Dortmund - “When I received the ball from Marco Reus, I thought to myself, ‘Right this is it: if I don’t score this, I may as well pack up and go home.’ And when it went in, I said to myself, ‘Why can I score here but not against Real Madrid?’”
Campaign of contrasts
It was a period of four days in April that goes a long way to summing up 's first season in the Bundesliga. Bearing the guilt of missing three good opportunities to take Borussia Dortmund’s UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg to extra time, he recovered to score the opening goal in a 3-0 win away at Bundesliga champions FC Bayern München in the Allianz Arena on Matchday 30.
From agony to ecstasy in a short space of time, the two episodes were the clearest examples of the range of emotions Mkhitaryan has experienced in 2013/14, a season peppered with peaks and troughs for the 25-year-old. There were his debut strikes at Eintracht Frankfurt, a period of eight games between November and January when he wasn’t involved in a single goal, that stunning win in Munich, and finally the
DFB Cup final on May 17, when he was substituted after 60 minutes in an eventual to Bayern after extra time.
The Armenian international admits it is the Madrid game that still haunts him, however. After losing their last eight first leg in the Spanish capital 3-0, a Reus double had Real rocking, but the Spaniards scraped through to the last four with the help of some ill-timed profligacy from Mkhitaryan. “It was an unhappy moment in my life,” he told newspaper welt.de reflectively. “People watching must have thought I was trying to miss, when in fact I was the guy on the pitch who wanted to score most. Sometimes life is like that, though.”
Back on the horse
Despite the pain of that evening, he managed to pick himself back up through a combination of his own will-power and some encouraging words from those around him. “We have a saying in Armenia: Sometimes God lets you fall, so that you learn to appreciate things when they eventually improve”, to which his coach Jürgen Klopp was also able to add some of his wisdom after warmly embracing the Yerevan-born star in the aftermath of the defeat to the eventual 2014 Champions League winners. “He told me to keep my head up and not feel down, that there would be moments like this in my career and that I’d come back stronger for it.”
Indeed, as acute as his disappointment may have been, Mkhitaryan succeeded in regaining his belief that the skills which convinced BVB to sign him in the first place would eventually assert themselves once more. As well as helping the club reach Berlin with a goal in the Cup against VfL Wolfsburg, he also netted three times and assisted once in the final five games of the season to finish with nine goals and ten assists, an impressive record indeed for a player new to the rigours of Germany’s top flight.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mkhitaryan, who joined from Ukrainian side FC Shakhtar Donetsk, readily admits that becoming accustomed to football in Germany has been his most daunting challenge, and one that he is still some way off fully mastering. “The biggest problem I had was that I came from a league which you can’t compare with the Bundesliga. At Shakhtar, matches often panned out the same way: the opposition defended deep, we always had the ball and if we scored first, the game was practically decided. In Germany that’s not how it is. The teams are more evenly matched and even sides in the bottom half can put you under a lot of pressure.
“And then there's our own system that changes, sometimes even during matches,” Mkhitaryan continues. “Sometimes we'll dominate games with possession and aggressive pressing high up the pitch, other times we’ll play on the counter-attack, so I have to be 100 per cent alert all the time. Sometimes I’m able to score or assist goals, sometimes not, but the important thing is that I keep working on improving myself. In life you have to be ready to learn new things every day, and that applies to me especially.”
Mkhitaryan has played a unique role in the Borussia team this season. Recruited as the club’s flagship signing last summer, he was given the unofficial task of replacing Mario Götze, who left the Schwarz-Gelben for Bayern in the same transfer window. That he would fill the void left by perhaps Germany’s most talented player in a generation was never certain, but the 2012/13 Ukrainian league’s top goalscorer speaks positively on how he has fared in doing so.
“I spoke a lot with Jürgen Klopp and my team-mates [about dealing with the expectations], and they all said to me, ‘We know the talent you have and what you can do. All you need to do is free yourself of what people say.’ Right from the first day they gave me the feeling that they trusted in me, and that was a massive help for me when it came to dealing with difficult situations. The togetherness I have with my team-mates has been incredible.”
At home in Dortmund
Looking back on his first season in Dortmund, there is much for Mkhitaryan to ponder over with pride, yet you sense that there will be no resting on his laurels. Reading his comments after the Real Madrid game, the pats on the back he has received from his coach and teammates, the rises and dips in his form in 2013/14 and the touching personal story of how his father’s untimely death inspired him to become a footballer, Mkhitaryan junior would probably agree he is a sensitive character, ruled by his emotions and a desire to constantly prove himself.
In a city, then, “whose unique and unbelievable fans” live and breathe football, in a stadium like the Signal Iduna Park that feeds off emotion unlike anywhere else and under a coach famed for his incredible man-management, he appears to be a perfect fit for Borussia. It is not unrealistic to believe he could render Götze’s name completely forgotten in the seasons to come.