“You can call me Micki”

Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan ar­rived in Eng­land with a big rep­u­ta­tion, but Jose Mour­inho never let him off the leash at Old Traf­ford. Now he’s got the chance to turn Ar­se­nal’s for­tunes on their head and write his name in Gun­ners his­tory

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Pho­tog­ra­phy Will Cornileus Words Ben Welch

Ar­me­nia’s best-known ex­port tells FFT he aims to write his name into Ar­se­nal’s his­tory

A bright blue sky, so clear and invit­ing it looks like the work of a mas­ter pain­ter, stretches up to in­fin­ity from the north Lon­don hori­zon. The glo­ri­ous sun­shine masks the bit­ing cold at The Hive, home of Barnet. Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan walks into a con­fer­ence room while breath­ing some warm air into his cupped hands. Ar­se­nal’s lat­est mid­field mae­stro needs to thaw out, af­ter spend­ing half an hour fir­ing free-kicks into the net on a neigh­bour­ing Sun­day League pitch. Of­fered a chain-store cup of cof­fee with his name scrib­bled on it, he quickly no­tices the barista has spelt his name in­cor­rectly, and a smirk breaks across his face as he slowly shakes his head. “This hap­pened to me a lot in Manch­ester,” he tells FFT with a chuckle. “Now I just say my name is Micki.”

Mkhi­taryan speaks with­out mal­ice – even the tele­vi­sual prodi­gies of Child Ge­nius would think twice be­fore spell­ing the Ar­me­nian’s name – but the un­der­tone of his wise­crack is clear: de­spite flashes of magic, he was never able to fully make a name for him­self at Old Traf­ford.

In Jan­uary, af­ter 18 months of hokey cokey in and out of the United first team, Hen­rikh was happy to swap Jose Mour­inho’s prag­ma­tists for Arsene Wenger’s gung-ho Gun­ners.

“When I heard I could swap Manch­ester United for Ar­se­nal, I said, ‘Yes, I want to do that’, I didn’t think twice,” he re­veals. “It’s im­por­tant for me to play in an of­fen­sive team.”

But if the Emi­rates Sta­dium was meant to be a brave new world, he has found him­self try­ing to sur­vive the de­cline and fall of the Wenger em­pire, with a rag­ing fan­base and mer­ci­less press pack tear­ing down the fi­nal bricks of Arsene’s crum­bling ci­tadel.

Mkhi­taryan has played through the cri­sis, ab­sorb­ing all the crit­i­cism and fight­ing back with as­sists and goals – most sig­nif­i­cantly against Milan at the San Siro, when he scored the opener in a 2-0 win.

“I’m very de­mand­ing of my­self and I wouldn’t be where I am to­day if I stopped ev­ery time I went through a dif­fi­cult pe­riod,” he says with stony-faced de­fi­ance. “Ev­ery player and ev­ery club has ups and downs. It’s not a foot­ball life with­out them.”

Hen­rikh’s foot­ball life has cer­tainly been an un­ortho­dox one, tak­ing in Ar­me­nia, France, Brazil, Ukraine and Ger­many on his way to north Lon­don. This cul­tural tour has shaped a play­mak­ing hy­brid who knows how to adapt to sur­vive.

“When I wasn’t play­ing at Manch­ester United I was just wait­ing for my next op­por­tu­nity, be­cause I knew that one day it would come,” he says. And it has. He puts down his cof­fee and pre­pares to tell FFT why he’s ready to take it.

AR­ME­NIA TO DORT­MUND... VIA SAO PAULO

Mkhi­taryan’s foot­ball ed­u­ca­tion be­gan at home. His fa­ther, Ham­let, was a striker in the old Soviet Higher League be­fore mov­ing to ASOA Va­lence in France’s second divi­sion. How­ever, young Hen­rikh’s ca­reer was not pre­or­dained.

“My fa­ther never pushed me to be­come a foot­ball player,” says the 29-year-old. “He said that the most im­por­tant thing was to be a good man rather that what I was go­ing to do as a job.”

This ap­proach awoke Mkhi­taryan’s in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion and taught him a valu­able les­son: al­ways bet on your­self.

