After the 2015-16 season, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was easily one of the the very best wide playmakers in the world. He was heavily in demand after he assisted 20 goals (Bundesliga+Champions League) and scored a further 13, and he ultimately ended up with Manchester United.
His fit at United under Jose Mourinho has always seemed a little awkward and with hindsight it seems more of a move that was orchestrated by super agent Mino Raiola to maximize his earnings, after also bringing Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the Red Devils during the same window.
Henrik’s stats over the last 5 season have been a bit mixed. He remains one of the best creative players, especially considering that he has played quite a bit from the wings, but his shooting metrics are mediocre.
To help look at things we can break things down into before his time with Manchester United, and then at his tenure with them, to try to figure out what kind of a player he is and could be for Arsenal.
When you look at his Dortmund stats in isolation, his shooting numbers look a lot better than his overall career numbers (and much better than the Manchester United stats below). It is hard to tease out how much of the difference is due to coaching, the different leagues, and aging or other factors, but it’s clear that his time at United has not been fruitful.
This stats profile, of a wide creator who is also a goal threat, is something that has really been missing from Arsenal over the last few years.
Looking at the players that Arsenal have played on the wings shows it is an area that could use an upgrade. Alex Iwobi is a very good prospect, but does not (yet) have the final ball output that you need at a top club. Theo Walcott (good luck at Everton) was really good at finishing and was fast, but didn’t do a ton of the other things that are needed from a wide player in the modern game. Danny Welbeck does a lot of good things, but scoring goals and creating for teammates are not things he excels at, which I think we can all agree is problematic for that position.
I thought that Aaron Ramsey did a really good job on the right hand side of a front three, but he seems to hate playing there, and Arsenal are hurting for depth in midfield and his is more valuable there.
If Mkhitaryan could regain his Borussia Dortmund form, his signing would fill a huge hole for Arsenal, but that is a big if.
Mkhitaryan at Manchester United
The stats above are ugly but I’ll do my best to put a positive spin on things.
He has maintained solid key pass and xA numbers and improved his overall passing percentage, but everything else has taken a nose dive.
I don’t have the same detailed stats for the historic seasons that I have for the current season (this is my project for the summer), but even with his poor performances there are some silver linings to uncover.
On my passing value added metric he scores well, he has a PPVA per 90 of 0.31 which is in the 91st percentile of Premier League players. On a per 50 passes basis, he has a PPVA of 0.26, which is in the 88th percentile of Premier League players. These numbers suggest that he is still very good at advancing the ball into dangerous areas when given the chance.
Looking at Mkhitaryan’s passing on my passing ability metric, he rates at 118 (18 percent better than league average), which is in the 84th percentile of Premier League players. He is also highly rated at passes that link the middle third to the final third, another area that Arsenal have seemed to struggle with this season. He completes 66.1% of his final third entry passes compared to the 54.7% league average, putting him in the 81st percentile.
These metrics confirm my belief that he is still a very good creative player, but what about the rest of the stats?
This is where things get a bit fuzzy. I am going to hope that the drop in shooting is due to falling down the United pecking order as far as who gets to take the good shots. Last season he was solidly behind Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Anthony Martial and probably Marcus Rashford on the priority of taking the highest quality shots. This season Romelu Lukaku is also moved ahead of him in that list. At Arsenal, though, he would almost certainly come in and become one of the top three options for teammates to feed high quality shots to.
The one area of concern that I am not sure will rebound, even after he washes the stink of Mourinho off of him, is his dribbling. Dribbling is something that younger players excel at, and is also a skill that tends to decline every year once a player gets into their mid 20’s.
Colin Trainor wrote a very good article on Statsbomb on player aging that illustrates this effect:
Mkhitaryan’s numbers follow the same general trend:
Mkhitaryan Dribbles Age Successful Dribbles Per 90 Total Dribbles Per 90 Season 28 1.4 3 2017-18 27 1.9 3.7 2016-17 26 2.8 4.7 2015-16 25 3.4 7 2014-15 24 3.3 5.5 2013-14
Going forward, then, it’s probably not a good idea to bet that he will regain the level of nearly 3 successful dribbles per 90 that he had while he was at Borussia Dortmund. Losing the ability to repeatedly beat a man might hurt his ability to create at elite levels from the wing, and would really mean he might actually work better from the number ten position, but that is currently occupied by Mesut Özil who is a better all around creator.
If Mkhitaryan does sign with Arsenal, they are getting a good but ageing player. If he can become the missing wide creator who chips in around 10 goals a season, which is a definite possibility in the right system, that would be fantastic, but as shown above, this possibility comes with serious red flags.
I would have loved to have him join Arsenal after the 2015-16 season, but the stats suggest that season was his absolute peak that he will never come close to reaching again, and at this point, while still having value, he is solidly in the decline phase of his career. This makes me nervous, if Arsenal signs him to a long term big money contract.
With the way that Arsenal have mismanaged the building and aging of their squad in the last few years, though, these are the kinds of risks that they will need to take, hoping all the while that they did enough research and vetting that they are confident they’ll get the best case Mkhitaryan and not the worst.
This post originally ran on The Short Fuse