In just two games of Manchester United’s summer tour to America, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is proving he can be the difference maker the Red Devils desperately crave.
There was frenzied excitement when the Armenian architect joined from Borussia Dortmund last summer, having just captured the Bundesliga Player of the Season award.
And there were plenty of flashes of the brilliance we’ve come to expect from the 28-year-old over the previous three years at Westfalenstadion, and indeed his three seasons with Shakhtar Donetsk prior to that.
It was by no means a flawless campaign. For all his undoubted class he lacked consistency. His form came in patches and he even found himself on the end of some stinging criticism from boss Jose Mourinho.
Mkhitaryan was dropped for the 1-1 home draw with Everton on April 4, having been replaced due to a poor performance during the goalless draw at West Brom three days earlier.
“I am not happy with Mkhi’s performance in the last match” said the Portuguese, while later that month, when asked to assess Mkhitaryan’s performances, Mourinho said “Good, in the Europa League”.
But whereas Mourinho’s words seem to be falling on deaf ears in Anthony Martial or Luke Shaw’s cases, Mkhitaryan appears to hear him loud and clear.
The criticism detracts slightly from what was nevertheless a very impressive debut season in England for Mhkitaryan, capped 64 times by his country.
He bagged 11 goals in 41 games in all competitions, although given his reputation as a creative No10, his tally of just one assist all season leaves much to be desired.
As with all new arrivals into the Premier League, Mkhitaryan seemed to struggle at times with the pace of the league. In 15 of his Premier League starts, he was replaced 11 times. In the Europa League he came off in eight of the 10 games in which he made the starting 11.
In all he was substituted 22 times in 30 games that he started.
But if the opening two matches of the US tour are anything to go by he’s adding stamina to his game.
At a time when players are developing their fitness and seeking sharpness, Mkhitaryan looks in tremendous shape already – despite the camera seemingly adding 10lbs when he was used to showcase the new home shirt on Twitter.
It looks like Henrikh Mkhitaryan returned back for pre-season training....three months pregnant. 👀😂 pic.twitter.com/jmIR7Qwnul— Sunday League (@SundayShoutsFC) July 9, 2017
His burst of pace in the opening game against LA Galaxy when receiving the ball in his own half was explosive, as he hurtled 60 metres and set up a chance for Romelu Lukaku, leaving two markers trailing in his wake.
His contribution at the top end of the pitch has also been lethal. He scored in both the opener and Tuesday’s second game against Real Salt Lake.
His two finishes have been clinical, one left foot, one right, while his assist for Lukaku’s first United goal, which turned out to be the winner against Real, was simply sublime.
He’s been wasteful at times in possession, which is to be expected in pre-season. But he’s knitted the play together wonderfully, piercing the MLS duo’s defences with intricate passes and linking effortlessly with his attacking colleagues. While also showing a keener hunger for tracking back too – something Mourinho would have undoubtedly asked him to improve.
Whereas pre-season results should not be read in to too that much, eye-catching individual performances tell a different tale. Mkhitaryan has shown little sign of rustiness and has hit the ground running, seemingly focused on showing his worth to Mourinho, his teammates and United fans this coming season.
After a promising start to life at Old Trafford, the man affectionately known as Mkhi is looking so fine and could light up the Premier League in 2017/18 as well as Old Trafford for years to come.
Romelu Lukaku says he is embracing being the focal point of Manchester United’s attack after the £75million signing from Everton got his first goal for the Red Devils in a pre-season clash with Real Salt Lake.
The big Belgian fired United ahead on 38 minutes, latching on to a low cross from Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The 24-year-old striker had also been involved in United’s equaliser scored by Mkhitaryan in the 29th minute after Luis Silva had given Salt Lake a shock early lead.
Lukaku used his strength and physical presence to hold off the Real defense to feed Jesse Lingard, who provided the pass for Mkhitaryan to score.
