It seems as if Alexis Sanchez’s impending transfer to Manchester United is not a matter of “if” but “when.” The name being bandied about as makeweight in the deal is one Henrikh Mkhitaryan. It’s far from a given that the Armenian will join, but reliable sources seem to think a deal is close. Arsenal’s recent history and Mkhitaryan’s unique skill-set, suggest that in time, he could develop into an integral cog in Arsenal’s midfield.
Before I discuss Mkhitaryan and his potential fit in the Arsenal system, let’s look back at some recent Arsenal history.
Arteta joined Arsenal in the summer of 2011 on transfer deadline day. As one of three new arrivals on the 31st of August 2011, it seemed as if he was a “panic buy” of sorts to help ease fan apprehension over the loss of Nasri and Fabregas earlier in the window. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Arriving from Everton at 29 years of age, he was predominantly played as an advanced, attacking midfielder known for his creative flair and play-making.The second half of the 10/11 season even saw him deployed as left midfielder in a 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1 under Moyes.
His ability to reinvent himself in the subsequent 3 seasons for Arsenal was nothing short of remarkable. Attacking midfielder turned deep-lying creative hub, he soon became the glue that held the midfield together. His overall expansive passing ability and prowess at finding deep-lying pockets of space to begin transitioning us through the thirds was invaluable.
From 2011 to 2014, he led the team each season in average passes per game with 75.8 with an average accuracy of 91.5%. Furthermore, he was vastly underappreciated in his ability to adapt defensively, leading the team in tackles over 2 of 3 seasons averaging 3.1 per game.
An injury-plagued final 2 seasons saw him start only 6 Premier League games and notch 10 sub-appearances. This should never take away from the fact Arteta was the consummate team player willing to sacrifice personal accolades and playing style for the betterment of the team.
It was evident from the beginning that Santi Cazorla was a special attacking talent. His first season after arriving from Malaga in the Summer of 2012 saw him score 12 goals and 11 assists playing in mostly a number 10 role as well as left wing.
During the 2014/2015 season, at age 30, he evolved from advanced midfield maestro to a more holding midfielder, much like Arteta. Ramsey, Flamini, and Arteta served as his partners there until the Coq-Zorla partnership emerged after Francis Coquelin’s recall from loan at Charlton mid-season.
Like Arteta, Santi also transformed the defensive side of his game, albeit only slightly averaging 1.7 tackles and 1.3 interceptions per game over the next 3 seasons. Where Arteta’s effectiveness came from quick passing and body positioning, Santi displayed a wide range of passing, but, most importantly, the ability to dribble past opponents.
Cazorla and Arteta are 2 examples of players who reinvented themselves by transferring their advanced technicality to a deeper midfield position in order to fill the need for technical security in their Arsenal sides.
In analyzing his contributions to his Shakhtar Donetsk and Borussia Dortmund sides, the only conclusion one can arrive at is that Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a dynamic playmaker. His final season at Shakhtar in 2012/2013 saw him tally 25 goals which is a Ukranian Premier League record.
The following season he signed for Borussia Dortmund. He was almost always deployed as a right wing option or a number 10 in a 4-2-3-1 during his first 2 seasons, where he averaged 6 goals and 7.5 assists per game. His 15/16 season saw him reach monumental heights as he scored 11 goals and assisted 15 times on route to becoming Bundesliga Player of the Year.
Why would I compare Mkhitaryan to Arteta and Cazorla you may ask? Quite simply, he has the skill set that could embody both the quick decision making of Arteta and the escapability of Cazorla. Furthermore, Arteta and Cazorla made their positional changes at ages 29 and 30 respectively. Henrikh Mkhitaryan turns 29 in 3 days (January 21st).
Much like Santi, Mkhitaryan can sell that shimmy or little drop of the shoulder in order to keep possession for his team. Below he shows his ability in tight areas when receiving the ball back to goal:
In my opinion, his most valuable asset is his ball carrying. His career as an attacker has seen him picking up the ball much more frequently in advanced pockets of space rather than from deeper midfield. This being said, it doesn’t mean he lacks the prerequisites to transition a team from deeper.
He hasn’t been asked to display it often but Mkhitaryan could do well in a double pivot and/or engaging in progressive build-up from deep. Arteta was a master at using his body positioning and quick feet to ensure the ball didn’t stick in one area of the pitch for too long. Mkhitaryan displays similar characteristics below for United:
I understand, the stars would have to align for Mkhitaryan to not only move to Arsenal but eventually undergo the stylistic change in his play. However, if you’re looking for the dribbling, two-footedness and low center of gravity of Santi Cazorla combined with the playmaking of Mikel Arteta, one should look no further than Mr. Mkhitaryan.
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