Liverpool's transfer plans for the summer have already kicked into gear with two signings reported to be close, which would boost the squad in general, and the latest rumour surrounds a top-class attacking midfielder who would be an option to go straight into the first-team.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Shakhtar Donetsk is reported by the Guardian's Andy Hunter to be a prime target of Liverpool's, with manager Brendan Rodgers keen to land the Armenian international regardless of current Reds forward Luis Suarez staying or leaving. That would follow up on the confirmation of Kolo Toure being ready to join, as per the official club site, and talk of Iago Aspas being ready to sign as well, as reported by the likes of Mirror Football.
With a potential transfer fee of around £22 million, Mkhitaryan would be a major signing for the summer for Liverpool, meaning there must already be plans in place to fit him seamlessly into the team.
Who is Henrikh Mkhitaryan?
First things first; fans who do not regularly watch domestic competition outside of the Premier League may not even be familiar with him. Mkhitaryan is an attacking midfielder who plays for Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukrainian top flight; he featured in the Champions League with his team this season, exiting at the Round of 16 stage to eventual runners-up Borussia Dortmund.
Domestically, his side romped home with the league title, winning by 13 points and losing only one game all season long.
An Armenian international with 37 caps to his name, Mkhitaryan has amassed considerable experience despite being only 24 years old. He has spent two-and-a-half seasons with Shakhtar, having played for rivals Metalurg Donetsk beforehand. To date, Mkhitaryan has played in 25 UEFA Champions League fixtures.
His Role in the Team and Major Strengths
As mentioned, Mkhitaryan is an attacking midfielder. His primary position is very much in the centre of the pitch rather than on the flanks; he plays the No. 10 role for Shakhtar, operating from an advanced position with licence to get forward further in support of the striker.
He has also featured in a more orthodox central midfield role at times and can also be deployed as a withdrawn second forward if the tactical need arises. Though he is generally considered a central player, Mkhitaryan's movement and ability to read the game are high on his list of strengths and as such he frequently manoeuvres himself into the channels or wide areas to support play.
There is every confidence that he would perform well in a wide-forward's role, operating as an option to come infield and join in the attack rather than as an out-and-out wing option.
Mkhitaryan's work-rate is also commendable; he covers great distances during matches thanks to his stamina and willingness to track back and help out his midfield. He does not neglect his defensive duties as a trequartista might, rather he is fully capable of dropping back and becoming a third central player.
Chief among his talents is his ability to get into the opposition penalty box and be a real threat on goal.
Mkhitaryan indeed top-scored in the Ukrainian championship this season, scoring an impressive 25 goals in 29 matches, taking his top-flight record overall to 50 in 109 games. He also added a further two strikes in the Champions League, against Nordsjaelland.
Where Could Liverpool Best Utilise Mkhitaryan?
Were they to press ahead with signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Liverpool would be bringing to the club one of the foremost attacking midfielders in Europe, certainly one of the best not already at a top-three club in Europe's top five leagues.
In terms of where he could play for Liverpool, there immediately appear to be two options open to manager Brendan Rodgers.
The most obvious one would see him continue in the same role as he operates in currently, that is to say as the most advanced central midfielder.
Liverpool started the season playing a structured 4-3-3 formation, which gradually altered as the season wore on and certain players nailed down their starting positions without quite fitting perfectly into Rodgers' desired tactical blueprint. Mkhitaryan coming into this central role would immediately address the balance in the middle and final thirds, with his ability to cover ground going back and forwards as needed.
In turn, this would push Philippe Coutinho wider into the left-sided forward's role. Having initially made his first few appearances for Liverpool from this position, the Brazilian came infield later in the season to good effect after Luis Suarez was lost to suspension.
Coutinho has already shown enough to suggest he could be a massive asset next season, and giving him ample licence to roam infield from the left would give Liverpool a real creative edge in attack, freeing him of defensive responsibility which would be delegated to Mkhitaryan; physically and perhaps tactically, the Armenian is more suited to it.
Again as a knock-on effect, this would require Liverpool to have a powerful, progressive and reliable attacking left-back who could open up the space which Coutinho vacates.
With regards to Suarez, he has been one of those players who doesn't quite fit into any of the standard roles in a 4-3-3, though his ability dictates he must start in some capacity when available. Given a free role from the right, he would be a great danger to opposition defences as always when in possession, though it might require a more safety-first defender on the right as Suarez rarely pins himself down to one position.
Whereas Coutinho might drift infield in attack but move back into position on the left, Suarez is much more likely to hang around in a centre-forward's position after an attack breaks down, or else spend the build-up in a trequartista position, meaning defensive awareness is paramount on the Reds' right-flank in this case.
Again it could be that Mkhitaryan's awareness and selflessness makes him the perfect foil to a roaming Suarez—though that question might well be moot if the Uruguayan does not start the new season at Anfield, as is reported likely by such media outlets as The Telegraph.
The alternative for Rodgers would be to leave Coutinho central, and utilize Mkhitaryan from the right of the attack as a midfielder-turned-forward.
It might need a period of adjustment for the team to come to grips with, but Mkhitaryan is certainly capable of performing in the role; the bigger question is whether Liverpool would get more out of him playing right and Coutinho central, or Coutinho left and Mkhitaryan in the middle. Certainly both would excel there for the Reds, and there is even every chance that they could dovetail nicely left-to-centre within games and depending on the opposition lineup.
Whether he operates through the middle, in an actual forward's role or from one of the flanks, Liverpool would be adding a player to their team with immense talent and goalscoring ability, and even at £20 million or so they would be adding quality to the side with potential to improve yet further, and provide a handsome payoff further down the line.
If Rodgers and his transfer committee can pull off this signing, they might well have gotten themselves a deal to rival that of bringing Suarez himself to Liverpool in 2011.