Cologne - After two seasons of patchy form Henrikh Mkhitaryan is showing every sign of making 2015/16 his true breakthrough campaign for Borussia Dortmund.
The 26-year-old Armenian attacking midfielder is blossoming in a new role under new head coach Thomas Tuchel, who has made no secret of his long-time admiration for the club's record signing.
A man reborn
A 4-0 home victory over their fellow Borussians from Mönchengladbach gave Dortmund a rip-roaring start to Bundesliga life under Tuchel. The visiting Foals – Germany's best team over the second half of last season – had no answer to BVB's fulminating forward power and leading the way, with two goals and a relentlessly impressive all-round attacking midfield display, was Mkhitaryan.
Coming on top of a UEFA Europa League qualifying round hat-trick against Austria's Wolfsberger AC and a late strike at Chemnitzer FC in the DFB Cup, that Matchday 1 brace took the Armenia international up to six goals in Dortmund's first four competitive outings – one more than he managed in the entire course of 2014/15.
Star on the rise again
Just as Mkhitaryan's injury-compounded woes seemed to epitomise what was a turbulent ending to Jürgen Klopp's seven-year tenure at the helm in Dortmund, so his early form in the current campaign in many ways symbolises the fresh start under Tuchel. Having even been touted as a possible summer departure, the Yerevan native is instead showing every sign of making his third season in Germany the one that truly starts paying back the club record fee BVB shelled out to prise him away from FC Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013.
Mkhitaryan freely admits the size of that investment has at times proved to be a psychological burden. The new coach, however, “has given me a lot of encouragement right from the off, and boosted my self-confidence.” Tuchel himself revealed to regional broadcaster radio 91.2 that “Even our first conversation was very frank, we quickly established a connection.” All the better, given that he had “always liked the way he plays and his aura out on the pitch.”
New tactical route
Expanding on the theme, Tuchel described Mkhitaryan as having “a certain quality that's both melancholic and creative, which sparked my curiosity.” Above and beyond the evident personal chemistry there has been a concrete tactical switch as well, with the number 10 now operating largely between central midfield and the left flank, rather than the more right-sided role he was often assigned by Klopp.
An overall shift in the team's style also appears to be working to Mkhitaryan's benefit. As he put it himself after netting his Europa League hat-trick inside the space of 15 second-half minutes against Wolfsberg, “We're trying to retain possession for longer, and take a bit of a different approach to opening the game up.”
Reaping the rewards
It is, of course, far too early yet to be drawing comparisons with Klopp's lengthy reign, during which Dortmund returned from mid-table mediocrity to the very top of the German game. For all his settling-in issues, Mkhitaryan's debut season under the iconic coach was far from unsuccessful, as he chipped in with nine goals and the same number of assists to help die Schwarz-Gelben to runners-up spot in the league.
The campaign that followed was a different story altogether and, announcing in mid-April that he would be stepping down come the end of it, Klopp noted that “this club deserves the coach who's a hundred percent right for it.” Mkhitaryan has not been alone in swiftly ascertaining that Tuchel is, indeed, “a very good fit for BVB.”
Meeting of minds
For his part, the 41-year-old tactician views his own role as that of “a service provider,” one of whose basic tenets is that, “I can't win games on my own, but the team can certainly win without me.” Thus far, at any rate, they are doing a vey good job of winning with him – not least the revitalised “model professional” now doing the job traditionally associated with that number 10 shirt.
Mkhitaryan meanwhile is riding the crest of his current form wave in typically philosophical fashion. “You can't expect a lifetime of uninterrupted stability,” he told the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung in a recent interview. “You need to be equipped to deal with the bad times as well. Problems make you stronger.” At the moment, Mkhitaryan is leading by example in putting that credo into practice.