UNITED KINGDOM: In the directors' box at Old Trafford last Thursday evening sat Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He had taken part in a 'full' training session earlier that day and had, therefore, been left out of the squad by Jose Mourinho for Manchester United's Europa League tie at home to Fenerbahce as he works on his fitness - even though those close to him say he is fit.
Mkhitaryan was not in the 18-man squad, and did not travel to London, for the Premier League fixture away to Chelsea on Sunday either which ended in such an embarrassing defeat. It now remains to be seen whether he is involved in tomorrow's Capital One Cup tie against Manchester City that has suddenly taken on far greater significance for both clubs.
Logically, Mkhitaryan should play and there is an expectation at United that he will be involved. Not least given how poor United were at Chelsea. And because he has the creativity, guile and pace that United so obviously have lacked going forward. But it is far from certain.
There would be a symmetry if Mkhitaryan did feature against City given his last appearance for United was in the derby on Sept 10 when he was hauled off at half-time having given the ball away a dozen times. That was also his first and - so far - only start for United, whom he joined for pounds 26.3?million from Borussia Dortmund having been named Bundesliga player of the season.
United have played 14 matches so far this campaign and Mkhitaryan has not played more than 45 minutes in any of them. In fact he has played just 104 minutes of Premier League football - and we are already towards the end of October. It is, to say the least, surprising.
Sat by Mkhitaryan at Old Trafford last Thursday was John Murtagh, United's head of player performance, and the one David Moyes appointment who has survived at the club. Mourinho has the final say on all United's transfer business but the suspicion is growing that although he sanctioned the Mkhitaryan deal, it was, of the four big signings he made in the summer, the one that predated him; the one that he effectively inherited.
Anyone who knows Mourinho's modus operandi will know that a player he does not sign may have to work that bit harder to convince him of his worth. Mourinho inheriting a transfer - if that indeed was the case - is a far different proposition than him proposing one.
Mkhitaryan may have come from the same stable of players as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, sharing the super-agent Mino Raiola, but the three did not arrive together as some kind of package. Signing Mkhitaryan did not appear to put him on the same level - in Mourinho's eyes - as Pogba or Ibrahimovic, who are far more important. So far Mkhitaryan has been the odd man out.
Mkhitaryan already has his work cut out and, of course, other clubs, sensing an opportunity, are taking an interest. Should he still be struggling to make an impression when the window opens in January then United will not be short of offers to take him.
Mkhitaryan has been suffering from a thigh injury, picked up on international duty. At the time the Armenian Football Association said it would take him 10 days to recover. "Mkhitaryan was found to have an injury in the lower third of the left thigh muscle," it said in a statement. "Such injuries usually require a week to 10 days to heal."
It made it all the more surprising that he was then risked against City just 11 days later. The official line is that Mkhitaryan is fit but not match fit and still not ready with Mourinho talking of him having to "work to get the intensity and fitness to play at a high level", which is a fair enough assessment although his phraseology would follow the theory that the manager is now testing the player. What does he mean by 'intensity'?
It is also surprising to hear Mourinho categorise Mkhitaryan as a "winger" who is in competition with Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial for one of two starting places. "I am not an Einstein," he said. "I don't know a tactical system that can play with four wingers at the same time." But is he a winger?
Mkhitaryan is regarded as a sensitive character, something that can, at times, hold him back, and it certainly took him a long time to settle in Dortmund so the same may now be applying for the
27-year-old. His last coach,
Thomas Tuchel, for whom man-management is key, identified that and even examined his players' sleeping habits and state of mind.
Tuchel even prescribed that Mkhitaryan should read a book, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, by Timothy Gallwey, which identifies and deals with issues such as self-doubt and anxiety.
"It's like it was written especially for me," Mkhitaryan later told Kicker magazine but it is hard to see it being a piece of work that Mourinho would recommend.
Instead he appears to be pushing Mkhitaryan in a different way, a tougher love approach which may prove to be as successful as Tuchel's more considered style but until he plays regularly for United the suspicion will grow that Mourinho was not sold on the idea of buying him in the first place.