The return of Henrikh Mkhitaryan

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The failures of Liverpool’s transfer policy has been one of football’s most notable struggles over the last two years. The inadequacies of Brendan Rodgers’ signings eventually caused his sacking, but the list of players he missed out on is just as noteworthy. Diego Costa, Alexis Sanchez and Willian were all close to moves, before eventually preferring alternative Premier League destinations.

The name of Henrikh Mkhitaryan also merits inclusion on such a list. Liverpool were reported to be close to a deal to sign the Armenian in the summer of 2013, but the midfielder eventually chose BVB Dortmund instead.

Two years later, those rumours reappeared. After a successful first season in Germany, Mkhitaryan had regressed during Jurgen Klopp’s last season at the Westfalenstadion. As Dortmund had struggled, so too had their attacking midfielder. Reports surfaced that a £15m fee had been agreed for the Armenian to move to Anfield. Dortmund were cutting their losses. Once again, Liverpool missed out.

There have been plenty of Dortmund players who have been revived this season under the early tutelage of Thomas Tuchel, but none more so than Mkhitaryan. It took until February last season for his first Bundesliga goal, but he has already contributed five goals and four assists in just 830 league minutes so far. Add two goals in the DFB Pokal for the complete redemption.

Signed for £23.6m from Shakhtar Donetsk, Mkhitaryan seemed the perfect fit for Dortmund, capable of swapping wings with Marco Reus in support of a central striker. He had the work ethic to effect Klopp’s plan of pressing the opposition, and instantly settled in the Bundesliga. The attacking midfielder contributed 19 goals in the league alone through his goals and assists as Dortmund finished second.

Last season, Mkhitaryan looked like a broken player, a shell of the man who was so effervescent in his debut season. The Dortmund supporters’ faith wavered; it seemed as if his time was up. Mkhitaryan himself is in no doubt who is to thank for his revival.

“I immediately felt confident when I met Tuchel for the first time,” he told German magazine Stern. “When you talk to someone for the first time, it’s the human side you notice, then the football side.

“He told me that I could develop under his coaching, and that I would fit his system. He said ‘You will see, we’ll play very attractive football, and thus you will shine in this team. You qualities will come through.”’

Tuchel has stayed true to his word. Seventeen Bundesliga clubs may all be playing for second place, but Dortmund are in prime position to take that position and return to the Champions League. They are also playing some of their most vibrant football in years, scoring 32 goals in their opening 11 games. They scored 47 during the entire league campaign last season.

On a personal level, it is not just the number of Mkhitaryan’s goals and assists that have improved. He is creating more chances, making more passes and taking more shots, indicative of his re-found confidence. Suddenly the Armenian wants the ball. 

That confidence is again down to Tuchel’s influence. “He helped me not only with the specific football skills, but also in mental terms,” Mkhitaryan says. “He tells me all the time: If you fail at something, don’t hold on to it, let it go. Do that and you will be better prepared for what comes next.”

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may be grabbing the headlines for his 13 Bundesliga goals, but the striker is merely the beneficiary of the extraordinary improvement behind him. Linked with a move away in the summer, one suspects Dortmund are pleased with their decision to stick with their record signing. Henrikh Mkhitaryan might not be a player reborn, but he’s certainly rejuvenated and revitalised. A change (of coach) can do you good.

Daniel Storey