Mkhitaryan must deliver in 2014-15
Whatever happens to Dortmund this season, Henrikh Mkhitaryan finally has to show his true greatness. There are good reasons why the Armenian midfielder has yet to deliver, but plenty more to explain why he will now.
It's been a year since Mkhitaryan injured himself in a preseason friendly, a moment that still rings with destiny thinking back to his first year with the club. He had just arrived from Shakhtar Donetsk for a record fee of 27.5 million euros to inherit Mario Gotze's No. 10 role. Borussia Dortmund had never paid as much for a single player.
Logically, expectations for Mkhitaryan were huge, and he made a great first impression, seeming to be the player everyone thought he was going to be -- a pacey playmaker with a clinical scoring ability -- until said injury. Mkhitaryan was so eager to score from a narrow position that he tore a ligament.
Though the Armenian superstar ended up missing just one Bundesliga game, the harm had already been done. Missing the majority of preseason as a rookie under Jurgen Klopp can hardly be made up for. Mkhitaryan scored the goal from the narrow angle but lost his mojo in exchange.
From that moment he was playing catchup with his form, waiting for a breakthrough that never quite came. Mkhitaryan showed from time to time that there is pure genius in him, providing glimpses of his talent but never displaying quite enough to justify the high fee Borussia Dortmund paid for him.
The weight of expectations and comparisons to Gotze were one thing, but the undoubtedly intelligent Armenian was his own worst enemy. The self-critical midfielder lost his ease on the pitch. Every BVB fan could feel how Mkhitaryan was often just trying too much to pull himself out of his inconsistency. Dortmund fans were waiting for him to regain his full confidence and finally break through the sound barrier and dazzle the opposition with magic in the shape of football. But that is of course not how it works.
In my view, expectations were sometimes a bit too high. Getting used to Dortmund's playing style is hard enough without an injury plague that meant there was no consistent starting XI for much of the year. That Mkhitaryan wasn't an immediate success (like, say, Shinji Kagawa) also had much to do with the circumstances.
Kagawa was introduced to an already well-functioning team. Mkhitaryan came into a side that had to deal with the absences of Ilkay Gundogan and Gotze at the same time, while injuries changed the structure of the team way too often. One must not forget that Mkhitaryan developed consistently in his defensive duties. After one year he executed Klopp's idea of gegenpressing (the counterpress) better than Gotze ever did. It's something that often goes unseen -- after all, it's not as spectacular as finding the net on a regular basis -- but it's extremely important.
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The final quarter of the season was a step in the right direction for Mkhitaryan. The team stepped up collectively to play the final 10 games in style, with one significant change: Klopp put Marco Reus in center instead of Mkhitaryan, and it worked wonders. The Armenian still could implement his strengths such as pace and take-ons, providing goals and assists while Reus thrived in the middle. It will be interesting to see if Klopp sticks to this arrangement for the coming season.
Either way, this has to be Mkhitaryan's year. Just like Robert Lewandowski, who had his breakthrough in his second season, the same is expected of "Heno." He had a good first year given the circumstances, but now it's time to step up and be a regular difference-maker in this BVB team.
Somehow it feels like that is exactly what is going to happen. Again, it's still early in the preseason, but Mkhitaryan is leaving his mark in friendlies. Great individual goals and assists are all sugar-coated with the magic that the Yerevan-born maestro can produce. Fingers are crossed that another injury won't stand in his way this time.
"Micki," as his teammates call him, seems to be on top of things for the arriving season, with his confidence up. A lot is depending on how well Mkhitaryan will jell with Adrian Ramos and Ciro Immobile, but now he finally has time to properly prepare himself.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.