behind that make him more of a threat centrally than he is typically when stationed wide on the right flank.
Jesse Lingard represents a less attractive option for the No.10 slot as he lack the Spaniard's creativity and overall quality, but he does tick the boxes when it comes to the defensive and work-rate requirements of Mourinho.
Bringing Mata in from the wing would also open up the possibility of Mourinho starting Rashford and the in-form Anthony Martial together in attack, with one either side of striker Romelu Lukaku. The duo have alternated on the left side so far this term, but both are performing to a high level and many fans are calling for them to be unleashed in unison.
Neither man us a natural fit for the right wing, with both primarily strikers comfortable playing on the left and cutting inside onto their right foot. But in a fluid trident, with Lukaku central and Martial and Rashford swapping flanks, Mata, in the No.10 position, would have endless targets for through-balls and one-two, and the United attack would boast terrifying pace and finishing prowess.
Mkhitaryan is no busted flush: he is simply a player out of form who might benefit from a reduced role over the coming weeks. He'll no doubt return stronger and may even be decisive as an impact substitute for a time. But United need something different right now. Mourinho has options; he should use them.