Who was Manchester United’s star man against Stoke City?

Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Even Thierry Henry probably thought it was unlikely his assist record of 20, set in the 2002/3 season, would be beaten. As it stands, Henrikh Mkhitaryan could take it to the cleaners and back before Christmas.
The Armenian international has already unlocked the defences of West Ham United, Swansea City, and Leicester City, and Stoke City became his next target.
He achieved his objective, although Manchester United could only take a point away from the Bet365 Stadium in what was a typically battling and bruising match in the Potteries.
Jose Mourinho instructed Mkhitaryan to roam behind striker Romelu Lukaku, alongside Marcus Rashford in what was a 4-3-2-1 formation.
The theory being that both could run diagonally behind Stoke’s midfield four into the wide channels. Unfortunately for a large proportion of the game Darren Fletcher and Joe Allen read the delivery of Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera, suffocating the oxygen for Mkhitaryan.
Added to this Stoke implemented a deep line, so whenever Mkhitaryan received the ball he had either dropped back to launch an attack or could not turn out quickly enough near the edge of the box to create one.
For an hour, Plan A did not work, but Mkhitaryan’s patience and perseverance was rewarded in the 57th minute when his subtle slicing pass found Lukaku, who after seeing his shot saved by Jack Butland, hit the net on the rebound.
It was the Armenian’s only through ball of the game yet its cut through Stoke’s entire backline in an instant, the effect of successfully digging a tunnel to penetrate a heavily armed fortress.
Perhaps this is not entirely surprising. Mkhitaryan is well known for his experience at chess and once said that like chess the middle of the pitch in football is the most dangerous as that is where attacking midfield players are most productive.
But even though he had proved that exact point with the set-up of United’s second goal, the playmaker also demonstrated the defensive capabilities needed for an away trip to Stoke.
While David De Gea won plaudits for his mesmeric reaction save, likewise Eric Bailly for his crunching challenge on Xherdan Shaqiri, further up the pitch, Mkhitaryan methodically went about his business to help the team when needed.
To an inch, the Armenian had worked out when to track back to provide valuable support to his midfield three, ending up with a tackle completion rate of 100%, while he also won every single one of his aerial duals.
If you looked up ‘team-player’ in the dictionary, then it would be a high bet Mkhitaryan would be the definition. Since he was left out of the squad last year, the playmaker has emerged this season as an even more thoughtful and considerate player to the squad as a whole.
And although he was denied an assist for Lukaku’s goal, due to Premier League rules, don’t bet against him breaking Henry’s record. After all, he knows more than anyone else the importance of patience on a football pitch.