Henrickh Mkhitaryan could have hoped for a better return to face his former teammates as Manchester United lost 4-1 against Borussia Dortmund in the heat of Shanghai on Friday afternoon.
It was a first defeat for new manager Jose Mourinho who stood cross-armed and concerned on the edge of his vast technical area, though United’s first Armenian footballer, Mkhitaryan, did score his side’s only goal.
He’d played well at Wigan on Saturday too in the 2-0 victory, but against Dortmund he was isolated on the left in conditions which were far from ideal and needed four breaks for liquids.
Mourinho has been a popular replacement with United fans and players who’d grown tired of life under Louis van Gaal. Optimism is rife that under the Portuguese that United can challenge for the league again, though there were some reservations within Old Trafford about Mourinho’s past behaviour. They were overridden by the club’s decision makers who believe he’s the man to get United winning again after three underwhelming seasons.
It’s a job that the Portuguese has long wanted and he’ll know that his stock won’t be enhanced if he makes too many enemies and leaves the club after a couple of seasons. At 53, he’s still young enough to create a legacy with a long period of success at United, but first the team need to start playing with more of the style and verve associated with United, scoring more goals and winning matches, something which didn’t happen enough under his Dutch predecessor.
Mourinho wants to add Paul Pogba to his three summer signings and United are confident they can do the deal with Juventus, while several players can expect to be no longer at the club come the end of the transfer window, though Mourinho isn’t giving anything away about who will go.
He wants to give everyone a chance first, although after the Dortmund game on Friday he said that he wasn’t making his mind up entirely on how they did in games but added:
Day by day (in training), they start winning my trust and their positions. Obviously there are some players who are with us who are not going to stay with the squad.
Three against one?
The Dortmund defeat was only a pre-season friendly against a team who are already two weeks further into their preparations than United – or “formula one against formula three” in Mourinho parlance.
United are still without eight players. Six have remained in Europe after the Euros, while England’s Chris Smalling and Wayne Rooney are in China but not playing.
Despite this bad result against Dortmund aside, Mkhitaryan, has enjoyed his start to life at his new club. There are United players who talk in clichés about how great they think the club is. Then there are those who develop an addiction, an obsession with England’s 20 time champions. Some, usually the local boys, from Giggs to Rashford, have grown up as United fans. Others, like Patrice Evra or Eric Cantona, contract United fever.
There’s every chance that Mkhitaryan is showing the early symptoms of a United addiction. Before his first interview as a United player, the usually quiet player told a United official that it was his dream to be at the club. The official smiled and said replied that every player said that.
“No,” replied the Armenian. “It really is a dream come true. I was very happy at Borussia Dortmund. Things were going well there. And there was only one club in the world I would have left there for.”
And that wasn’t Bayern Munich, as Dortmund have found out too many times to their cost in recent seasons, but United. He’s settling in fast with his new teammates. His English is solid; he spent so much time signing autographs after his man of the match performance in United’s first game at Wigan that he was told to get on the team bus.
Mkhitaryan made an encouraging start in that game. He ran at defenders, and showed the awareness which made him player of the year among his fellow professionals in the Bundesliga last season.
Mourinho can still be satisfied with the start he’s made. A ball has yet to be kicked in competition, but the players are enjoying working with him. As they would, for he’s yet to deliver bad news, especially the players who will be sold before the transfer window closes, but he’s intent on getting the trust of his players who were worn down by the uninspiring methods of Van Gaal.
Mourinho cuts a smiling figure in China as he acquaints himself with his new players. He thinks footballers are at their best when they’re Mkhitaryan’s age (27) and while Mourinho played him as a number 10 at Wigan, he can operate on either wing.
For United, that’s likely to be in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Zlatan Ibrahimovic as leading forward and Wayne Rooney behind him.
Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial are set to play wide, but much can change and there’s no such thing nowadays as the same XI players every week – unless you’re Leicester City.
If Pogba comes then it’s likely to be a world record fee, but the Italians are under no pressure to sell and there’s rumours that Real Madrid remain interested in the player United shouldn’t have let go for free in 2012.
Mourinho is happy with how his board have completed the deals for three of the four players he’s identified, with Ibrahimovic and Eric Bailly also arriving in June.
The Swede, who hasn’t travelled to China, will start training at Carrington on Sunday and then join the main group of players on Thursday when they return from the Far East. Ibrahimovic has the self-assured confidence and talent to talk a good story and the positive sentiments are being repeated by a manager who wants him to spearhead his attack this season and get the goals United lacked last term when they finished fifth.
Defender Bailly is in China. The Ivorian, who played at Espanyol and Villarreal before his stg £26 million move to England, doesn’t speak English and is closer to the Spanish speaking teammates. At 22, he’s under Mourinho’s optimum age for a player and still has to improve, but his possesses a physical presence that was lacking in United’s central defence last term.
Meanwhile Mourinho is weighing everything up. He maintains there’s not a big rebuilding job to do and that new four players will be sufficient to start the season. But four goals conceded was hardly part of that plan.