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Henrikh Mkhitaryan – The Cerebral Assassin Heading to Manchester United

29th June 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, according to wide-spread media reports, is on the verge of a headline-grabbing switch to Manchester United. The Borussia Dortmund playmaker has one year remaining on his contract with the Bundesliga club and, via his agent Mino Raiola, has agitated for his “dream move” to the 20-time Henrikh Mkhitaryan Borussia Dortmundchampions of England.

For those who are not avid viewers of German football, the 59-cap Armenian international may be somewhat of an unknown quantity.

But if Mkhitaryan does indeed make the switch to the Theatre of Dreams, he will soon become a household name – albeit one that many will struggle to pronounce and fewer still will be able to spell.

Mkhitaryan joined Dortmund from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013 for €27.5 million – a club record fee. During his three year stay in Donetsk, Mkhitaryan had marked himself out as one the most gifted creative midfielders in Europe; he’d guided Shakhtar to domestic title wins in each of his three seasons with the club, was voted the Ukrainian Premier Division player of the year in 2012, and finished as the division’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan Shakhtar Donetskhighest goal-scorer in the 2012-13 season.

So, upon joining BVB for such a large fee, and considering his track-record in Ukraine, there were high hopes for Mkhitaryan among Yellow and Blacks supporters.

Yet despite a respectable return on nine goals and 10 assists in his first season in Germany, there was a general feeling that Mkhitaryan had been rather underwhelming considering his hefty price-tag.

And the 2014-15 season yielded just three Bundesliga goals from 28 appearances, as Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund endured a torrid campaign. BVB were languishing around the lower reaches of the table, before a late-season rally to finish in seventh place. But for a team who’d won back-to-back titles two years earlier, seventh was far from good enough.

In an interview with FourFourTwo in March, Mkhitaryan admitted that the transfer fee Dortmund had paid for him felt like a burden for a while, but that Klopp helped him overcome that feeling.

“It’s true that Klopp helped me a lot in this regard,” he said.

“He told me that a transfer sum has nothing to do with what a player wants or asks for, it’s just a thing between two clubs. I realised he was right and just forgot about the money.”

But at the end of the disappointing 2014-15 campaign, Klopp left the club, and former Mainz 05 manager Thomas Tuchel was appointed as his replacement.

Tuchel is different from Klopp in many respects: preferring to operate with a more laid-back demeanour than his predecessor. But Tuchel is a master tactician and a known disciple of former Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola.

In fact, it came to light a few months ago that Tuchel and Guardiola, despite being in charge of rival clubs at the time, secretly met for lunch last summer and exchanged footballing ideas and philosophies.

Tuchel recognised that Mkhitaryan was a player of exceptional ability and someone upon whom he could rely to orchestrate the attacking moves of his new side.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan Thomas Tuchel BVBIn deploying Mkhitaryan on the right of the front-three in his 4-3-3 formation, Tuchel tasked the right-midfielder to provide width as well as additional defensive cover; this allowed Mkhitaryan the freedom to come in off the touchline and venture into whatever area he decided he could be most effective.

This was particularly evident towards the latter part of last season when Tuchel elected to play Eric Durm, usually a full-back, in the right-midfield slot. Durm’s defensive acumen, coupled with his inclination to hug the touchline when moving forward, allowed Mkhitaryan to effectively set-up shop centrally as a number 10 whenever Dortmund were in possession.

With left-back Marcel Schmelzer encouraged to push up high, and Marco Reus slotting alongside striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Dortmund’s shape morphed into a 3-4-1-2 when they had the ball, with Mkhitaryan directly behind Reus and Aubameyang, providing the pacey forwards with the kind of intricate through-balls that they thrive on.

This switch helped make the Armenian schemer the Bundesliga’s highest assist-provider with 15. Furthermore, Mkhitaryan registered a total of 27 assists in all competitions, as well as scoring 23 goals – an absolutely incredible return for an attacking midfielder.

Tuchel’s decision to take tracking-back duties out of Mkhitaryan’s hands should not be seen as a lack of willingness to work on the player’s part, though. In fact, the 27-year-old is well-adept at defending from the front: only one player has won possession in the final-third more times than Mkhitaryan in the last three Bundesliga seasons.

Mkhitaryan’s realisation of his potential was one of the key driving factors in Dortmund’s recovery from the previous season, finishing runners-up to Guardiola’s Bayern.

The 78 points which BVB accumulated last season would’ve been enough to secure them the Bundesliga title in all but four seasons in the competition’s history.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan BVB Squad 2016Although Tuchel received a lot of credit for Mkhitaryan’s revival, the player himself deserves recognition for his perseverance and ability to adapt to new, complex instructions.

However, the complexity of Tuchel’s instructions would not have been too great a mental challenge for Mkhitaryan, who is, it’s fair to say, a man of above-average intelligence.

Fluent in six languages (including English, which could soon come in very handy) with a degree in economics, the man Dortmund fans affectionately refer to as “Micky”, takes a cerebral approach to the beautiful game.

“I play football like chess,” Mkhitaryan told reporters in a 2013 press-conference. “You have to think a lot and anticipate what could happen after you make your move.”

“If you make a mistake, your opponent can punish and you end up losing the game,” He continued.

“The most dangerous area is the centre, which has to be either attacked or defended in football and it’s the same in chess.”

Given his part in Dortmund’s success last season, it is easy to understand why the club’s hierarchy are reluctant to let Mkhitaryan go.

But the player seems destined for a switch to the Premier League, and BVB’s loss will very much be Manchester United’s gain.

It remains to be seen whether new United manager José Mourinho will make similar tactical allowances to those of Tuchel last season for the former Shakhtar man.

Either way, the Portuguese coach will undoubtedly have a plan in mind for how to get Mkhitaryan to perform at his devastating best at Old Trafford.

With his price-tag-related burden no longer weighing him down, Mkhitaryan is set to wreak havoc on Premier League defences just as he has in the Bundesliga.