Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho may have had a plan to deal with Eden Hazard at Stamford Bridge — as Eric Bailly was told to pay special attention to Chelsea’s playmaker — but, unlike last April’s game at Old Trafford when Ander Herrera had the task, it didn’t work.
Chelsea’s winning goal came as Bailly was sucked out of position by Hazard’s movement, leaving Alvaro Morata free in the penalty area to head past David De Gea. But United had no such player to pull the strings. While Antonio Conte picked Hazard to be his creative hub, Mourinho’s choice, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, could not boast the same impact.
Mkhitaryan, a £30 million signing from Borussia Dortmund 18 months ago, was still in exile when United turned up at Stamford Bridge a year ago. This time he was front and centre.
Tasked with linking forwards Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford with the rest of the team, he struggled so much that he was removed after an hour. Marouane Fellaini — only half-fit, as Mourinho revealed later — was sent on in his place and United employed a more direct tactic as they searched for an equaliser.
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher said afterwards that Hazard had been one of the best players on the pitch. In contrast, he described Mkhitaryan’s performance as being so poor it was like United had played “with 10 men.”
In 86 minutes, Hazard had 72 touches, four dribbles, three shots and one key pass; Mkhitaryan managed 28 touches, one dribble, no shots and no key passes during his 62 minutes.
The bigger problem, though, is that the Armenia international’s failure to turn up in a big game is not a one-off.
When United and Liverpool met at Anfield last month, Mkhitaryan had 44 touches to Philippe Coutinho’s 68; when Tottenham visited Old Trafford, Mkhitaryan had the ball 49 times while Christian Eriksen had it 88 times.
It is also not an issue confined to games against the top six: Mkhitaryan has played 795 minutes in the Premier League this season and touched the ball 614 times.
Kevin De Bruyne has had 1,049 touches for Manchester City; teammate David Silva has had 1,065; Eriksen has had 840 for Spurs; Mesut Ozil has only started seven of Arsenal’s 11 games but is just 18 touches shy of the Armenian’s tally.
It suggests that either United are not getting the ball to Mkhitaryan or that he is not making himself available to receive it. Either way, for the designated No. 10, it is a worrying trend.
In games when every slip is captured by a television camera, it is as close to going missing as you can get. Not having the ball means Mkhitaryan has also not been able to do much with it: he has created 23 chances and had 13 shots on goal so far this season. De Bruyne, meanwhile, has created 32 chances and has had 24 shots.
Mourinho has faced criticism for the way he has approached big games away from home, but he has grounds to argue that he has been more attacking this season than last.
At Anfield and Stamford Bridge last season, he started with a midfield three of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Fellaini. In the same fixtures this season, he replaced an out-and-out midfielder to include another attacker — Mkhitaryan. But on both occasions the 28-year-old had little influence and was withdrawn after 60 minutes.
In the interests of balance, it should be pointed out that Mkhitaryan has five assists this season, it’s just that they all came in United’s first three games — two of which were against West Ham and Swansea, who are now in the bottom three. He has now gone eight games without one since taking the corner which set up Marcus Rashford’s goal against Leicester on Aug. 26.
All of which leaves Mourinho with a dilemma. The only other natural No. 10 in his squad is Juan Mata, but the Spaniard wasn’t even on the bench against Chelsea.
Fellaini can play there, although it significantly alters United’s style of play when he does. Pogba will come straight back into the team when he recovers from injury but the Frenchman prefers to play a little deeper. Jesse Lingard scored twice from a central position just off the striker against Swansea in the Carabao Cup, while Mourinho has spoken in the past about Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic being able to do the job too, but none are a simple fit.
Making Mkhitaryan his No. 10 was one of Mourinho’s biggest decisions of the summer. But, at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, it did not work. And it didn’t work at Anfield, either. Or against Tottenham.
While Mourinho was busy making plans to combat the threat of Hazard, there was nothing during the game to suggest Conte had given Mkhitaryan the same thought. That in itself is damning.