We can only hope that there is a spare chair lying around at the next annual Wingers Anonymous meeting, sponsored by Jose Mourinho. Henrikh Mkitaryan would do well to place himself in between Andre Schurrle and Juan Cuadrado, with Kevin de Bruyne sat across from him. He might even find Juan Mata skulking out of the door as Memphis Depay bores everyone by recounting – for the 427th time – how Mourinho does not trust him.
Schurrle has been particularly forthright about his struggles as a winger under Mourinho at Chelsea. “I don’t know why he didn’t trust me,” he said in September 2015, reflecting on an ill-fated six-month spell. “I didn’t get any consistency from the manager so found it hard to produce my best. That’s probably the biggest reason I wanted to leave.
“It was hard because I felt like I was training well and working really hard, but I wasn’t getting in the team. It was always up and down. It all felt a bit weird to me.”
History is repeating itself, and it feels no less weird in the case of Mkhitaryan. Mourinho sanctioned the purchase of the Bundesliga’s best player for £26.3million in the summer, but the Armenian is conspicuous by his absence from the squad. Despite recovering from a recent injury, he has not even been named on the bench in the club’s last two fixtures.
Many still doubt the veracity of dressing room ‘leaks’, but claims such as those that Mkhitaryan is ‘confused and unhappy‘ at Old Trafford are not simply conjured by those looking to create headlines. If the 27-year-old can not be found training at Carrington, he’s probably sobbing uncontrollably into the sodden chest of Mohamed Salah, the Egpytian cursing Mourinho’s name into the distant wintry winds.
In April of this year, we published a similar list to this, of six excellent players who are stuck at the wrong club. The headline name among that sextet was one Daniel Andre Sturridge.
Six months on, and little has changed. The striker can still be seen sitting with a glum expression on a Liverpool bench, as Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana wreak havoc on defences around the country. The Reds may have scored the joint most goals of any side so far (20), but they do so more regularly without a recognised striker.
You cannot blame Sturridge for feeling aggrieved. Despite his current Premier League goal drought of 616 minutes, he remains a supremely-talented forward. He would excel in most other sides. But he stands out as an individual in Jurgen Klopp’s tightly-knit team. The German knows that he has a brilliant striker in his squad; he simply has no need for a brilliant striker.
Sturridge has started five Premier League games this term. He impressed but did not score in the wins over Leicester and Chelsea, but they were the exceptions to a rule highlighted by defeat to Burnley, a narrow win over Swansea and a drab draw with Manchester United. Liverpool are at their very best when their forward line can interchange, not when they have one focal point to play through.
At this stage of his career, it seems clear that the 27-year-old must leave in order to save his career for both club and country. All we want to see is the wavy arm dance again.
The clue came in September. Sergio Aguero had just scored a hat-trick for Manchester City in their 3-1 win over Swansea, salvaging what was a below-par performance.
“He knows I want more and he can play better,” was Pep Guardiola’s withering assessment, the City manager doing his best impression of a pushy father. “That is what I want and what we want, but we are so happy.”
Then came the parting shot. “The best striker is Lionel Messi, he scores 50 or 60 goals per season. He is the best, but I am so happy for Sergio.” The message was clear: You are merely my adopted son; you will never be anything like my Lionel.
As Phil Neville noted on Match of the Day 2 on Sunday, Guardiola mimics his arch-nemesis’ hatred of wingers with a complete distrust of strikers. He “doesn’t like centre forwards in his team at all,” said the better-looking Neville, who added: “He likes them to be flexible and he likes them to be able to play out wide.”
Just ask Thierry Henry. Just ask David Villa. Just ask Thomas Muller. Even Messi rarely stayed central throughout matches during Guardiola’s time at Barcelona. Aguero is a quite brilliant player – perhaps one of the best out-and-out strikers in world football. But his manager’s system makes that a nuisance, not a necessity.
For a player so used to viewing the entirety of matches from central midfield and not the bench, Cesc Fabregas was awfully forthright and composed in his explanation as to why he has struggled for game time at Chelsea this season.
“He wants the midfielders to be very complete, to be physically strong,” said the Spaniard of new manager Antonio Conte in September. “We are training very hard for it. If you have to analyse me, maybe I’m a bit more the playmaker, creative going forward.
“He wants me to be a little bit more stable and compact in defence.”
Therein lies the reason that Fabregas might never recover the form that inspired a Premier League title win at Stamford Bridge. The Spaniard is a wonder to watch in possession, but his strength does not lie in tackling, pressing or intercepting. N’Golo Kante, Nemanja Matic and Oscar might not possess the same quality, but each are far closer to attaining the balance and stability Conte seeks in a midfielder.
Aaron Lennon must be the kind of guy who ensures to take Instagram photos of his beans on toast before eating it, and Ronald Koeman, as is the right of any human, must despite that kind of guy. That is the only explanation as to why the winger has been on the periphery of the Dutchman’s revolution at Everton.
“He is really good,” Lennon said in September. “He’s banned phones at meal times, so we’re speaking and talking, which is a shock for some of the lads. But it’s good.”
What’s not so good is just 14 minutes of Premier League action, all of which came as a substitute in the opening game of the season against Tottenham. Tom Davies, at just 18, has played a full two more minutes.
The presence of Yannick Bolasie, Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas goes some way to explaining why Lennon has barely featured, but that trio, while infinitely more talented, have been varying shades of underwhelming. Still, the Leeds and Tottenham alumnus waits patiently for his chance, ensuring not to use his phone at the dinner table.
Lennon must be asking what else he must do to be afforded an opportunity. The rest of us are simply asking how in the f*** he can possibly still be only 29.