B/R Exclusive: Henrikh Mkhitaryan Talks Contracts, Aubameyang, Fans and More

Lars Pollmann@@LarsPollmannFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2016

Dortmund's Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan reacts during the German first division Bundesliga football match Borussia Dortmund vs Borussia Moenchengladbach in Dortmund, western Germany, on August 15, 2015.  AFP PHOTO / PATRIK STOLLARZ  RESTRICTIONS: DURING MATCH TIME: DFL RULES TO LIMIT THE ONLINE USAGE TO 15 PICTURES PER MATCH AND FORBID IMAGE SEQUENCES TO SIMULATE VIDEO.  == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE == FOR FURTHER QUERIES PLEASE CONTACT DFL DIRECTLY AT + 49 69 650050.        (Photo credit should read PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

The man doesn't need an introduction, but he's too polite not to introduce himself. "Hi, I'm Miki," he said as we shook hands.

We met on a cold and wet Tuesday afternoon, and to protect one of the club's most prized assets, Borussia Dortmund's press officer drove Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan the short distance from the players' facilities to the press container. 

Perhaps it was the unrelenting rain or the gusty wind, but Dortmund's training ground—and the press room in particular—isn't as luxurious as one would perhaps think considering this is a club that was so close to winning a second UEFA Champions League title just over two-and-a-half years ago.

Mkhitaryan himself wasn't a part of the squad that made headlines all over the world with its refreshing playing style under Jurgen Klopp. He came to the club in the summer following the Black and Yellows' heartbreaking loss to German rivals Bayern Munich at Wembley.

Tasked with replacing Mario Gotze, the club's golden child who left for Bayern, of all clubs, Mkhitaryan became Dortmund's record signing.

Fans didn't know a lot about the player their club just signed, but with a €27.5 million transfer fee on his head, a lot was expected from the new No. 10 nonetheless.

Sure, they had seen him play in Signal Iduna Park with Shakhtar Donetsk in the run that led to the Wembley final, but the Armenian didn't exactly distinguish himself in either of the two round-of-16 ties. Having scored 25 goals in his last season in Ukraine, however, hopes were high.

Mkhitaryan's first two years at Dortmund didn't go as planned.
Mkhitaryan's first two years at Dortmund didn't go as planned.THOMAS KIENZLE/Getty Images

It didn't go as planned early in his Dortmund career. The first two years at the Westfalenstadion sure were bumpy, but it'd be harsh to blame him. "I've learned a lot from my mistakes," he said, as if he had done anything wrong.

It always felt like Mkhitaryan was one of those players for whom a big transfer fee isn't as much a confirmation of their quality but a burden—as if he needed to prove he's worth that much money, even though it's not his fault he was so expensive.

With every missed chance—granted, there were a lot of themevery misplaced pass and every dribble that didn't work out, a tiny bit of confidence left the 27-year-old. At some point during the Black and Yellows' freakish 2014/15 campaign, it was all gone.

Dortmund spent the winter break in a direct relegation spot, and Mkhitaryan went the entire first half of the season without a single goal or assist.

"When Kloppo," as he still calls the man now in charge at Anfield, "was here, we were playing another kind of football, more counter-attacks, more powerful, more pressing."

As left-back Marcel Schmelzer recently told Jochen Tittmar of Spox.com, the team's focus during that time was on trying to fight to the last drop. How they played football didn't matter anymore.

It must've been a difficult time for a player of Mkhitaryan's quality, and it's not overly surprising he often seemed to be trying to do too much. He held the ball too long too often because Dortmund's attacking play was static at times. When he got into dangerous areas himself, he seemed to crumble under the pressure of the situation his club seemingly inexplicably found itself in.

DORTMUND, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 16:  Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Borussia Dortmund reacts during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal at Signal Iduna Park on September 16, 2014 in Dortmund, Germany.  (Photo by Boris Streub
Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Once the Black and Yellows started to pick up a few results and slowly but steadily left the back end of the table behind, they also began to play more football, and it showed in the No. 10's performances in particular.

Mkhitaryan was a big part of Dortmund's resurgence in the second half of a campaign that ended up in a DFB-Pokal final appearance and seventh place in the Bundesliga, which meant the Ruhr side would play in Europe this season after all.

After finally getting on the scoresheet in a 3-0 win over local rivals FC Schalke on the last day of February, the Armenia international added two more goals and four assists in the last six league games of the season. It's surely coincidental yet somewhat symbolic Mkhitaryan started to produce the statistical goods after Klopp's announcement in April that he would leave the club at the end of the season.

That the 27-year-old would go into his third season with the club was still far from certain. Thomas Tuchel, the man BVB's decision-makers appointed to succeed Klopp just days after the latter's announcement, made convincing his playmaker to stay a priority.

The two seemed like a perfect match from Day 1.

Mkhitaryan and head coach Thomas Tuchel seem to have bonded very quickly this season.
Mkhitaryan and head coach Thomas Tuchel seem to have bonded very quickly this season.Martin Meissner/Associated Press

Both are considered cerebral types, and Mkhitaryan has credited his coach with helping him in the mental side of football as much as the actual goings-on on the pitch. He told magazine stern in October 2015 that Tuchel taught him to stay calm after mistakes and alert for the next opportunity.

