At the season’s start the suggestion that José Mourinho would start with both Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan would have been summarily dismissed. The notion that the pair could be picked in the same team has seemed fanciful for much of the campaign. After all, Mata and Mourinho shared a chequered history together at Chelsea, while Mkhitaryan was frozen out of the first team picture altogether for a large chunk of the season. Yet, the duo could be the club’s most important combination as United enter the business end of the season.

When Jose Mourinho had signed to become the boss at Manchester United, the first rumour was that Juan Mata – the player who he had sold for Manchester United when the duo were at Chelsea – is unhappy and he would be leaving Old Trafford. The rumours got even bigger when substitute Juan Mata was replaced in the dying minutes of Manchester United's Community Shield win against Leicester City, "because he was the smallest player", according to the Portuguese manager and that he preferred a physically stronger player to defend against Ranieri’s long ball tactics.

If United’s frustrating home draw against Bournemouth highlighted anything it is the need for Mourinho’s team to operate with more guile and cunning. Mata and Mkhitaryan possess those qualities in abundance and, perhaps unsurprisingly, have struck up an understanding that’s quite unlike any other partnership in the United set-up.

The chance crafted by Mata for Mkhitaryan against Rostov provided a glimpse, once again, of what the pair is capable of when they are both on the pitch. In terms of end product Mata and Mkhitaryan have combined directly just thrice this season – against Saint-Etienne in the Europa League, Hull City in the EFL Cup and Leicester City in the Premier League. Granted, the pair isn’t working to Cole and Yorke levels just yet, but maybe that has to do with the fact that pair have only started together nine times this season. There is more, surely, to come.

Statistics when Mata- Mkhitaryan start

Club Competition Score Line
Hull (Home) EFL 2-0 Win
Wigan (Home) FA cup 4-0 Win
Watford(Home) PL 2-0 Win
Leicester (Away) PL 3-0 Win
Stoke (Home) PL 1-1 Draw
Rostov(Home) Europa League 1-0 Win
St. Etienne (Away) Europa League 1-0 Win
Zorya (Away) Europa League 2-0 Win
Feyenoord (Home) Europa League 4-0 Win

When both are selected United generally wins. The record reads eight victories in all competitions, with the only aberration coming at home to Stoke City in the Premier League. It does pose the question why the duo hasn’t started together more often. The answer could be that the only system that truly suits them is a 4-2-3-1.

Given United’s issues with injury and suspension Mourinho may have little option but to adopt the system until he has a full squad available, with Mkhitaryan and Mata representing the team’s best attacking option. Indeed, the pair have been directly responsible for 17 goals, and when they’re not assisting each other they’ve laid on a further seven chances for their teammates. In the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial the United boss could do worse than starting the Spaniard and the Armenian together more often.

Mata and Mkhitaryan, All Competitions

  Games Goals Assists
Juan Mata 37 10 5
Henrikh Mkhitaryan 27 7 5

It would seem that the pair has also recognised that their playing styles are complementary, far from the perceived notion that they’re too similar to play in the same team. Juan

Mata recently said 

“We understand each other well on the pitch because we play the same type of football. We are different players and we can play together.”

Mkhitaryan hailed the Spaniard as “world-class” when describing the goal against Leicester in which the duo combined. After providing the assist for the goal against Leicester, the Armenian said :

“I knew that if I controlled that ball, he has to open up himself in the space and that’s what happened. I just played it there because I knew that he was going to be there and he scored a nice goal.”

The common element is the acknowledgement between the pair that they have a near instinctive understanding of how each other operates. “I knew that he was going to be there” may appear to be a throw-away comment, but it shines a light on the connection they share. The interplay between the pair does not come about without trust and clearly these two know that they can depend on each other.

What makes this partnership so special? Both players are giving room for each other to flourish and perform at the highest level, thanks to Jose Mourinho’s attacking variations and freedom that he is providing the Armenian and Spanish.

Last season, under Louis van Gaal, Mata was often underperforming and accused of being “slow”, especially when he had to play as a wide right in the 4-3-3 system. The Spaniard’s strength is represented in the freedom he is provided within the final third of the pitch.

How did Mourinho resolve this issue?

Both Mkhitaryan and Mata are creative, can play in various positions and can handle different roles on the pitch. The Spaniard is not the fastest of players and this issue is resolved by the Armenian’s pace either on the right or in the number 10 position.

Both players can fill both positions but it seems like Mourinho has found his secret attacking weapon by starting Mata on the right and the Armenian in the number 10 position. This freedom and interchange of positions is providing the players with the space to drop deep, get involved in their defensive duties and build up from the back. Something which is giving the Armenian attacker and the Spanish schemer is the space and ability to pass the ball between each other and create attacking one-twos in order to penetrate the opposition defensive walls.

United will desperately need the pair to first the club towards the Champions League spot, whether it’s via the Europa or Premier League. The upcoming domestic run appears kind, with matches against  West Bromwich Albion, Everton and Sunderland on the horizon before Chelsea visits Old Trafford. Yet, too often Mourinho’s team has dropped points unnecessarily against the lesser lights.

The common thread running through many home draws is the inability to break down opponents with pace and power when the game is crying out for craft and guile. At the very least deploying the pair will offer United more creative options with their passing, vision and intelligent movement. Likewise the remaining sides in the Europa League shouldn’t fill United with any sense of dread, but cup competitions have an added measure of unpredictability at the best of times. In Mkhitaryan and Mata, Mourinho possesses two bona fide match winners.

Deploying both the Armenian and Spanish schemers in the starting team may necessitate a shift to a 4-2-3-1 system, although both started in Mourinho’s 3-4-3 against FC Rostov. In Paul Pogba’s absence, with the midfielder out for at least three weeks, Mourinho may determine that the most pragmatic option is to play both Mata and Mkhitaryan, especially as there is a scarcity of midfield playmakers in United’s squad available to him in the short-term. Mourinho prides himself on being a winner and has demonstrated that he will use any means necessary to achieve his objectives. If the Portuguese boss views the Mata-Mkhitaryan partnership as the difference between an average finish and a successful one he will start the pair.

They’ve certainly come a long way since the Community Shield after THAT infamous substitution, but given how the duo have performed together starting them doesn’t even seem like too much of a risk. Not any more at least.