Henrikh Mkhitaryan poised for breakthrough season at Dortmund
Borussia Dortmund's campaign started earlier than usual, due to results of the previous season. A seventh place finish in the Bundesliga meant that the Black and Yellows had to enter the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League in order to get the ticket to the group stages. One week before the Bundesliga starts, BVB have made it through to the Europa League play-offs by beating Austria's Wolfsberger AC over two legs (6-0 on aggregate) and then squeezed past 3. Liga side Chemnitzer FC 2-0 in the DFB Pokal on Sunday without breaking a sweat.
This was accomplished mainly due to the efforts of one man: Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian has been the man on form so far for Dortmund by contributing four goals and three assists within the first three official matches. Although it was against feeble opposition, he has already surpassed his scoring record of the previous Bundesliga season, where he only managed to find the net three times in 28 appearances. These are the sort of numbers that epitomize the newly installed hope in Dortmund ahead of the coming season.
A lot was written about the Armenian before the start of the campaign. Entering his third season with Borussia Dortmund, it would be make or break year for the most expensive signing of the club. In 2013 BVB shelled out €27.5 million for Mkhitaryan to replace Mario Gotze, but the attacker could never quite get his incredible talents consistently going on the pitch.
Something always seemed to be a little off for the introverted, sensitive player. His first season in a yellow shirt was acceptable, but not spectacular. Yet, Borussia Dortmund fans were expecting exactly that -- the spectacular. It has been a weight that Mkhitaryan has carried on his shoulders ever since arriving at the club. A weight he only added to by his own perfectionism.
Combined with low-level confidence, it became a poisonous mix for Mkhitaryan, who was always keen to prove his doubters wrong with the very next play. With immense pace, instinct, immaculate technique and finishing prowess, one would assume that Mkhitaryan would have found it easy to win over the Bundesliga by storm. Yet, it was often one trick, one attempt to round another opponent too many for the exuberant midfielder. His actions often died in beauty rather than bearing any fruit, almost drawing pity from his own fans.
It went steeply downhill in his second season. Scoring his first league goal late in February, his own personal crisis was symbolic for Dortmund's demise in the Bundesliga table. Meanwhile Kevin de Bruyne -- the one who got away, after Jose Mourinho vetoed a move from Chelsea to Dortmund in 2013 -- played the season of his career, resulting in the Bundesliga's "player of the season" award. Obviously, comparisons were drawn between the two playmakers and Dortmund fans started to feel hard done by. Without a World Cup in his legs or any kind of injury Mkhitaryan's struggles were harder to explain. By the end of a disappointing season on all levels a departure of the Armenian playmaker was already making headlines in the rumour mill.
It was one of new manager Thomas Tuchel's first decisions with the club that Mkhitaryan would stay put. For now it also seems like his best decision. The season is still young, but the Armenian is finally firing on all cylinders, with the hat trick within 13 minutes against Wolfsberger AC being the standout moment, but the coach regards other criteria to be similarly important.
While scoring three goals in quick succession is doing wonders for a player so dependent on confidence, Tuchel has taken notice that Mkhitaryan also has set up the vital opener in Dortmund's last four matches. But when Tuchel speaks of Mkhitaryan, he also speaks of the player's personality. Mkhitaryan's humbleness, kindness, professionalism and selfless character were praised by the Dortmund coach after the 5-0 win in the Europa League qualification round. For Tuchel, who intends to create an "atmosphere that allows top level performances" within the team, he values Mkhitaryan's soft skills almost as highly as his talents as a footballer.
Obviously former boss Jurgen Klopp also highly regarded his playmaker, but somehow the great motivator could never quite flick the mental switch for Mkhitaryan to excel. Whether Tuchel has found a better way to reach the player is hard to judge from the outside. But it's uncanny that Mkhitaryan has been playing with a lot more confidence throughout the preseason and even more so ever since Dortmund's season started.
BVB's slightly altered playing style with a more patient build-up and focus on a clean and elaborate combination play in the opponent's half is suiting Mkhitaryan -- especially with the full-backs being more involved in the play. Marcel Schmelzer on the left-hand side is pushing higher up the field, forming a triangle with Mkhitaryan and the nearest attacker or holding midfielder. Mkhitaryan now has more options to change his angle and reposition himself with a simple lay-off instead of trying to run head-first through a wall of defenders.
It's still too soon to say whether Mkhitaryan's sudden resurgence will manifest into his desperately desired breakthrough-season at Borussia Dortmund, but the Armenian is certainly off to a good start, being involved in seven of the eight goals scored by the club thus far. Fully unveiling Mkhitaryan's talents will be one of the most important pieces in Tuchel's mosaic. If the coach can achieve that, the Black and Yellows will boast an attack that will trouble any defense in the world.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.