Manchester United new boy Henrikh Mkhitaryan is the kind of player all defenders hate to play against, his former international coach Tom Jones said in an interview with Manchester United’s official webpage.
Jones first spotted a raw teenager appearing in Armenia’s Under-21s against their counterparts from Liechtenstein back in 2006. The 17-year-old caught the coach’s eye in Yerevan and has never looked back since, earning a dream move to Old Trafford this summer to become part of Jose Mourinho’s new-look United side.
In the mid-2000s, Jones was assisting Armenia manager Ian Porterfield, Sunderland’s 1973 FA Cup final hero, after a stint in South Korea. The coach took over as interim boss when Porterfield sadly lost his battle with cancer and, in his six games in charge, helped engender a change in mindset that has benefited an attacking spark like Mkhitaryan.
Clearly, his first impression of the young FC Pyunik prospect was a positive one. “I was with the main national side but the first time I saw Henrikh was when he was playing for the Under-21s,” Jones told ManUtd.com. “I was there sitting with Vardan [Minasyan], who was a coach with the national team and ended up taking over when I left.
“I said: ‘He’s too good to be playing in that team. Get him in the full squad.’ From that time, he just joined the full squad and was regularly part of the training.”
Porterfield acted on the recommendation and handed Mkhitaryan his senior international debut as a substitute against Andorra. The youngster handled the step up in his stride, helped by the fact he was playing his club football with Pyunik. “I quickly found out most of the players, around 80 per cent, came from that one big team,” said Jones. “That included the Under-21s as well. A lot of players knew each other and were comfortable with each other.”
Jones and Porterfield found Mkhitaryan to be a charming individual, one who seemed at home among older colleagues. “He was a great lad,” recalled Jones. “Really, really polite and well spoken. The good thing as well, from my point of view, was his English was very good. His mother was involved with the Armenian FA.”
Yet it was on the pitch where Henrikh’s personality really came out, showing a fearlessness and precocious attitude to the game.
“He is one of them – a glider,” said Jones. “When he’s got the ball at his feet, he just runs at people and simply creates so many problems for defenders because his first thought is to get at them. People don’t like that, of course, and, when they start coming and stepping out, he is sliding balls in between them. He is very clever like that – he could make a goal and score a goal.
“I always liked him to play just behind the front two. If you play two up top there, he was the one who could join in. That’s why he’s scored goals and why I said the boy can make a goal and score a goal. He’s got both sides of the game in him and that’s because he is fearless. He gets at people, runs at people and defenders hate that.
“They can’t touch him and it’s what he did very well. I also watched him play for Pyunik a few times, in different games when I was out there. But even when you see him in training, he’s an unbelievable talent.”
Mkhitaryan will be a key figure for Armenia when they embark on a qualifying group that includes Romania, Denmark and Poland as they bid to reach the next World Cup finals in Russia. A bolder approach has aided the national team’s cause and Jones feels he had a big role to play in instilling more confidence into the side.
“They’ve never qualified for a major tournament but, if you look at some of their results, they can always turn you over,” he said. “Vardan was frightened we were going to become too open but I managed to convince Ian, as he was a bit more defensive, that we were not going to get beaten heavily.
“Ian showed me a few DVDs and I just didn’t see the opposition goalkeeper because we were camped in our own half on damage limitation. I changed that mentality and just said: ‘Let’s press up the pitch and stop them playing’. It worked wonders for us and everybody could see the benefits and a change in that mindset from that day.”
The only question mark will be whether Mhkitaryan can deal with the demands of playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs but Jones believes this won’t be a problem for the 27-year-old. “I’m sure Henrikh was already an idol in Armenia when playing for Borussia Dortmund,” he reasoned. “To go to a club like United is a different level again for a player from such a small country but I think he will cope.
“He has already stepped up from Armenia to Dortmund and I think Liverpool tried to sign him a number of years ago as well. I mentioned him to quite a few managers when I came back to England, including Phil Parkinson when he was at Hull City. It was just a matter of whether they could get international clearance. Once that opened up, I think that was the stepping stone for Henrikh to go to Germany and he has never looked back.”
Jones is still coaching – he is currently with non-league team Chippenham Town and is eagerly anticipating the new season. “Chippenham are a very progressive club,” he stated. “We want to get in the Conference South. The chairman has got good ambitions and we’ll be ready to have a right go at it this year.”
Although he’ll be busy with his own side, the former Swindon Town midfielder will also be keeping a close eye on how Mkhitaryan fares at Old Trafford in 2016/17. “The boy is a hell of a talent,” he insisted, and we are all looking forward to seeing him in the red shirt.”