“See­ing my fa­ther play in­spired me to be­come a foot­baller, so it’s be­cause of him that I am where I am,” he ex­plains, be­fore quickly adding “but I have also had a big in­flu­ence on my ca­reer – I trusted my­self to be­come a great player, I had the drive to get here and I’m very happy for that.”

Alas, Ham­let would never see his son’s suc­cess. When Hen­rikh was only six years old, his fa­ther was di­ag­nosed with a brain tu­mour, and within a year he had passed away. He was 33.

That didn’t stop Mkhi­taryan from study­ing his old man. He watched video­tapes of him scor­ing goals in France, log­ging all his move­ments, fin­ishes and link-up play.

“We can­not com­pare the foot­ball of the 1990s to the mod­ern game be­cause foot­ball is a lot faster now, but of course I learned some­thing from watch­ing those tapes – they in­spired me,” he re­veals. “It wasn’t un­til af­ter my fa­ther died that I re­alised what a hero he was to me – he was a great player and a great per­son.”

Des­per­ate to em­u­late his dad, Mkhi­taryan im­mersed him­self in the game – tak­ing a holis­tic ap­proach to hon­ing his skills. If he wasn’t on the train­ing pitch, his head was buried in a foot­ball book or he was in front of the TV, feast­ing on the artistry of his favourite play­ers.

“I was a big fan of Roberto Bag­gio and then Thierry Henry, Zine­dine Zi­dane, Ronald­inho and Kaka,” he ad­mits, smil­ing as he re­mem­bers their high­lights reels. “Zi­dane was an artist, mak­ing the hard­est things look sim­ple, and Ronald­inho – he just danced with the ball. I en­joyed the way they treated the ball and helped their team-mates by tak­ing charge of the side in dif­fi­cult mo­ments.”

Mkhi­taryan was en­cour­aged by both his mother and his sis­ter, who fol­lowed Ham­let’s ethos by chal­leng­ing him and trust­ing him to take re­spon­si­bil­ity. Even if that meant send­ing him to Brazil for four months when he was 13 years old.

His club in Ar­me­nia, Pyu­nik, had set up a player-ex­change scheme with Sao Paulo and, chap­er­oned by a coach, he and three team-mates trav­elled 7,500 miles to learn joga bonito.

Chang­ing con­ti­nents to learn a new lan­guage, a new culture, a new game and a new way of life would test a sea­soned vet­eran. But young Mkhi­taryan prac­tised Por­tuguese for a cou­ple of months be­fore­hand and re­fused to give in to home­sick­ness.

“It was hard,” he says. “I was far away from home, far away from my fam­ily, but I tried not think about it. If you want to be a foot­baller, you have to han­dle it.”

Any strain was eased by the sheer joy he was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing in Brazil – foot­ball’s spir­i­tual home, where the will to win is welded to a de­sire to play with style. “It was re­ally in­ter­est­ing com­par­ing the Ar­me­nian

foot­ball culture to the Brazil­ian foot­ball culture – it’s so dif­fer­ent,” he says. “Some days the coach would say, ‘To­day you can only use your left foot or only your right’ or ‘To­day we just do shoot­ing or drib­bling.’

“I learned so much from my team-mates who were more skil­ful than me. I be­came good friends with Her­nanes, who played for Lazio, In­ter and Ju­ven­tus. He was equally good with both feet and did in­cred­i­ble things with the ball. I would say, ‘How the hell can you do that?’ But then I would say to my­self, ‘Ac­tu­ally, I can do that too’, and I’d go off and prac­tise for hours.”

His game was not the only as­pect of life he was en­rich­ing. Hen­rikh was grow­ing as a per­son and as a man – the ob­jec­tive his fa­ther had set him. “I learned a lot from Brazil,” he says. “I was go­ing to school and study­ing a new lan­guage. I didn’t see a dif­fer­ence straight away, but year by year I could feel my­self grow­ing.”

Mkhi­taryan’s Sao Paulo so­journ set him on a path to glory. He re­turned to Yere­van a much bet­ter player, with a taste of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that awaited some­one ded­i­cated and tal­ented enough to grad­u­ate from the Ar­me­nian leagues.

