Roma knew the absence of Henrikh Mkhitaryan against Udinese would be a blow, but the ensuing performance proved just how important he is to how the team functions.
In Mkhitaryan’s absence, Roma struggled with the transition through midfield, having to rely on a late penalty to get their only goal in a 1-1 draw. Only a couple of players came out of it with their head held in any upward direction: goalkeeper Rui Patricio, who made a couple of big saves to keep his side in it, and the unavailable Mkhitaryan – without whom it became clear what he contributes.
Of the four Serie A games the Armenian hasn’t started for Roma this season, the side haven’t won any. What’s more, all were against lower ranked opponents (Udinese, and before them, Verona twice and Venezia). In contrast, when he has started, Roma have picked up 14 wins out of 25 in the league, which gives him a win percentage of 56. That outranks the club itself, having won just over 48% of their 29 Serie A matches under Jose Mourinho so far.
Who would have thought Mkhitaryan would not just get by, but become one of the most fundamental players for Mourinho? It is common knowledge that the attacking midfielder did not enjoy playing under the Special One at Manchester United. But he became essentially the first building block of Mourinho’s Roma project when signing his contract for the current season shortly after his former manager’s appointment.
Mkhitaryan making midfield presence known
The Portuguese coach has been much less critical of Mkhitaryan this time around, and rightly so. He has sometimes accurately attributed the title of Roma’s most consistent player to the number 77. After the Udinese match, he confessed he “missed Mkhitaryan a lot”.Embed from Getty Images
There is an argument that this season has been the least exciting of Mkhitaryan’s three with Roma. Having adapted his role to a slightly deeper central one, the goals and assists haven’t been flowing as freely. But it has been evident for a while that he is bringing substance to one of Roma’s weakest areas. And when he was taken away, through suspension, it became all the more apparent.
Against Udinese, Roma lacked direction in the middle and struggled to break the lines. Their starter with the lowest pass completion rate was forward Nicolo Zaniolo, but the next three lowest were the midfield trio of Lorenzo Pellegrini, Bryan Cristante and Sergio Oliveira. In comparison, in the league match before that, Mkhitaryan was Roma’s third most accurate passer (after, ironically, Pellegrini and fellow absentee against Udinese, Marash Kumbulla).
Making Roma more successful
Coincidentally, Pellegrini and Kumbulla are the only Roma players to have started 15 games or more this season and end up with a better win percentage than Mkhitaryan from those matches. In all competitions, Mkhitaryan has won 58.1% of his starts, while Pellegrini has 58.3% and Kumbulla 66.7%.
And in the league only, Mkhitaryan has the highest win percentage of all his teammates under the same parameters. No Roma player has won more from their Serie A starts; he is tied with Patricio and Tammy Abraham on 14 wins.
Although Mkhitaryan has still lost seven league starts, only one has been to a club outside the seven sisters (Bologna). Since Roma struggle in the big games anyway, that amount of defeats is no indictment on the ex-Arsenal man. (However, perhaps if he was to up his game on those occasions, Roma would get better results; it is another sign of their reliance on him).
A big part of the project
It is obvious to see how more functional the team becomes when he is in it. Let’s not kid ourselves – this has been a poor season and Roma can still get more from Mkhitaryan as well. But he is one of the few providing substance, to an extent that it seems no one else can in his position.Embed from Getty Images
Roma have been reliant on a few players this season, suffering on their off days or when they aren’t playing. That goes for Abraham, Pellegrini and Patricio, but particularly Mkhitaryan.
Hence, he has become one of the most important players for Mourinho. As another contract decision looms in the summer, he isn’t doing himself any harm, even when not on the pitch. Indeed, Calciomercato are now reporting he is close to committing the next two years of his career to the club, on a lower salary. Given all that has been said, that seems very sensible.
Mkhitaryan’s intelligence sets him apart from his Roma teammates and places him central to the current project. When few can hold the fort down, he can. His importance is now arguably as big as it has ever been.