Things never seem to go right for Arsenal these days. Despite walking to a 4-1 win over CSKA Moscow in their first leg of the Europa League quarter finals on Thursday night, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was forced to limp off after an hour with a knee injury.
“Micki came off and he will be out for Sunday,” Arsène Wenger announced afterwards. “He has a scan and the fear is that his medial knee ligament has been touched. We’ll know more about that soon. For how long he will be out, I don’t know.”
Yet that “fear” is of an injury that could rule the midfielder out for the rest of the season and if that were to be the case it would be a huge blow to Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the top five and challenging for the Europa League itself.
It may seem odd to suggest Mkhitaryan is already a pivotal player for Wenger’s side but in the short time he’s been at the Emirates the Armenian international has wasted little time getting to work, and as such, Arsenal have quickly grown to rely on his performances.
For example, Arsenal’s current run in the Europa League wouldn’t have been nearly as straightforward without the attacking midfielder’s contributions. Two of the three goals scored in the first leg against Ostersund came from the Armenian, while he also scored the opening goal in Milan to set the tie in Arsenal’s favour after just 15 minutes.
In fact, before his injury on Thursday, the midfielder was averaging 3.2 shots per game for Arsenal in the continental competition. A figure that was unrivalled by any Arsenal player aside from Aaron Ramsey, who boasts an impressive average of 4.3.
Despite the club’s wavering domestic form, Mkhitaryan has also been at the heart of anything good that Wenger can claw out of the Premier League this season. In early February he set up three of the five goals Arsenal put past Everton and was similarly on call to score one and create another in the 3-0 win over Watford.
When it comes to key passes per game in the Premier League, Mkhitaryan’s average of 1.4 is only bested by Mesut Özil within the Arsenal squad. And his 0.6 assists per game is not only twice as good as the German international’s but is also unmatched by any of his other team-mates.
These are figures from a very small sample size. But the player’s record in Germany with Borussia Dortmund and, at times, for Manchester United suggest when he’s on form these are the kind of performance that can be expected. And in Arsenal’s case it may prove impossible to replace them.
Since joining the Gunners, Mkhitaryan as found himself playing on either wing. Which suggests that if Wenger is forced to look for a long-term replacement then it will most likely come in the form of Alex Iwobi or Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
However, whether or not either of these players are up to the task of replacing the 29-year-old is another question entirely.
In 30 appearances for Arsenal this season Iwobi has just two goals and three assists, which suggests the 21-year old would struggle to match the contribution offered by Mkhitaryan.
Maitland-Niles, meanwhile, has just one assist for the season isn’t exactly too encouraging either – though he has frequently been asked to play left-back.
Wenger could turn to Danny Welbeck and ask him to play a wide role in his front three, a role he has thrived in for England before. But with only provided one assist thus far, it’s clear the Manchester United academy graduate is not a creator.
In a team already short of proven talent Wenger may have to get creative and start shuffling Özil or Jack Wilshere around for Sunday’s clash with Southampton. But if Mkhitaryan is ruled out for a long period of time then a more dramatic tactical shift may be needed.
It may sound like a reach but Mkhitaryan has already established himself as one of Arsenal’s key, attacking players and, in his absence, Wenger will struggle to find wide players that can create as many goals as him.