And speaking to MUTV after the 2-1 win, Lukaku couldn’t hide his delight at opening his account and promised more is to come.
“I’m here to score goals and be the focal point of the team,” he said. “At Manchester United, we play to win and that’s the mentality when I get on the pitch and everything comes with it.
“From the first day, when we had the meeting with the manager in Los Angeles, you just felt that something special was happening. But it’s down to us now; we need to work hard every day and deliver in the pre-season games to be ready for the new season.
“I know a lot of the lads from before, a lot of them are my neighbours! I didn’t take a lot of time to settle in, I just want to be one of characters in the team to help the team win. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity, like I said. Now, I am here and it’s time to work hard and, hopefully, deliver.”
Romelu Lukaku's first goal for Manchester United, fantastic play from the team to create the chance— José (@MourinhoMindset) July 18, 2017
The United goals were the rare highlights of a disjointed first half performance from Mourinho’s side, who had travelled to Utah earlier Monday from their Los Angeles training camp.
For much of the opening half United were second best, with their defense being given a torrid time by a team who are languishing near the foot of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference.
“Real Salt Lake caused a bit of a shock – but we knew they were a good side and we were well prepared,” Lukaku added. “Every time we played at high pace, we did well. We need to keep improving because now we are playing against better opponents and we need to improve.
“The last five minutes before the end of the first half were tough. Physically, we worked really hard and, in the second half, we created a lot of chances. We didn’t score but, at least physically, everyone is healthy and working hard which is good for us.”
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp plans to unleash an injury-free Daniel Sturridge in the new season with the England striker back training fully fit and focused.
“It’s the best condition he has been in since I have been here,” Klopp told reporters in Hong Kong on Tuesday ahead of his second full campaign as Liverpool manager.
Sturridge has been troubled by a spate of injuries since joining the Reds from Premier League rivals Chelsea in 2013 and hip problems restricted his impact to just seven goals from 27 appearances last season.
The 27-year-old has recently been linked with a big-money move to China, but Klopp insisted Sturridge was going nowhere, backing him to return to the kind of form that almost helped bring Liverpool a league title in his first season on Merseyside.
“He has been part of a full pre-season so far so that is very positive,” Klopp said before Liverpool take part in the Premier League Asia Trophy also involving Leicester City, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion.
“It has been quite intense what we have done and he has pretty much been part of each session so that is good. He is in good physical shape.”
Amid fanfare over the arrival of record signing Mohamed Salah to Liverpool, signed from Roma last month for an estimated £34million, Klopp said his primary focus was on seeing his club improve on last season’s fourth-place finish.
“Sometimes (the news) is all about bringing in new players but the main thing is how do we improve the players we had last season,” said the former Dortmund coach, currently playing a waiting game on key transfer targets Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk.
“The good thing is we did not lose any player that we want and I expect a lot of improvement from the players we have.”
Salah is one of two new signings Liverpool have brought with them to Hong Kong.
The Egypt international has hit the ground running with the Reds, scoring in his first friendly against Wigan last week, while striker Dominic Solanke will also be looking to impress his new boss following the 19-year-old’s free transfer from Chelsea.
Jurgen Klopp on when he first saw Mo Salah: “What the f--k?” 😂 pic.twitter.com/pn4G9vs6Yw— B/R Football (@brfootball) July 17, 2017
But Klopp refused to be drawn on Leipzig midfielder Keita or van Dijk, the Southampton defender.
“It is what it is and the transfer market is open until the (August) 31st,” said the German, whose team kick off their Premier League campaign at Watford on August 12.
“I have all the players I want, until now. I’m still relaxed.”
Meanwhile, Liverpool arrived in Hong Kong on Monday to a deluge of rain and flood warnings.
“You have to make the best of the circumstances,” said Klopp. “We come from England so we are used to a little bit of rain but yesterday was a little bit too much. Situations like this are like football – you always need to find solutions.”
Provided by AFP Sport