Ahead of the Manchester derby, there was plenty of speculation over what Jose Mourinho’s starting XI would be. He revealed in his news conference that he had a fully fit squad following the international break, and that Henrikh Mkhitaryan was available to play his part.
The Armenian was subbed off with an injury when playing against the Czech Republic during the international break, and had therefore been rumoured as a doubt for the clash against Manchester City. It therefore came as a surprise when Mkhitaryan was named in the starting lineup at the expense of Juan Mata, who has been impressive so far this season.
While the Spaniard had been sold by Mourinho when the pair were at Chelsea, it was Mata who scored the first league goal in the Mourinho era, and who had played his part from the right. Mourinho will rue the decision to leave Mata out, though, following Mkhitaryan’s performance against City. While he probably wasn’t as poor as Jesse Lingard, another strange inclusion, he wasn’t much better.
Time and again, Mkhitaryan lost possession, running straight in to City’s defence, and had none of the impact he’d made against Hull in United’s previous game. Mourinho claimed that with hindsight, he would have selected different players, but he probably should have realised the derby wasn’t the right occasion to give Mkhitaryan his first start.
Returning from an injury and still adjusting to the Premier League, to be given the responsibility of such a big game was throwing him in at the deep end. Mkhitaryan was rightly hooked at half-time and United were much better after the restart as a result. The hosts dominated and looked as though they would equalise but time ran out for them.
It has since been reported that the Armenian will miss United’s next three games after his thigh injury from international duty has flared up. Just a month in, Mkhitaryan’s start to life at United has been fairly rubbish, with him failing to pick up where he left off in the Bundesliga. Still, even if playing in the derby wasn’t the best move, United fans have struggled to understand how Wayne Rooney has managed to keep him out of the team.
Had Mkhitaryan been given more playing time from the start of the season, maybe he wouldn’t have been so out of his depth against City. The Rooney fan club will be quick to mention the goal and two assists that the captain has claimed in the Premier League this season, and that shouldn’t be ignored. Even if he’s been fairly weak for most of the time he’s been on the pitch, he’s pulled off moments of brilliance.
Still, the odd assist doesn’t make amends for how wasteful he is with possession. The amount of attacking moves that break down when he receives the ball should not be tolerated. There are several players in the squad, Mkhitaryan included, who could assist goals, and do so without giving the ball away so regularly. Rooney has been left out of United’s Europa League team for their first game, with Mourinho eager to give the captain a rest.
As a result, Mkhitaryan will be even more frustrated with the timing of his injury, knowing that Thursday’s game could have been his time to shine and make amends for his derby day performance.
It’s not just Mkhitaryan who has a right to be frustrated with Mourinho’s insistence on playing Rooney, though. Paul Pogba was the butt of plenty of jokes following the defeat against City, proving to be largely ineffectual, which he should come to expect after his world-record transfer fee. Mourinho is playing Pogba in a deeper-lying position, having not learned from Didier Deschamps’ mistake with France at the Euros.
It seems strange to spend so much money on a player, just the sort of player United need, and then play him out of position.
After Saturday’s game, Pogba took to Twitter to claim that he didn’t lose, he learns. United supporters will be hoping the same applies to Mourinho. He’s got plenty of things right so far, but clearly he isn’t doing as well as rival Pep Guardiola is with City. The former Barcelona manager has hit the ground running, while Mourinho is still working out what his best team is.
There will be plenty of fans who are hoping someone else impresses in the No. 10 role, so that the manager realises there are alternatives to the aging captain. Mkhitaryan should be one of them, but his wait to replace Rooney continues.