Armed with his newly ac­quired Samba skills, he made light work of the Ar­me­nian top tier. By 2006, aged 17, he had played for Pyu­nik’s first team and won the league ti­tle.

Three con­sec­u­tive crowns fol­lowed, with Mkhi­taryan scor­ing 30 goals in 70 ap­pear­ances from a mid­field role – more than enough for him to gain his first Ar­me­nia cap in a 2007 friendly against Panama. He was now on the in­ter­na­tional stage, and would soon be glo­be­trot­ting once again.

“YOUR NAME’S TOO LONG, WE’LL CALL YOU MICKI...”

The Ukrainian Premier League has long been seen as a shop win­dow for clubs from Europe’s ma­jor leagues. Play­ers ar­rive from Africa and South Amer­ica hop­ing to spring­board west. It’s less of a long haul from Ar­me­nia – 850 miles or so up the east­ern coast of the Black Sea – but it’s still some­thing of a leap for a 21-year-old.

But Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan wasn’t your av­er­age 21-year-old. Me­talurh Donetsk made him cap­tain – the youngest skip­per in the club’s his­tory – yet he was soon spir­ited across the city to their il­lus­tri­ous ri­vals, and Cham­pi­ons League reg­u­lars, Shakhtar.

Mkhi­taryan joined a team who played to a dis­tinc­tive Brazil­ian beat, with Dou­glas Costa, Wil­lian, Fer­nand­inho and Luiz Adri­ano wel­com­ing him into their clique. The rhythm learned in Sao Paulo came flood­ing back to the schemer’s feet.

Shakhtar boss Mircea Lucescu, ac­knowl­edg­ing the ev­i­dent chem­istry be­tween his South Amer­i­can con­tin­gent and their adopted Ar­me­nian, de­ployed Mkhi­taryan just be­hind the front­men in a 4-2-4 for­ma­tion, and reaped the re­wards.

Mkhi­taryan picked up the 2012 Ukrainian Player of the Year tro­phy and fol­lowed that by scor­ing 25 goals in 2012-13, the best to­tal in the league’s 20-year his­tory. In three sea­sons at Shakhtar, he won three con­sec­u­tive dou­bles and the Ukrainian Su­per Cup.

Typ­i­cally, Mkhi­taryan plays down his own con­tri­bu­tion and pro­motes his col­leagues. “The team played very of­fen­sively so it was very easy to play along­side them [the Brazil­ians] and un­der­stand the way they play.” he ex­plains. “The only thing I needed to do was get in the right po­si­tion at the right time and put the ball in the net.”

He did, and Europe’s elite took no­tice. Borus­sia Dort­mund, who had just fin­ished run­ners-up to Bay­ern Mu­nich in both the Bun­desliga and Cham­pi­ons League, shelled out €27.5 mil­lion – a sub­stan­tial amount for a player who was still rel­a­tively un­known. It was time for Hen­rikh to prove him­self again, but this time it would be tougher.

Billed as a re­place­ment for de­part­ing hero Mario Götze, Mkhi­taryan strug­gled ini­tially at the West­falen­sta­dion, al­most as much as Ger­man peo­ple did with his name. “You ac­tu­ally pro­nounce my name ‘Mack-hit-taryan’,” he tells FFT. “The Ger­mans couldn’t say it, so Jur­gen Klopp [left] told me, ‘Your name is too long, let’s call you Micki.’ I replied, ‘OK, no prob­lem.’ “It was hard for me in the be­gin­ning be­cause I didn’t know the culture and didn’t un­der­stand the lan­guage. It was very dif­fer­ent from any­where else I had been, but I man­aged to learn the lan­guage on my own, which was very im­por­tant to the Ger­man peo­ple.”

No longer a prospect, Mkhi­taryan was ex­pected to be a star, and even he be­gan to ques­tion the size of fee he had com­manded. “At the time €27.5 mil­lion was too much money and every­one kept say­ing, ‘We’ve paid a lot of money for him’,” he ex­plains.

