The Tactics That Helped Mkhitaryan Make a Career Comeback at Roma

Back in the first half of the 2000s, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was one of the most well-respected midfielders in Europe. The decision to leave Dortmund seemed part of the course for an excellent player, but a period of turbulence followed. In 2019, however, Micki got his mojo back. Here are the tactics Roma employs and how they helped reshape the player’s performances.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s Early Career

Mkhitaryan looked like a world-beater from the first time he set out into his professional career as a footballer. The midfielder made his debut for FC Pyunik Yerevan and won the league title in Armenia in every season in which he was involved. He then moved to Shakhtar Donetsk, a Ukrainian side looking to make an impact in Europe. Here he won another three domestic trophies.

His move to Borussia Dortmund put him in a great position. While BVB was famously shy of silverware, Jurgen Klopp’s early 2010s side was hailed as one of the most expressive in recent memory. Mkhitaryan was front and center of it.

Even for a team like Dortmund, it’s difficult to hang on to the club’s biggest stars, especially when top European sides are busy scouting them. Mkhitaryan wasn’t short of options. His decision made news headlines. He chose Manchester United, one of the world’s most prestigious institutions. United was, however, a team in turmoil.

Mkhitaryan found it difficult to express himself under the guidance of Josè Mourinho. A transfer was arranged and the midfielder departed to Arsenal, a team with much the same account. Once again, the Armenian found it tough to adapt.

His move to Roma in 2019, originally as a loan, was meant as a last-ditch effort to revitalize the player. Luckily, manager Paulo Fonseca made Mkhitaryan a priority, and this showed in the Armenian’s confidence. Roma plays a strict, tactical game, but no other player is allowed as much freedom as Mkhitaryan. It’s an atmosphere that has helped nurture the talented playmaker.

Fonseca Putting Mkhitaryan at the Heart of His Tactical System

Why does Mkhitaryan thrive at Roma when his performances were nothing special back in the Premier League? In a nutshell, it’s because Mkhitaryan is allowed to be the team’s fantasista. Not even a pesky muscular injury has hampered the player’s development.

The fantasista is a role distinct in Italian Calcio. Fantasistas are players who possess great skill, intelligence, technique, and creativity. Usually, they play in an advanced position, often behind the striker(s). Italian managers will require their players to follow a strict tactical plan. However, the one player given more autonomy is the fantasista (sometimes referred to as a trequartista, a player active in central areas, in between the midfielders and the strikers). Managers expect him to use his technical ability to break opponents down.

How Mkhitaryan Contributes to Roma’s Attacking Buildup

Since becoming manager of Roma, Fonseca has almost always employed the 4-2-3-1 and, more recently, the 3-4-2-1 formations. By default almost, Mkhitaryan begins playing in a central position, behind the striker.

At their best, Roma’s players have shown immense tactical know-how. Furthermore, Fonseca likes to change his plans based on the opposition. However, some characteristics are used throughout most matches.

Among them is the effectiveness of the double pivot setup at all times, usually made up of two central midfielders. Also, players try to create triangle shapes across the pitch as a means to move the ball forward quickly. One of the full-backs will most often search for space on the wings, giving Roma superiority in that area. Most attacks are developed from wider spaces.

In fact, throughout the 2020-21 season, Roma has been terrific at breaking down their opponents’ press. Fonseca encourages a wide passing play. Henrikh Mkhitaryan often finds himself cutting in from the wing and using his excellent right foot to create goal-scoring chances. At the time of writing, his stats are terrific. The midfielder has scored 8 goals and assisted 8 strikes throughout the Serie A season.

Mkhitaryan is the Giallorossi‘s secret weapon. He is a midfielder who needs not just freedom, but also understanding. The Armenian is, frankly, allowed to make mistakes. He has a passing success rate below 80% this season, not an enviable figure. However, his is the role to get into half-spaces, move further down the pitch when needed, and provide the killer passes meant to carve open the opposition.

Best and Worst Performances for Roma

Although Mkhitaryan’s form has simmered in recent weeks, this season is clearly one of the best in his career. Perhaps, his best display this season came against Genoa. Roma won 3-1 on away soil and the midfielder scored a hat-trick.

This match saw the Giallorossi attack, as expected, down the flanks, a move to which Genoa are vulnerable. Mkhitaryan had plenty of freedom to move but spent most of the match playing right behind the team’s striker, Borja Mayoral. With the Armenian midfielder directing the play, Roma were immensely dangerous on the counter-attack and from set-pieces.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan, however, played poorly, much like his teammates, in Roma’s recent defeat to Lazio, their city rivals. This time the midfielder found himself in a deeper area.

For most of the game, he worked to create an overload on the left flank. Lazio were strong in that area, however. The defensive work of Luis Felipe, especially, left Mkhitaryan with few opportunities. The midfielder was dispossessed four times and created few chances. Furthermore, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto were great at recycling possession for the Biancocelesti.

What’s Next for Mkhitaryan?

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has enjoyed a tremendous career. His reemergence as a top talent in European football is a welcome one. No doubt, there are other reasons besides Fonseca’s positive influence to account for this. His age and thoughts about his legacy have undoubtedly played a part.

Like other fantasisti before him, the Armenian represents a gamble that managers need to take in order to get the best out of him. When allowed the freedom to move and create, Mkhitaryan can be among the finest players in Serie A.