It shouldn’t be a great surprise that Arsenal are being linked with a bid for Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The Armenian is, in many respects, an archetypal Arsene Wenger signing. He’s an elegant, ethereal midfielder with an eye for a pass and a knack for a goal. If the Gunners can convince Borussia Dortmund to let him go, Mkhitaryan would be a perfect fit for Wenger’s midfield.
Arsenal have been linked with the attacking midfielder since back in March. At that stage, David Hytner and Fabrizio Romano of the Guardian reported that Wenger was keeping tabs on Mkhitaryan via scouting and video clips.
The same piece cited Wenger’s interest in Granit Xhaka. With the Swiss midfielder now officially an Arsenal player, could Mkhitaryan follow suit?
It does not sound as if Dortmund are open to a sale. Despite the player refusing to sign a new contract, the German club insist they will hold on to him for the final year of his deal.
Speaking to ESPN (h/t Sky Sports), Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke made plain that they intend to retain Mkhitaryan for a further 12 months:
We have been negotiating a new deal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan for four months.
We now know he won't sign an extension. There was never a promise that he can leave us prematurely.
We have intensely discussed the question of an early transfer in all club bodies and came to the conclusion that Mkhitaryan will stay in Dortmund next season.
Dortmund’s stance might be informed by the fact that they have already lost Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gundogan this summer. To let another star leave would be a hammer blow to their hopes for the 2016/17 campaign.
However, there may also be an element of posturing to Watzke’s statement.
Dortmund stand to lose Mkhitaryan on a free transfer in 12 months' time. If a club were to arrive with a sizeable bid, they’d surely be tempted to cash in while they can.
Wenger might well be moved to test Dortmund’s resistance—especially after Mkhitaryan’s stellar 2015/16 season. Last year was an extraordinarily good one for gifted playmaker. He’s always had grace and guile in his game, but last year he added goals.
It was not always thus. Mkhitaryan was previously far from prolific, generally eschewing the opportunity to shoot and looking for team-mates with a pass instead. In some ways, he was comparable with former Arsenal man Alex Hleb, who was also tremendously talented but seemed to lack a killer instinct.
That changed in 2015/16.
According to WhoScored.com, Mkhitaryan ended the German season with 18 goals in all competitions. The midfielder credits new Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel with helping to inspire that change. In a Bleacher Report exclusive interview, he said:
When Kloppo [Jurgen Klopp] was here, we were playing another kind of football, more counter-attacks, more powerful, more pressing.
When Tuchel came, we started to play a different kind of football. We try to keep the ball more, we try to pass it more and play very offensive football.
In essence, Dortmund started to play a style of football more akin to that deployed by Wenger at Arsenal. If the Gunners sign Mkhitaryan, they are buying a player who thrives in Wenger’s swashbuckling, strategic setup.
Goals are just one facet of Mkhitaryan’s game. What makes him so beautiful to watch—and equally what makes him such an obvious match for Wenger—is the way he combines technical and physical attributes.
Think of Wenger’s greatest sides, and you’re immediately reminded of the way they fused athleticism with aesthetics. Mkhitaryan does that every time he steps onto the field.
One man who knows him better than most is Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. It was Klopp who signed Mkhitaryan for Dortmund in 2013, and in ebook Reading the Game (h/t MailOnline), the German coach said of his former charge:
There is no doubt in my mind that he is one of the most talented players in the world.
He possesses an incredible combination of speed and technique. There’s very, very few you can say that about.
There’s a reason why the world’s best chess players come from Armenia like Mkhitaryan. Yes, other countries product chess players, but Armenia produces far more than could reasonably expect.
They’re thinkers, they’re hard workers, they graft. And if things aren’t working out, then the problem lies with you somewhere—you start to blame yourself.
The chess analogy is an intriguing one. Like Mesut Ozil, Mkhitaryan is capable of seeing several moves ahead in any period of play. He invariably picks the right pass—and unlike Ozil, he has the goalscoring instincts to follow it with a forward run into dangerous areas.
Sharing that level of vision with Ozil has, unsurprisingly, resulted in an excellent assist record for Mkhitaryan. WhoScored.com indicates that he recorded 20 assists for his club last term—that’s even more than the majestic Ozil managed in his outstanding Premier League campaign.
Given their respective achievements, it’s mouthwatering to imagine what Mkhitaryan and Ozil could do in the same team.
If Arsenal were able to get their man, he would surely be brought in to fill one of the three attacking midfield roles behind the centre-forward.
At the back end of last season, those were given to Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Alex Iwobi. The youngster impressed with his maturity and technical level, but he is not yet ready to fill that berth every week. If Arsenal are serious about challenging for the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, they cannot afford to rely on such an inexperienced player.
However, Mkhitaryan could certainly fit the bill. Adding a third world-class talent would significantly improve Arsenal’s attacking threat.
His starting position would most likely be on the right flank, but the beauty of Mkhitaryan is that he has the tactical intelligence and dexterity to interchange positions with the other attacking midfielders with ease.
Last season, the Gunners struggled for goals from midfield. Mkhitaryan is both a goalscorer and provider. What’s more, he’s one of European football’s rising stars. If Arsenal can capture him this summer, they simply must take the opportunity.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2016/17. Follow him on Twitter here.