There is more to come from one of Serie A’s greatest showmen so far this season. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has guided Roma into third place heading into a brief winter break, with his performances drawing praise from all corners of the Peninsula.
His expert orchestration of an attacking high-wire act is the main attraction in this iteration of the Roman circus, but his ringmaster has to lend him a helping hand if the club hope to make a serious Scudetto challenge. Paulo Fonseca must push the right buttons over the coming months.
The Portuguese tactician deserves enormous credit for his work with “Mkhi”. He has expertly reestablished the Armenian artist’s sense of self-belief, which was at a low ebb following disappointing stints with Manchester United and Arsenal.
Furthermore, he has found the ideal position for his number 77, with a berth off the left allowing Mkhitaryan to cut inside onto his favored right foot or use his deceptive change of pace to make runs in behind opposing rearguards.
That speed makes Mkhitaryan a real threat on the counter, but he is just as dangerous when receiving the ball to feet. He has built up a telepathic understanding with Leonardo Spinazzola, and that connection has been Roma’s best method for breaking down massed defenses.
Those two have dovetailed brilliantly on numerous occasions so far this campaign, but the former Juventus man was ruled out of Roma’s last clash of 2020 against Cagliari.
While the Giallorossi still created plenty going forward in a tense 3-2 triumph, “Mkhi” was less involved than usual, although his beautiful cross-field ball to Rick Karsdorp did help to set up the opening goal.
Even though Bruno Peres did turn in a solid showing in Spinazzola’s stead, Fonseca will be hoping that the Italian can return to action in time for a showdown with Sampdoria on January 3. An apparent muscle injury prevented the 27-year old from participating against the Sardinians, but a long spell on the sidelines would throw a wrench in La Lupa’s plans for a strong second half of the season.
Any setback for Spinazzola would be out of the Fonseca’s control, but there is a change he can make in the middle of the park to give Mkhitaryan another partner in crime. Lorenzo Pellegrini has alternated between roles as deep-lying playmaker or a trequartista beside Mkhitaryan, and it seems that the Armenian is far more effective when operating in concert with the club’s vice-captain.
Both were unplayable when Pellegrini was fielded in the hole against Bologna and Torino, with the two combining for four goals and two assists. Yet, Mkhitaryan was far less influential when the former Sassuolo was moved into the engine room against Atalanta, particularly in a second stanza where Roma were overrun by their hosts.
Fortunately for Fonseca, the rise of Gonzalo Villar affords him the opportunity to play Pellegrini in a more advanced position. The young Spaniard has earned a spot in the starting eleven at the base of midfield, with his impressive mix of steel and skill making him the perfect foil for Jordan Veretout.
The blueprint for maximizing Mkhitaryan has already been drawn up, now the onus is on the coach to put it into practice on a regular basis.