The coaching change has worked wonders for Mkhitaryan, who put his great season so far is down to a combination of reasons. "When Tuchel came, we started to play a different kind of football," he said. "We try to keep the ball more, we try to pass it more and play very offensive football."

Asked specifically why he's playing so much better this year than before, he said: "Because of the changes and because I got a lot of confidence."

Despite attributing his undeniable improvement to changes in his team's playing style, the Armenian doesn't have a special interest in the theoretical aspects of the game: "Tactics are just a part of football because the players are playing. Everything is up to the players and not the tactics. They're just small details that can show you the way to play."

It was almost surprising to hear Mkhitaryan say those words considering the way he plays himself; vision, a great sense of space and timing and intelligent movement are some of his strongest qualities on the pitch.

"You have to learn everyday," he said when asked about the fact he's sometimes considered an intellectual player. "It's always important to read, to know something about this world, so I try to learn, to know, to see what I can learn for myself. Be it from books, TV or the Internet, I try to know what happened in the world."

Learning doesn't only pertain to the real world for the midfielder. "You can learn from every sport and use it in football," he said, adding he watches tennis and basketball regularly.

As an Armenian, Mkhitaryan also knows his chess: "I'm good. I wouldn't say I'm perfect, but I try to do my best to improve and be good."

His performances in the sport he plays for a living this season have been more than just good. He has a legitimate claim to being called Dortmund's player of the campaign so far.

He's scored or assisted 38 goals in 32 appearances across competitions, per Transfermarkt. He hasn't looked back since scoring a hat-trick against overwhelmed Austrian side Wolfsberger in the UEFA Europa League qualifiers back in early August. It's no coincidence his side has only won two of the seven league games in which Mkhitaryan wasn't involved in a goal this season.

The Armenian is one of the truly undroppable players for Tuchel's side, having spent the third-most minutes (2,707) on the pitch across competitions of all Bundesliga outfield players, per stat provider Opta on Twitter.

At the start of the month, he led all players in Europe's top five leagues in assists in all competitions (17), per Goal, something Mkhitaryan seemed unaware of until I mentioned it in our interview. Asked whether assists are as fun as scoring goals yourself, he laughed: "Of course. It makes me proud to make an assist, and I'm very happy when my team-mates can score from my assists. Both of them are very important in football."

Mkhitaryan called playing with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang "a big pleasure."
Mkhitaryan called playing with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang "a big pleasure."Boris Streubel/Getty Images

One of the recipients of Mkhitaryan's assists is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whom the Armenian called "a very good guy." He continued: "It's a big pleasure to play with him. You can understand during just one look what he wants to do. Just give him the ball and he scores a goal."

The big question for the supporters is, of course, how much longer they'll get to enjoy that fruitful partnership. Aubameyang extended his contract until 2020 last summer, but Mkhitaryan has yet to follow suit.

His contract is set to expire in June 2017, which puts him in elite company, seeing as captain Mats Hummels and midfield maestro Ilkay Gundogan also have deals expiring at that point. 

Dortmund would need to sell the players who don't agree to extensions in the summer in order to receive a transfer fee. Chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke made clear to Suddeutsche Zeitung in December 2013 that there won't be a second case like the one of Robert Lewandowski, who joined Bayern for free when his contract expired in the summer of 2014.

Mkhitaryan, of course, didn't flinch. Asked how long he will stay at Dortmund, he said: "I don't know. I can't say."

What he could say, however, was how appreciative he was of the fans' support this year. "Of course I'm very happy [that the fans would like to see him sign a new contract], and I'm happy that they believe in me."

That wasn't always the case during those first two years at the club. He was tolerated, not loved. "I feel very proud, and I'm happy that I could convince them," he told me. "In my third year, I started playing very good football. To make them happy with my goals and my assists is important because football without supporters is nothing. So we do everything to try and make them happy."

Not much would make them more happy than a contract extension, of course.

A lot of fans voice their opinion of Mkhitaryan on Twitter, where they've coined the hashtag "Miki2020."

Mkhitaryan has scored in all four DFB-Pokal games this season.
Mkhitaryan has scored in all four DFB-Pokal games this season.Michael Probst/Associated Press

The man himself has noticed the movement, but he said that, in football, "You can never say 'yes, I want to stay' or 'yes, I want to go,' so we'll just have to wait until the summer and see what'll happen."

Until then, the 27-year-old has the chance to win his first trophy with the club. In the week we spoke, he scored the 3-1 dagger in the victory over VfB Stuttgart in the quarter-finals of the DFB-Pokal, and the resumption of the Europa League is on the horizon too.

After our interview, the press officer-turned-chauffeur told me the attacking midfielder has already won a trophy during his time with the Black and Yellows, the DFL-Supercup. When I jokingly said no one cares about the Supercup, Mkhitaryan laughed. Seems like he agreed.

 

All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated.

Lars Pollmann is a featured columnist writing on Borussia Dortmund. He also writes for YellowWallPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter.