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The form and contribution of Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be a decisive factor in the outcome of United's season

At the King Power Stadium last Sunday Zlatan Ibrahimovic hit his 20th goal in just 33 competitive games, a remarkable tally for any striker, let alone for a thirty-five year old in his first season in the Premier League on the back of a long hiatus in the significantly weaker Ligue 1. His strike against Leicester helped to bring United back to within one point of 5th placed Liverpool and two of Arsenal. Seemingly cut adrift in 6th, Mourinho’s team have clawed their way back towards the pack in the race to qualify for next season’s Champions League, but time and time again have failed to take advantage of others dropping points. Only Chelsea have showed any consistency, but United have struggled to score prolifically and a plethora of draws, particularly at home, have denied them a comfortable top four spot. Whilst Ibrahimovic has scored vital goals, he has only netted twice in a game on only two occasions in the Premier League this season. After his 15 strikes, the team’s next highest marksman in the competition is Juan Mata with 5. The Swede has done his bit, but without a consistent contribution from others it is unsurprising that United have struggled to kill teams off. The team’s thirty-six goals in twenty-four games is 4 less than Everton have notched and only 1 more than Bournemouth.

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At Leicester on Sunday Jose Mourinho identified that his chosen 4-4-2 formation was proving ineffective and United had failed to achieve any fluency or create any chances. He switched his side to a 4-2-3-1, with Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford wide and Henrikh Mkhitaryan at Number 10. The alteration immediately tipped the game in the away team’s favour and they began to dominate possession and territory and create chances. Leicester still retained some menace, but only on rare breaks and from set-pieces. For another twenty minutes United probed and Marcus Rashford had a snap shot brilliantly saved by Kasper Schmeichel. Then, in the forty-second minute, Chris Smalling headed forward in midfield. Robert Huth stepped out of defence to collect the ball, but quick as a flash the game’s outstanding player, Mkhitaryan, toed the ball past the onrushing German and headed for goal at speed. Wes Morgan attempted to chase him down, but the Armenian was too quick and fired the ball across goal. Schmeichel got a touch to it but could only watch as the ball arrowed into the top corner of the net. It was the moment that won the match, as a brittle home side who had not scored a League goal in 2017 folded at the first sign of adversity. Ibrahimovic scored almost immediately and at the start of the second half Mkhitaryan brilliantly fed Juan Mata to make it 3-0 and cap a rare comfortable League victory for United.

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It was a game that showcased the dazzling talent of Mkhitaryan. He combines technique, creativity and dribbling with pace, acceleration, trickery and decisive finishing. It is no coincidence that his return after a period of isolation imposed by Mourinho prompted a change in the team’s fortunes and it was his magnificent solo goal in Ukraine against Zorya Luhansk which kicked off a nine game winning run. Remarkably, since his return from purgatory in late November United have not lost a game in which the Armenian has featured. It is also notable that the games which the team have not won in that period have coincided with off-days for Mkhitaryan. In the disappointing recent run of three consecutive draws against Liverpool, Stoke and Hull he was unusually quiet and the resulting loss of guile and creativity did little to aid his struggling teammates. In addition, the chronic profligacy which infected United’s game in the opening three months of the season returned once again. With Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic also experiencing a marked drop in output, the quality was not there amongst the rest of the team to pick up the slack. The team are almost totally reliant on three of Mourinho’s four summer signings to lift them above the mundane.

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As much as Mkhitaryan’s ability to create space and chances for others, United desperately need his goals. With Rashford isolated on the left, Rooney in terminal decline, Martial in the same purgatory that the Armenian previously inhabited and Mata a consistent but rarely prolific scorer, only Mkhitaryan has a history of netting with any frequency. His total of 5 for the season is modest, but we know that he can offer more. At Shakhtar he scored 44 in 106 appearances, and 23 in 52 in his final season at Borussia Dortmund. He has traditionally been a slow starter at new clubs and yet he has already netted key strikes, particularly his winner against Tottenham at Old Trafford in December, the only occasion that Mourinho’s team have beaten one of the sides above them in the Premier League this season in six attempts.

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Mourinho’s decision not to strengthen in January was either a brave one or an outcome driven by the economics of separating clubs from their best players mid-season. Most assumed that any new faces would be defenders or traditional midfielders, given United’s obvious need to strengthen in those areas. Rumours rarely featured creative players or goal-scorers, probably for a number of reasons. Top-class attackers are even more difficult to prize from their clubs in January and the fees required would be staggering. It is also generally accepted that Mourinho is particularly keen to bring Antoine Griezmann to Old Trafford in the summer, and with Ibrahimovic likely to stay on for a second season any winter window addition would surely become obsolete within six months. It has been suggested that qualification for the Champions League may be a key decision making factor for the Frenchman and thus the manager has taken a huge gamble persisting with a squad which has toiled in 6th place in the Premier League for much of the season. The Portuguese can rely on Ibrahimovic to score him a steady supply of goals, but more will be needed from elsewhere if United are to achieve their targets. If last season’s top scorer Anthony Martial remains ostracised and Marcus Rashford continues wide, there are few obvious sources of those goals. Juan Mata’s 20 strikes in 2012/13 proved to be an outlier and he has not topped 10 in all competitions since. With Paul Pogba not prolific the burden will therefore fall on the shoulders of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and his contribution from hereon in could be the decisive factor in United’s season. He unquestionably has the talent and pedigree to be decisive. The fans and his manager will have to hope that his acclimatisation troubles are now behind him and that his vital, stylish contribution in the East Midlands last weekend will be just one of a plethora of game changing moments in the next four months.

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