People will try to tell you pre-season is irrelevant, but in Arsenal‘s friendly win over Lazio, Henrikh Mkhitaryan proved it matters so much it can kill a person’s soul.
You might not be able to read too much into pre-season friendlies, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them.
They are best appreciated as the bit of fun they are, a chance for players to audition for first-team spots but also, above all else, to enjoy themselves.
It’s this frame of mind which allowed us to watch Yossi Benayoun score one of the best goals of his career, sat with huge grins scrawled across our faces, accepting the role of the finish in reminding us of all the things we enjoy about watching football.
A meaningless goal in real terms, sure, but there’s something neat about watching a player actively taking the piss, near enough at walking pace, when an opponent is approaching the encounter with stony-faced seriousness.
The Wycombe goalkeeper scrambling back in an effort to keep out Benayoun’s lazy flick elevates it that little bit, as does the righteous anger of this Lazio player as Henrikh Mkhitaryan works his magic in Arsenal’s pre-season victory over the Italian club.
Mkhitaryan living his best life today pic.twitter.com/1XfZQ2HpK1
— Miriti Murungi (@NutmegRadio) August 4, 2018
It’s the reaction of a man who wants to stand firm and pretend he is unbothered by the humiliation, like a schoolkid acting as if he was in on the gag while being wedgied, offering up a series of “nice one, lads” quips which get quieter and quieter as he realises no one has bought his bluff.
If it’s anger, it’s anger at allowing himself to be duped into the situation, anger at himself for flying too close to the sun in attempting to dispossess a man who had in his hands the strings, the stage and the entire marionette theatre.
Somehow, if such a thing is possible, the regret precedes the action. The limp swipe at the ball can’t even be classed as going through the motions; the movement does little more than demonstrate he knows what the motions are supposed to look like.
However much you want to shrug off a nutmeg, whatever you tell yourself about its psychological impact, you ultimately need to pay it forward rather than lying to yourself by mentally minimising it.
This is why nutmegs, unlike goals or even results, matter just as much in pre-season as in competitive play. Like panenkas, and like whatever you’d call that Benayoun finish, humiliation transcends everything else for the simple reason that it’s impossible to not be affected by it.
It’s not Mkhitaryan’s first rodeo, either. Some say his nutmeg on Sergio Ramos last summer was so conclusive it forced United to let the Armenian move to London in a quasi witness protection programme just in case the club wound up facing Ramos and Real Madrid in this season’s Champions League.
Yes, even Ramos was forced to admit he had been seen off, but you just know that sort of thing doesn’t last too long.
The upcoming season feels like a huge one for Mkhitaryan. He now has a full pre-season at Arsenal under his belt, as well as a new manager to impress and a proper run in a Premier League campaign alongside his old Dortmund partner-in-crime Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
He may have stalled a little at Manchester United under José Mourinho, but even then he was able to demonstrate his eye for a nutmeg – not just as a piece of skill in its own right, either.
There are a few different playground rules when it comes to nutmegs – you need to shout ‘megs’ first, you need to collect the ball the other side or it doesn’t count – but Mkhitaryan has consistently brought at least the second of those into competitive play.
We’d love to see him mic’d up to determine once and for all if we also get the shout, but we can’t have everything.
For now we’ll have to cling on to the precious memories, from this nutmeg on Zorya’s Rafael Forster…
To this one on Basel’s Éder Balanta.
It’s hard to know what to do in that situation as an opposing player. As we’ve established, shrugging it off is out of the question, but what are your other options?
Can you stop playing and begin a round of applause in the middle of the pitch? It might distract him, but it’s probably frowned upon.
You could try to hack him down, but then what if you miss? Embarassment at the hands of an opponent is one thing, but inflicting the same upon yourself unnecessarily feels like something it’s hard to come back from.
No, your best option in these circumstances is to leave the pitch, drive home, pack up all of your things and take a flight to a remote island with no internet. You don’t have to change your name as part of the process, but it can’t hurt.
New fan favourite?
With Alexis Sánchez a distant memory in North London, all but disappearing in spirit a while before he did so in body, the man who nominally replaced him at the Emirates can take centre stage.
Arsenal have a rich history of players who take pride in taking the game to opposing defenders and leaving them flailing, from Thierry Henry to Samir Nasri and beyond, and there’s nothing to say Mkhitaryan can’t add his name to that list.
It takes a special talent to repeatedly embarrass opponents into submission, and the ease with which Mkhitaryan has done so in the past almost gives the impression that off-days are down to him taking pity on those he comes up against.
Indeed, sometimes it feels like he has to ease off to force people to forget what he’s capable of, just so the execution
What’s that? You’re wondering how we’ve got this far without any mention of his scorpion kick for Manchester United against Sunderland?
Well, in true Mkhitaryan style, I thought I’d leave you crying out for the obvious move, only to wait until you’d accepted it wasn’t coming, only to throw it at you before you have time to react.
By Tom Victor