The cut-back pass that found Reus for Dortmund’s second goal against Porto was Mkhitaryan’s 12th assist of the season, and an impressive 40th time he has directly involved with a Dortmund goal in his last 34 outings. From last year’s preferred scapegoat to a fan favourite in the next season; we discuss the upturn of Henrikh Mkhitaryan under Thomas Tuchel.
Borussia Dortmund bought Mkhitaryan in the summer of 2013 to fill the void left behind by the departure of Mario Gotze. He was immediately handed the number 10 shirt, and had a reasonable first season in it with 9 goals and 10 assists. There were several instances of brilliance like the breath-taking game against Bayern Munich which ended in a 3:0 win at the Allianz Arena, but the performances were never consistent. The talent in him was clearly visible and his work ethics never questioned, but he lacked that decisive presence in the final third which Gotze excelled at. His final passes were often a bit delayed or overhit, the shots miscued and his eye for forward runs never reaching the promised levels. In essence, Mkhitaryan wasn’t the spectacular ‘Gotze’ Dortmund wished for. He never was.
It went further downhill for Mkhitaryan in the second season with his performances mirroring that of the club which was flirting with relegation by the winter. He managed only three goals and four assists in all competition, and his passing accuracy of 73% remains a proof of how much the Armenian regressed through the season. He looked like a broken player, devoid of confidence and newspapers in Germany soon found an excellent scapegoat in him. He was often cited the prime example of Dortmund’s poor transfer policy, with the Die Welt newspaper stating, “At no point the player has justified the high transfer sum that the club paid for him in June 2013.”
But as it says, larger things demand a slight push in the start before it can reach unstoppable momentum. For Mkhitaryan, that required push happened with Thomas Tuchel when he replaced Jurgen Klopp at the helm of Borussia Dortmund. Under Klopp, Dortmund played a counter-attacking football which demanded Mkhitaryan to run head-first at defenders without much support around. Opposed to that, Tuchel’s system relies on a more patient build-up and elaborate combination plays supported by full-backs on either flanks. The presence of Marcel Schmelzer on the left-hand side allows Mkhitaryan to drift inside or form a triangle with the nearest midfielder which creates more options in the final third. Over-crowded opposition half further creates opportunities for unchecked runs behind the defensive line, and Mkhitaryan love doing that.
That was the push Mkhitaryan longed for. He took full advantage of the new system and started gaining momentum with five goals and four assists in the Europa League qualifiers which included a hat-trick within 13 minutes against Wolfsberger AC. The momentum continued into the Bundesliga where he began the season with a brace against Borussia Mönchengladbach and sustained it with three assists and a goal in the next four games. A few good games in succession and suddenly he is creating more chances, making more passes and taking more shots, indicative of his re-found confidence. He now averages 2.7 key passes and 3.1 shots per game. In fact, Mkhitaryan has direct involvement in more goals than any other player in Europe with 18 goals and 22 assists in all competitions.
Recently, Dortmund fans launched a social-media campaign hash-tagged #Miki2020 pleading the season’s hero to extend his contract which ends in 2017. That’s what 2015/16 season had done for the Europe’s most creative player. He is suddenly irreplaceable.