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Dublin: 11 °C Tuesday 16 October, 2018

Humiliated by Mourinho last season, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is Man United's standout player so far

The Armenian endured a difficult first season at the club but has responded to the coach’s unique man-management style.

You can use it, but not abuse it. I don’t like to use the stick too much. You never know how the horse will react. Some of them don’t like it. Some resent it. Some stop running.

‘You don’t want to hurt the horse. So, the rules are clear: You can hit him only on the shoulder and the rump. They’re like people. They have less padding on the shoulder, more on the rump. You should wait until he extends to full stride, then flick him once to see how he reacts. But there are no magic spots. It depends entirely on the horse, and they’re all different.”

That was legendary American jockey Jerry Bailey speaking back in 1998 about the relationship between rider and whip.

In football it’s something similar. In Italy, they call it la frusta. But everything sounds better in Italian.

Every player has been on the end of a bollocking at some stage of their careers but the worst ones usually happen at the start when they’re young, immature and privy to silly errors and misjudgements.

The majority of coaches handle the dressing-downs in private. But Jose Mourinho isn’t the majority of coaches.

Swansea City v Manchester United - Premier League - Liberty Stadium Source: Nick Potts

Last season, Manchester United players consistently found out that Mourinho enjoyed inflicting a public flogging.

Luke Shaw was a primary target who Mourinho lambasted remarkably often. Some of the criticism was excruciating. It wasn’t an explosion of rage. It was a meticulous dissection of character and personality.

“He had a good performance but it was his body with my brain,” he said of the full-back’s 25-minute substitute appearance in a 1-1 draw against Everton.

“He was in front of me and I was making every decision for him,” he continued.

“The communication was possible because we were very close. We need at this level the fantastic body he has to play football, the fantastic physical qualities and technical but he cannot play with my brain.”

Shaw was a favourite victim. But Mourinho humiliated others too – Chris Smalling, Jesse Lingard, Phil Jones, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

But, it’s part of his fine-tuned approach to man-management. When he meets a group for the first time, he tells them they’re either in the boat or out of it. The relationship is built on trust. If there is not 100% belief in the system, a player will be sacrificed. Questioning what Mourinho says leads to inevitable ex-communication. Everything he says – to the players or to the media – is to incite a reaction. And, as Mourinho will note, you can tell a lot about someone by the way they hit back.

Last September, Mkhitaryan was hauled off at half-time of the Manchester derby. It was his full debut but the Armenian was left humiliated by his coach.

Worse was to come. In his post-match press conference following the 2-1 defeat to their local rivals, Mourinho told reporters that he would have gladly replaced Mkhitaryan after 20 minutes but that he didn’t want to ‘destroy the players’ and waited until the internal instead.

Later in the season, he was dropped from the squad for a game against Arsenal because Mourinho told the press he couldn’t handle the pressure of a big game.

Manchester United v Watford - Premier League - Old Trafford Source: RIchard Sellers

Inevitably, the attacker struggled in his debut campaign. He made just 15 league starts as United were forced to rely heavily on Zlatan Ibrahimovic to make things happen up front.  Mkhitaryan had to wait until December to score his first goal and that was in the Europa League, where he showed some glimpses of what he could do and would eventually tally six goals in the competition and score in the final win over Ajax.

In total, he managed 11 goals in all competitions. Not bad. But not great. And Mourinho was there to constantly remind him.

Still, Mkhitaryan – along with the likes of Jones and Martial – has shown Mourinho that he’s firmly on the boat.

He’s started the season superbly with two assists in the first two league games. To compare, he managed just one in the entire 2016/17 campaign.

With United’s fast, frenetic counter-attack earning many plaudits already, Mkhitaryan’s dribbling, awareness and intelligence dovetail really neatly with the pace of Romelu Lukaku and Juan Mata’s angled runs in behind from the right side. From two fixtures, he’s managed 4.5 key passes, which is the final pass that leads to a shot on goal by a team-mate. Right now, by some distance, he’s the team’s chief architect.

As a result, WhoScored make him United’s standout player so far.

Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 13.53.36

If United have any hope of winning the Premier League, they need a huge points swing. Last season they tallied 69. Give or take, they’ll need six more wins or about 17/18 points to be right in the mix. The onus is on Lukaku to hit 20+ goals but for the supporting cast to step up to the plate and deliver more too.

And though he doesn’t elicit as many headlines as Paul Pogba, the renewed sense of purpose that Mkhitaryan has displayed so far only adds to the belief that United can go close.

And it also vindicates Mourinho’s distinctive and unique approach to man-management.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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