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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Henrikh Mkhitaryan maturing into one of Jose Mourinho's most trusted men

At 28, the Armenian is not quite older statesman but neither is he wet behind the ears. He has the talent to bring out the best in Manchester United's new signings.

Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan in action with Manchester City's Yaya Toure. Richard Carson / Reuters
Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan in action with Manchester City's Yaya Toure. Richard Carson / Reuters

Fast, clinical and decisive - all adjectives most would normally associate with Manchester United but have not been used regularly enough since Alex Ferguson left Old Trafford four years ago. For United fans, it must feel like an eternity.

According to Andy Mitten, though, that is exactly what United were during their 2-0 pre-season win over Manchester City Houston, Texas last month, in the first game staged between two clubs outside of the UK. Jose Mourinho said pre-match he regarded the game as nothing more than "training".

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And while flagship signing Romelu Lukaku, acquired at a cost of £75 million (Dh359m), and youth product Marcus Rashford stole the headlines during the club's first two games on their North American tour - Lukaku also scored in the win against Real Salt Lake - it is a player who arrived amid similar fanfare the previous summer who is quietly exerting ever greater influence on Mourinho's team.

Following the high-profile departures of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has assumed a senior role in the team. At 28, he is not quite elder statesman but neither is he wet behind the ears. He has talked of helping the new signings integrate and adapt to Mourinho's methods and tactics.

The memory of being the new boy in town all too vivid no doubt. He has taken on the role of mentor and cheerleader for younger players - “Marcus just needs to keep working hard and doing what he’s doing and he’ll become one of the best players” - the Armenian said of teenager Rashford after the win over City.

His own displays have no doubt given him the confidence to step up in the dressing room and on the pitch. There were enough encouraging displays towards the back end of last season to suggest there was far better to come in this one.

Much like the Worker bee that has come to symbolise his adopted home city following the terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in May that claimed the lives of 23 victims, Mkhitaryan buzzes around on the flanks. His delivery of the ball marks him a threat on the outside while he has the footwork to cut inside and draw defenders out of position. And who could ever forget that goal against Sunderland?

It may have taken a while for him to find his feet but Mkhitaryan now stands tall at Old Trafford. It is obvious from his pre-season outings he will start this Premier League campaign in much better shape than his began the previous. The Armenian has the ability to shine on his own and bring out the best of young talents such as Lukaku, Rashford, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial.

Mkhitaryan was part of a squad that won the League Cup and Europa League last season but could finish only sixth in the league. With Mkhitaryan ready to flourish, United are primed to shake up the top four this season after missing out on it by a fair distance last term and once again do battle with Europe's elite in the Uefa Champions League instead of its lesser lights.