Four assists in four appearances makes fine reading for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian midfielder was part of the deal that saw Alexis Sanchez head to Manchester United and it’s clear in the early going which team got the player more suited to their game.
Mkhitaryan was largely ineffectual in the north London derby defeat to Tottenham last weekend but his other appearances have reminded the Premier League why he was so sought after while he starred for Borussia Dortmund two seasons ago.
Arsenal’s Europa League campaign presents an opportunity to win European silverware and directly qualify for next season’s Champions League. Mkhitaryan’s involvement has increased in importance as he’ll be without his former Dortmund team-mate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the latter stages of the competition due to the Gabon striker being cup-tied.
The onus is on Mkhitaryan, Mesut Ozil and Alex Iwobi to assert themselves as they did at the Jamkraft Arena on a freezing cold evening in northern Sweden.
Ostersunds sat off Arsenal for the opening 30 minutes before realising that they needn’t deploy such a tactic. In fact, the Gunners have been at their most vulnerable in the last few seasons when opposition teams press hard against a side whose defensive deficiencies have been exposed far too often.
The Europa League is a breath of fresh air for Arsene Wenger’s side and he will surely see success in the competition as a genuine case to keep him in the Arsenal job until his contract expires next summer.
The established elite of Arsenal, AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Marseille and Sporting all triumphed in their respective ties on Thursday night and it’s already clear how the next stage of the tournament is beginning to shape up. Colombian shot-stopper David Ospina will be Arsenal’s No.1 in the cup competition and he proved his worth with a fine save in the first half and a penalty stop in the closing moments against Englishman Graham Potter’s team.
The second leg will give Wenger the chance to field the likes of Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and 20-year-old January signing Konstantinos Mavropanos. The manager stuck to his promise of fielding a full-strength team in the first leg but he’ll surely be tempted to rest a few starters for the match next Thursday.
Mkhitaryan meanwhile has now provided more assists in his last four games than he managed in his last 20 appearances for Manchester United. He’s a Wenger type of player who will clearly flourish when given space and an opportunity to shine in his favoured position.
While some will diminish the significance of Arsenal’s defeat – especially when they turn in such Jekyll-and-Hyde performances in the Premier League – it’s worth noting that European success could provide the necessary platform to move on to the next level and attract an even higher calibre of player.