Football is a sport full of fascinating stories of sons who follow in the footsteps of famous fathers. For some, such as Jordi Cruyff, son of Johan, the burden of the family name is too much. Others, like Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara, son of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho, relish the pressure. Perhaps the greatest father and son pair ever to have played the game are the Maldinis, Cesare and Paolo. Far less heralded he may be, but Borussia Dortmund’s new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan may yet prove one of the best players to follow in his father’s footsteps into the game.
Born in 1989 in Yerevan, into a country of Armenians, in common with the rest of Eastern Europe increasingly expressing their desire to leave the fast crumbling Soviet Union, Mkhitaryan’s father Hamlet played for Ararat Yerevan and was one of the stars of Armenian football in the 1980s before moving to play for Valence in France. Tragically, he died from a brain tumour at the age of just 33, but his football legacy lives on in the shape of his son Henrikh. Part of a family steeped in football, Mkhitaryan’s mother heads up national team operations for the Armenian Football Association and his sister is a translator working for UEFA.
The gifted playmaker was seemingly destined to play the game from the moment he arrived in the world, and started his career with local side Pyunik Yerevan, establishing himself in the first team quickly and equally as rapidly he made an impact in Armenia’s youth teams. Mkhitaryan played for the country’s Under-17s, Under-19s and Under-21s before making his senior debut at the age of just 18 in 2007. It was clear back then that Mkhitaryan was destined for greatness, according to Vardan Minasyan, his coach at Pyunik Yerevan, who explained that the midfielder “can win games on his own. He seizes control at the crucial moment and scores for fun."
By the time he was 20, four Armenian league titles had already been won, and interest was coming from other European sides, including Lyon, Lille and Lokomotiv Moscow. Even Argentina’s Boca Juniors wanted to hoover up the young Mkhitaryan. Eventually he joined Metalurg Donetsk in the Ukraine, before moving across the city to Shakhtar Donetsk a year later after netting 12 goals. He was even made Metalurg Donetsk’s youngest ever captain before switching to the Miners.
At Shakhtar Donetsk, Mkhitaryan became vital to Mircea Lucescu’s free-flowing side, who have been renowned for developing equally talented Brazilians from South America, such as Willian, Fernandinho and Alex Teixeira. Alongside them he was arguably the star of the team as they enjoyed a superb start to 2012/13, winning the first 15 games of the Ukrainian league season and impressing in a Champions League group containing Serie A champions Juventus and then-holders Chelsea. If Luiz Adriano and Willian provided the goals, Fernandinho the lung-busting forward runs and Teixeira the skill from out wide, Mkhitaryan was the brains of the team, although he was still extremely prolific.
Replacing Jadson, who returned to Brazil, as the attacking midfield spearhead, the Armenian schemer had scored 16 times in his first 14 games of the season, smashing his tally from last year and finished the campaign with 25, a Ukrainian record. That reflects the fact that unlike some playmakers, who prefer to play the final pass but lack a killer instinct in front of goal, Mkhitaryan is deadly when given a chance to score. And where most playmakers prefer naturally to pick the ball up in deep positions, Mkhitaryan has a desire to get beyond the last defender as well.
He may possess an eye for goal, but superb vision and fluent passing characterise all he is about. Two-footed, calm and capable of unlocking a tight defence, he is an ideal modern playmaker, with a selfless instinct and fierce determination. It also means that he will give Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp an option to use him as a ‘false nine’ should he choose, as Mkhitaryan has the attributes required to play that role. The idea of him linking up with another skilful and creative midfielder in Marco Reus, and supplying the ammunition for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Robert Lewandowski, would give Dortmund a potent threat going forward next season. Able to speak five languages already, including Portuguese, French and English, his confidence and intelligence mean he should be able to adapt well.
Mkhitaryan is also blessed with humility and team ethic, perhaps surprisingly so for such a talented playmaker. Typifying that mentality, he once squared the ball when perfectly placed in front of goal in the final game of a season so that a team-mate could finish as the league’s top scorer.
Already the greatest player in Armenian football history, Mkhitaryan has the world at his feet. He grew up an Arsenal fan and dreamt of being coached by Arsene Wenger, but in Klopp he should find a manager who is sympathetic to the way he likes to play the game. Mkhitaryan says the reason he likes Arsenal is because of their speed, willingness to attack and giving young players a chance. With Klopp firmly developing those principles in his Dortmund reign, Mkhitaryan may find it an ideal place to burgeon in the years ahead.
The young Armenian was persistently chased by Liverpool this summer and indeed looked set to land at Anfield. Mkhitaryan was seen as the man to set the tempo for Brendan Rodgers’ team from an advanced midfield position and in so doing assume the role which has been the preserve of Steven Gerrard for the best part of the last decade. Now though he is in the Bundesliga and must turn his talent to helping Dortmund claw back the large gap Bayern Munich opened up over their fierce rivals last season; Mkhitaryan has the talent to make a real difference to Klopp’s men. And by the end of 2013/14, Liverpool may rue the day they let the Armenian slip through their fingers.
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