Henrikh Mkhitaryan keeps doing it again and again. With Inter temporarily held level by Lecce, the Armenian midfielder popped up in their moment of need. Against the side from Salento, he showcased all his technical ability by calmly sending the ball into the top corner from the edge of the box to put the Nerazzurri ahead, but it felt like deja-vu.
Before that, the former AS Roma player had bagged another classy goal against Udinese two weeks earlier, with the scores locked at 1-1. Before that again, he had scored a lucky late winner at Fiorentina in a thrilling 4-3 win and netted the opener that paved the way for Inter’s 4-0 victory over Viktoria Plzen, in the decisive game that sealed their qualification for the Champions League’s round of 16.
All of the four were very different goals, though they did share a significant common trait – each one of them broke the balance of the game, helping Inter to win each of those matches.
While there should be little surprising about the contribution of a player that has played and won titles for the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk, Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United and Roma, his seasonal haul is starting to go beyond the expectations of a 34-year-old that the Nerazzurri signed as a free agent to add depth to their midfield following departures of Arturo Vidal and Matias Vecino.
Yet, Marcelo Brozovic‘s extended absence from the pitch has given Mkhitaryan a more prominent role than he probably expected, one he has played masterfully, becoming one of Simone Inzaghi’s fundamental pieces.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan: Not the usual free agent
Hindered by a lack of scouting and limited financial resources, Inter have often been forced to look at the free agent market in recent years, with all the risks involved in such a practice.
This is the way they signed Arturo Vidal back in 2020, to give Antonio Conte the reinforcement he had been desperately asking for. However, the Chilean’s poor performances in his two seasons at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza probably affected the way Mkhitaryan was welcomed when the Nerazzurri decided to poach him from Roma after his contract expired.
At the age of 34, and with various physical issues having limited his playing time in the past, many wondered whether he was the reliable player Inter needed to give their coach Simone Inzaghi more options for midfield rotations, in a section of their roster that had only Nicolo Barella, Marcelo Brozovic, Hakan Calhanoglu and Roberto Gagliardini.
In the end, not only Mkhitaryan has proven his doubters wrong with his good physical shape, but he also ended up providing a mix of technique and experience that the Nerazzurri had clearly been lacking in the previous season.
Goals, balance and experience: What Mkhitaryan has brought to Inter
When one analyses Mkhitaryan’s contribution to Inter’s current season, it would be tempting to focus on his above-mentioned penchant for decisive goals, which obviously plays a huge part.
However, the best way to understand how valuable his addition was for Simone Inzaghi is to carefully look at what happened around him. Last season out, Inter’s struggles when Marcelo Brozovic was sidelined made many think that the lack of a similar player was the first thing the Nerazzurri would need to fix on the transfer market.
When the Croat picked up another injury last October, the spotlight was on Krjstian Asllani, who Inter signed over the summer as a direct replacement for Brozovic. Instead, Simone Inzaghi pulled off a surprising move, as Mkhitaryan was included in the starting XI, with Calhanoglu moved deeper to become the Nerazzurri’s new regista.
Since then, it took little to realise that, much more than a photocopy of Brozovic, Inter simply needed balance in their midfield. With Mkhitaryan on the pitch, Calhanoglu suddenly started to feel at ease as a deep-lying playmaker, and it was no coincidence – the Armenian’s wide array of skills, including quality passing and ball carrying, as well as his ability to occupy the right spaces at the right time, allows the midfield line to be better connected to both defence and attack.
There’s no task that Mkhitaryan is not ready to perform in that area of the pitch – he can come deeper in order to help their teammates to have one more free man in the first phase of the build-up, he can make challenges and, of course, he knows how to invade the box and his shots from medium-long range can be deadly.
Nicolo Barella‘s rediscovered scoring efficiency, with five goals from his first 24 Serie A games this season, is another shining example of how the whole Inter side have benefitted from Mkhitaryan’s addition.
On top of all of that, Mkhitaryan can boast that international experience that no one else has at Inter – this is probably why he’s able to make his presence felt when things get tough, suggesting that his form and fitness will be a big factor in determining the Nerazzurri’s ambitions for the remainder of the season.