When Roma appointed Jose Mourinho in the summer, there were concerns about the four members of the squad he had coached before – none more so than Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The pair had never seen eye to eye at Manchester United, and Mkhitaryan had made little secret since of how he was not fond of Mourinho’s methods. Hence, when they were reunited in new surroundings over the summer, it was understandable why there would be doubts about the attacking midfielder.
But he committed his future to the club with a new contract, signed after Mourinho’s appointment, meaning he remains a Roma player for the 2021-22 season.
In the two years previous under Paulo Fonseca, Mkhitaryan had become one of Roma’s most influential players. Therefore, it made sense for the club to keep him, even if a future under Mourinho was not as clear.
Still, they clarified that they would be working together to move forward with Roma and that everything was in the past. But over the first few months of the season, it has sometimes seemed like Mkhitaryan’s importance to the club may be too.
Roma simply haven’t been seeing as much of that ‘Micki magic’ as they have become used to. There is a simple explanation that is both because of Mourinho but also not for the reasons some would have predicted. In the 3-5-2 system the manager has adapted to recently, there has been a role change for Mkhitaryan into more of a central midfielder than an attacking one, or winger.
As such, Mkhitaryan may be somewhat restricted and isn’t putting up the same kind of numbers as before. But is this natural anyway?Embed from Getty Images
Mkhitaryan is 32 years old now, and his next birthday is approaching in January. These are the twilight years of his career, although as he showed in his first two seasons in Rome, he can still shine when others may be fading. But players often change their roles and style at this stage of their careers.
It is now Mkhitaryan’s turn to undergo such a transition. Despite playing from a generally deeper starting position and in a more crowded area, he can still use his intelligence – and he has more of that than most of his teammates – to play through balls and create in a different way.
Besides, he has still been able to drift into different attacking territories. Although not quite in a free role, he does have more flexibility than the other two midfielders he is fielded alongside. Especially in the absence of Lorenzo Pellegrini, he has taken up the responsibility of changing the angle of attack.
Mkhitaryan’s performances may not be as pleasing on the eye as they were before, but his statistics show he is still contributing. He leads the way for assists for Roma so far, with four in Serie A; he is also matched with Pellegrini for the highest average of through balls per league game.Embed from Getty Images
Still, some were sceptical of whether Roma should have retained Mkhitaryan in the summer and there remains a feeling that this could be his last season with the club. There have even been rumours of a premature exit in January. In that case, he might not be missed hugely, but he is certainly not the first Roma player who should be shown the door.
Mkhitaryan can be useful to Roma if he stays, which still seems the most likely scenario. Besides, the system may change again, given that Mourinho has confessed he doesn’t like to use a back five. The boss has always promised tactical flexibility and Mkhitaryan is smart enough to adapt to whatever is demanded – as he is doing now, even if it isn’t quite as exciting.
Until such a change, in the meantime, this season may be different to the others Mkhitaryan has enjoyed in Rome, but he can still make it work even if it’s not quite how he will want to be remembered.
Only he will know how happy he is in his current role, but although not quite as visible as before, his importance is still there.