Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s farewell note to Manchester United’s fans said much about his state of mind.
“At this stage of my career,” he wrote on Instagram after moving to Arsenal in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, “I simply have to enjoy myself on the pitch and play.”
By the end of his time at United, he did neither.
Mkhitaryan’s underwhelming 18-month spell at Old Trafford ended just like it started: Substituted at halftime in a match, with United supporters at Old Trafford wondering if this really was the same player who joined for $33.5 million after starring in the German league for Borussia Dortmund.
The last sighting of Mkhitaryan in the red of United was 45 error-strewn minutes in an FA Cup match against second-tier club Derby County. He gave the ball away, his first touch let him down, and he didn’t reappear after halftime.
That was almost a month ago.
Now it’s time to see if Arsene Wenger can do what Jose Mourinho failed to do, and get the best out of Mkhitaryan.
The Armenia captain is set to make his debut for Arsenal at Swansea in the Premier League on Wednesday and Wenger’s naturally attacking philosophy should suit Mkhitaryan.
“Until now, he has played in a wide role,” Wenger said, “but he can certainly absorb that role in a kind of winger or playmaker. I don’t rule it out for him to become a box-to-box player.”
Wherever he ends up, Mkhitaryan is unlikely to face the tactical rigidity he had under Mourinho and should be free to express himself more going forward.
At least that is what his national team coach thinks.
“We are very happy with this transfer from Manchester United,” Armenia coach Artur Petrosyan said. “His style of play will be better suited at Arsenal.
“It is my impression that I think Henrikh had a problem with the coach (Mourinho) and, at Arsenal, it will be another thing and not the same situation. There will not be so much pressure on him defensively.”
Mkhitaryan started one league game for United in the last two months so he might need time to get up to speed at Arsenal. He could end up as one of the two playmakers — alongside Mesut Ozil — behind the striker in a 3-4-2-1 formation or as a wide forward in a 4-3-3, which is where he was deployed at Dortmund when he scored 23 goals and set up 32 more in his final season.
He needs to show he is cut out for the physicality and intensity of the Premier League, which was the criticism aimed at him by Mourinho. He rarely completed 90 minutes at United and his form fell away after starting the season with five assists in his first three games.
Mkhitaryan is best remembered at United for two acrobatic goals — one from a “scorpion kick” in the league against Sunderland and the other from a flying volley in the 2-0 win over Ajax in the Europa League final in Stockholm.
They were flashes of brilliance in an otherwise forgettable period of his career. Arsenal is a fresh start.
Mkhitaryan will be hoping to settle at Arsenal as quickly as Sanchez has at United.
The Chile forward set up two goals and was heavily involved in United’s 4-0 win over fourth-tier club Yeovil Town in the FA Cup on Friday. A much sterner test awaits in the form of Tottenham in the league on Wednesday, but it was still encouraging for Sanchez.
The question now is who, out of Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, misses out to accommodate Sanchez. With Martial and Lingard in good scoring form in recent months, Mata could be the fall guy.
What Manchester City would give to have Sanchez now.
The league leaders turned down the opportunity to sign the forward, saying his financial demands were too much and that the team’s harmony might have been disrupted.
But now that Leroy Sane has joined Gabriel Jesus on the sidelines with an injury sustained in the FA Cup on Sunday, City is short of attacking options.
There isn’t much cover behind what should be a front three of Raheem Sterling, Serio Aguero and Bernardo Silva for City’s home match against West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday.
City leads United by 12 points with 14 games left.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80