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Mkhitaryan's Attacking Flexibility Will Be Key to Roma's Restart Successes

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The Armenian has torn opposing defenses to shreds from positions across the attacking midfield.

KAA Gent v AS Roma - UEFA Europa League Round of 32: Second Leg Photo by Vincent Van Doornick/Isosport/MB Media/Getty Images

Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s name has been all over the Roma rumor mill in recent weeks. The Armenian’s future in the capital remains very much in doubt, as he nears the end of a dry loan. Mkhitaryan expressed his desire to remain with Roma long term, as recently as last week when speaking with American writer Grant Wahl.

“Of course, I’d like to be at Roma next season and not just next season, for another few years. I still have a contract with Arsenal, it’s not up to me. It’s up to Arsenal and Roma if they agree the terms of the transfer fee.”

And it seems to be the sentiment of the club to keep him around, as well. Both Paulo Fonseca and Gianluca Petrachi have sung his high praises with the DS confirming his desire to bring Mkhi back next season.

“Roma’s plans include the reconfirmation of [Chris] Smalling and [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan. They are happy with us and I’m confident. The upcoming transfer market will be more complicated.”

However, the player and management understand that’s no certainty. With Roma’s well documented financial issues, it remains to be seen whether the Giallorossi will be able to reach a permanent deal with Arsenal for his services. Similar to Chris Smalling with Manchester United, only time will tell if the player’s desire to remain in Rome will win out.

Nevertheless, with twelve league games remaining on the Serie A calendar, Mkhitaryan will likely have a big influence on Roma’s push for a top four finish. Despite playing just over 1,000 total minutes (all competitions) in a Roma shirt due to injury, he’s proven to have the skill set necessary to take Roma’s attack to the next level.

Dallagente described Mkhitaryan’s game beautifully in his recent Gonzalo Villar piece. He also explained why he’s so valuable to the club, in spite of having his minutes limited due to injury.

The Armenian has shown himself as arguably one of only two Roma players in this current Roma squad, along with Javier Pastore, with the sense of timing, experience and decision-making that allows him to break open two or more of the opposition’s defensive lines.

Perhaps unlike Pastore (and even Totti in his prime before him), Mkhitaryan is explosive enough that he often unlocks the opponent’s midfield and defense within the same fluid action. It only takes a matter of seconds before Miki has pick-pocketed the ball off the opponent, that he’ll be playing a one-two with his teammates and even pop up on the end of those chances to slot the ball into goal himself, if he’s not providing the assist in the box for someone else.

Here Mkhitaryan can be seen playing a one-two with a teammate and turning it into one of his six league goals.

Fonseca hasn’t bothered to hide his desire for Roma to sign Mkhitaryan permanently. Players who can play the modern number 10 role to perfection don’t come cheap and, for clubs like Roma, that means they often don’t come injury-free. But the experience they provide for younger teammates to learn key-decision making in the final third is gold.

It’s that ability to unlock defenses that has made Mkhitaryan so decisive in some of the Giallorossi’s best offensive performances. In just over 800 minutes of league action this season, the 31-year-old has six goals and three assists. That puts Mkhi’s goals per 90 at 0.66 and his assists per 90 at 0.33—and incredible average of just about a goal or assist per 90 minutes (0.99). That is far and away the best per 90 minute contribution of any Roma regular this season with Edin Dzeko (0.68) next best.

It’s his best league goal creation output per 90 minutes since his time with Shakhtar Donetsk when he put up 25 goals and 8 assists for a G+A90 of 1.15 in 2012-13. And it’s an even higher rate than his best season at Borussia Dortmund in ‘15-’16 when his 11 goals and 15 assists averaged out to 0.91 G+A90.

Meanwhile, despite his limited minutes, Mkhi’s 6 league goals equal his best output of any of his three Premier League seasons with Man United and Arsenal. This is in spite of playing half the minutes of his 6 goal, 4 assist ‘18-’19 campaign with the Gunners. Truth be told, this has been one of the best seasons of his career production-wise when weighted by minutes played.

Even though these numbers are encouraging, Mkhitaryan’s contributions aren’t limited just to his direct involvement on the score-sheet. The underlying numbers amplify his importance to Roma’s attack. In fact, in league play only Dzeko (0.92) has a slight edge over Mkhitaryan (0.90) in xGChain90 of players with over 200 minutes played. His xGBuildup90, which removes key passes and shots, sees a drop-off to 0.37. However, this is to be expected since those are two key attributes in Mkhi’s game. Yet, he still ranks seventh on the team.

However, the thing that adds even more value to Mkhitaryan’s game is his versatility. So often we hear about a ‘Mister X’ on the transfer market, but Mkhitaryan is Paulo Fonseca’s ‘Weapon X’ on the pitch. With the ability to play all across the line of three attacking midfielders behind the striker, the Armenian gives Fonseca ample line-up flexibility. That’s something that can be even more valuable when turnover is key with a compressed schedule to close out 2019-20, as long as he can stay fit.

While many believe that Mkhi is best suited for a central role in the attacking midfield, the numbers actually paint the picture of a player that is equally adept at playing out wide as in the middle. The graphic below shows Mkhi’s advanced metrics playing central attacking midfield (blue) and attacking midfield left (green).

Mkhi’s advanced metrics on the left stack up quite well with his numbers when playing centrally.
understat.com

As you can see, Mkhi is more of a goal-scoring threat and takes more shots when playing centrally. He also is slightly more involved in build-up play. However, he plays more key passes and provides more assists when playing out on the left. Additionally, his xGChain90 takes a decent jump. This comfort and ability to excel in either position allows Fonseca to adjust his attacking trident based on the opponent.

Some tend to believe that Mkhi and fellow CAM Lorenzo Pellegrini are too similar to play at the same time and that it has to be one or the other. The thinking is that by playing Mkhi out wide, his ability to break down defenses is being wasted. Yet, the numbers don’t support those assumptions.

Both players have struggled with injuries this season, which has limited how much they’ve played together. However, some of Roma’s and the players’ best performances have come when the two play together with Pellegrini playing centrally and Mkhitaryan wide left. This is best evidenced by September’s 4-2 scorching of Sassuolo, when Pellegrini assisted three of Roma’s goals and Mkhitaryan scored once (assisted by Pellegrini). Both players each had three key passes in that match.

While it may not be ideal to always play these two together, there are certain opponents that it makes sense against. For example, in matches when Roma is expected to control possession against a compact defense, the two can use their vision and ability to play a killer pass to break down a stubborn defense.

Meanwhile, in other matches where Roma is less likely to win the possession battle, Mkhitaryan becomes more valuable in the CAM. In these matches, his ability to win back possession and quickly spring a counter-attack functions better when deployed centrally. From there, he can quickly play in one of Roma’s speedy wingers like Justin Kluivert or Cengiz Ünder or play a one-two with Edin Dzeko.

Here Mkhitaryan can be seen pressing an opponent into a turnover and springing one of Roma’s speedy wingers for a counterattack goal.

This duality makes Mkhitaryan a candidate to start for Fonseca, no matter the tactics or opponent. With so many matches to play in a short time frame, expect to see him deployed in both central and wide positions. And look for Roma’s offensive production to be raised when Mkhi is playing his best football.