SWAP­PING MAN UNITED FOR AR­SE­NAL? I DIDN’T THINK TWICE. IT’S IM­POR­TANT FOR ME TO PLAY In An OF­FEN­SIVE TEAM

“I put a lot of pres­sure on my­self, but re­alised that wasn’t the best way. I had to for­get about the num­bers: I didn’t de­cide the price tag, the clubs did, so I had to fo­cus on the foot­ball.” It took time. His first two sea­sons were un­der­whelm­ing, es­pe­cially the second, when he suf­fered in­juries. For the first time in his ca­reer, he couldn’t re­solve a prob­lem on his own. He needed help. It came ahead of the 2015-16 cam­paign, when a change of coach re­stored his shat­tered con­fi­dence. “Un­der Jur­gen Klopp I played good foot­ball, but my second year was dif­fi­cult be­cause the team strug­gled as well,” says Mkhi­taryan. “Thomas Tuchel came in and gave me the same con­fi­dence I had at the be­gin­ning with Klopp. He con­vinced me to be­lieve in my­self and my strengths. Thanks to him, I pro­gressed to the next level of my foot­ball ca­reer.” That next level saw Mkhi­taryan lead the Bun­desliga in as­sists, with 15, and scoop the league’s Play­ers’ Player of the Sea­son award. Aged 27 and at the peak of his pow­ers, Hen­rikh had proved him­self in one of Europe’s top leagues. It was time to switch to the big­gest of them all. “It was my dream to play in the Premier League,” he ad­mits. “I knew it was a very dif­fi­cult league, but I was ready. I had risked ev­ery­thing in Ukraine and Ger­many, so wanted a new chal­lenge.” Manch­ester United boss Jose Mour­inho, over­haul­ing an unim­pres­sive ros­ter at Old Traf­ford, re­quired a play­maker to crack “teams with a very de­fen­sive pro­file”. Mkhi­taryan was iden­ti­fied, scouted and bought for £26.3 mil­lion in July 2016, arm­ing Jose with “a real team player with great skill and vi­sion, who also has a good eye for goal. I be­lieve he’ll make an im­pact on the team very quickly, as his style of play is suited to the Premier League.” In the event, it seemed it was Mour­inho’s team who had a very de­fen­sive pro­file and Mkhi­taryan stag­nated on the pe­riph­ery. His new man­ager wanted him to balance his cre­ative ten­den­cies with de­struc­tive du­ties – track­ing, har­ry­ing and snap­ping away at op­po­nents. But try as he might, Mkhi­taryan was not wired for this type of work and Mour­inho ac­cused him of “dis­ap­pear­ing” dur­ing sev­eral matches. While he pro­duced bursts of bril­liance dur­ing his 18-month spell at Old Traf­ford, play­ing a key role in the Red Devils’ 2017 Europa League tri­umph by scor­ing four of the team’s nine goals in their last seven knock­out games, Mkhi­taryan never earned his man­ager’s trust.

“It was dif­fi­cult at the be­gin­ning,” he re­flects. “But then I set­tled and gave some good per­for­mances, and when I wasn’t picked or play­ing well, I never com­plained or gave ex­cuses. It’s part of life.”

Hen­rikh’s de­fi­ant words can’t quite hide his disappointment. There’s a vul­ner­a­bil­ity in his voice that be­trays his true feel­ings: fail­ing to make the de­sired im­pact at Old Traf­ford hurt him. Whether he was un­able to adapt or Mour­inho couldn’t find the ap­pro­pri­ate words or sys­tem to gal­vanise the Ar­me­nian, he was lost and needed a way out.

Mean­while, in north Lon­don, frus­trated Chilean Alexis Sanchez was search­ing for an Emi­rates exit strat­egy. The so­lu­tion was ob­vi­ous and Mkhi­taryan’s agent, Mino Raiola, seized upon it, bro­ker­ing a swap deal at the be­gin­ning of the year.

This time the play­maker’s post-trans­fer test was slightly dif­fer­ent – prov­ing him­self in a league he’d al­ready been in.

“I WANT TO WRITE MY NAME INTO AR­SE­NAL’S HIS­TORY”

As talk turns to his ar­rival in N5, Mkhi­taryan sits up in his seat, looks di­rectly at FFT and speaks with re­newed purpose. He’s no longer just an­swer­ing ques­tions, he’s de­liv­er­ing a mis­sion state­ment.

