Manchester United have been breaking records this season under Mourinho, but a lot of them, worryingly dubious. Although, on Thursday, they managed to end one of these poor streaks with a victory away from the comforts of Old Trafford in a European fixture, for the first time since November 2013, excluding qualification ties.
It was a 2-0 win in Odessa in extremely cold weather on a pitch that would make a ground of a Sunday League football team look like the Emirates. This inevitably meant the game was expected to reflect the poor quality of the turf and it duly did – as United controlled the lion’s share of the football and came away with two well taken goals, three points and a berth in the Round of 32 which will commence in the middle of February. Job done, Jose.
In theory, United’s performance in Ukraine was not too dissimilar to the one at Goodison Park on Sunday. Except for the clinical nature of the visitors and the final result of course which made all the difference to the mood after the final whistle. Mourinho was a lot calmer than he has been in these last few weeks, the Portuguese talked about the evolution of his United side from the relatively duller days under Louis van Gaal and it has been more apparent in these last two away performances than at any time in the last four months.
Manchester United have started to assert their authority in games outside Old Trafford – not always shown in the scoreline but in terms of performances, being resolute and hard to break down with an edge on the counter-attack, their last three games away from home have given the Red Devils plenty to be positive about. Let us not forget that if not for an individual error at Everton, United would now be looking at two hard earned 6 points at two difficult away grounds (for very different reasons). Simply put, Manchester United are finally coming round to Mourinho’s ideas, looking more like a typical Mourinho side that we associate a nasty ‘ruthlessness at both ends of the pitch’ with. And one player who has been absolutely pivotal in this marked evolution is the Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Mkhitaryan has started four of the last five games for Man United and this has directly influenced their ability to not only dominate games but also translate that dominance into chances and goals. In the last five games, United have scored 12, compared to the 6 in the five games preceding that. Mkhitaryan has, in the four games that he started, managed to score one and assist two, register 12 key passes at the rate of 1 every 23.5 minutes. Not only is the 27-year old adept at keeping his side engaged in the final third, but also diligent when it comes to helping his side out in wide areas when the full-backs are caught higher up the field which has become second nature to him after the time spent at Borussia Dortmund playing at a high tempo for the whole 90 minutes in every game in the Bundesliga.
Manchester United, since the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, have struggled to find someone with a similar effectiveness and productivity on the ball. His Portuguese compatriot Nani was world class when he wanted to be and so was Antonio Valencia for a single campaign. Several wide players were shoe-horned in to fill the void left, in that right flank, but it remained woefully short in quality and more importantly, consistency. But with the arrival of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, there is a genuine chance of that problem being addressed. We are talking about a player that finished a season in Germany with 49 goals/assists in all competitions in 2015/16 and is evidently at the peak of his powers.
That type of attacking prowess and output in the final third is what Manchester United and Jose Mourinho need if they were to bridge that growing gap between themselves and the top five in the Premier League, which becomes priority once again, now that the Europa League is forgotten until February.