Swap deals are extremely rare in modern football. Often mooted in the press or theorised over by fans, player exchanges, at the highest level at least, are seldom seen.
Part of the reason for this is that such moves hardly ever appeal to all parties. Usually, one of the clubs involved will feel they are benefitting less from an offered player than they would from the cash equivalent, or at least one of the players involved is reluctant to be used as a makeweight in the deal.
Most felt the exchange of personnel was weighted heavily in United’s favour, with the Red Devils obtaining a world-class attacker in exchange for a player who had fallen down the Old Trafford pecking order. There were suggestions that Mkhitaryan himself was less than thrilled to be ousted from the red side of Manchester.
Judging by his full Arsenal debut, though, you wouldn’t have guessed it.
The Armenian schemer, reunited with former Borussia Dortmund team-mate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the Emirates, was electric as the Gunners swept aside Everton, registering three assists in a 5-1 victory.
Playing as part of a fluid three behind the Gabonese striker, Mkhitaryan seemed to be everywhere at once, the pulse of an Arsenal attack shocked back into life by what looks to have been a thoroughly astute mid-season transfer window.
Aaron Ramsey‘s first career hat-trick might have grabbed the headlines, but it was the Gunners’ new No.7 who stole the show. A deflated presence in Manchester in recent months, Mkhitaryan gave credence to the old adage that a change is as good as a rest, tearing through the Toffees backline and looking back to his Bundesliga best.
It is still too early to draw any grand conclusions about the 29-year-old’s suitability for Arsenal compared to his 18 months with United, but Arsène Wenger appears to have already succeeded in one area his old nemesis José Mourinho was unable to: playing to Mkhitaryan’s strengths.
During his three years in Dortmund, Mkhitaryan excelled (particularly in his last year and a half at Signal Iduna Park) in a side who operated predominantly in transition. First under Jürgen Klopp and then Thomas Tuchel, much of BVB’s blueprint revolved around winning possession through high counter-pressing and attacking swiftly into the vacant spaces.
Arsenal replicated this method superbly against Everton, harrying their opposition into coughing up the ball and letting Mkhitaryan explode into the open acreage.
As the above graphic shows, in 90 minutes against Sam Allardyce‘s men, the Armenian schemer bettered most of his per 90 averages from the time he spent at United this season.
Before the visit of the Toffees, Mkhitaryan hadn’t registered a Premier League assist since the third game of the season, against Leicester City at Old Trafford in August. He broke his duck in spectacular fashion, laying on three goals for his new team-mates.
If Arsenal can continue to maximise his strengths and keep him suitably motivated, they will have one of Europe’s most gifted and dynamic creators on their hands in Mkhitaryan. Alexis who?