And he wants to make it very clear that he was not sim­ply a clause in a trans­fer in­volv­ing an­other player.

“Every­one needs to un­der­stand that I wasn’t just part of a deal for Alexis Sanchez,” he stresses. “If I hadn’t cho­sen to come to Ar­se­nal, he would still be here un­til the sum­mer. His con­tract was run­ning out and ev­ery­thing was up to me.”

The deal was a straight swap, but Ar­se­nal were keen to re­cruit the Ar­me­nian re­gard­less of the Chilean’s move­ments.

“I joined Ar­se­nal be­cause Arsene Wenger wanted me, not be­cause he wanted to re­place Sanchez. We are dif­fer­ent play­ers and dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, with dif­fer­ent abil­i­ties and skills, so I will try my best to do ev­ery­thing for the club.”

On the sur­face, it looked as though Manch­ester United were get­ting the bet­ter deal: Mour­inho was ac­quir­ing Ar­se­nal’s dy­namic tal­is­man, while Wenger was be­ing sent an ap­par­ent Old Traf­ford out­cast, al­beit a very tal­ented one.

Re­vi­talised by his fresh sur­round­ings, Mkhi­taryan set about bury­ing that mis­con­cep­tion. On his home de­but, the skills he’d show­cased at Dort­mund came to the fore, with his de­fence-shred­ding vi­sion and dev­as­tat­ing turn of pace help­ing him to reg­is­ter three as­sists in a 5-1 de­mo­li­tion of Ever­ton.

“I couldn’t have imag­ined a bet­ter start,” he gushes. “I had missed play­ing of­fen­sively, it’s very im­por­tant for me. I’m happy that I could as­sist [Pierre-em­er­ick] Aubameyang again and could find our old con­nec­tion.”

And that was an­other way he en­deared him­self to his new ad­mir­ers – set­ting up Ar­se­nal’s record sign­ing Aubameyang, who also ar­rived in Jan­uary for £56m. They formed a dev­as­tat­ing dou­ble act at Dort­mund, with Mkhi­taryan’s pass­ing pick­ing out Aubameyang’s high-speed runs. In 2015-16, they pro­duced 36 goals and 20 as­sists be­tween them in the Bun­desliga alone.

Mkhi­taryan was ea­ger to rekin­dle this con­nec­tion, so he got straight on the phone and planted a seed in the mind of BVB’S want­away striker.

He ex­plains: “We were tex­ting and he said, ‘What’s your sit­u­a­tion?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but there’s in­ter­est from Ar­se­nal.’ I asked him the same ques­tion and he replied, ‘I want to leave, but I don’t know where to go.’

“When I was trans­ferred to Ar­se­nal, I said, ‘The first step is done, so now it’s your turn’. He said, ‘I will try my best to join you’ and fi­nally we’re to­gether again.”

Con­vinc­ing vic­to­ries against Ever­ton and Wat­ford aside, the re­union hasn’t been filled with as many goal-cel­e­bra­tion hugs as they would have hoped. Ar­se­nal’s chances of qual­i­fy­ing for the Cham­pi­ons League next sea­son have di­min­ished as the top four dis­ap­pear into the dis­tance. Their best bet of par­tic­i­pat­ing in Europe’s premier club com­pe­ti­tion next term is to lift the Europa League this sea­son, hav­ing reached the last eight af­ter a com­pre­hen­sive 5-1 ag­gre­gate win over Ital­ian gi­ants Milan.

A hu­mil­i­at­ing 3-0 loss to Manch­ester City in the League Cup fi­nal left Gary Neville cas­ti­gat­ing their calami­tous rear­guard, and ques­tion­ing the sign­ing of Mkhi­taryan over more de­fen­sive play­ers.

Neville’s right and wrong in equal mea­sure. The Gun­ners have got to strengthen their mid­field and de­fence but, as the pun­dit pointed out, they are no longer even play­ing the high-speed, in­ci­sive foot­ball that is also Mkhi­taryan’s trade­mark.

What the Ar­me­nian needs is a jolt like the one pro­vided by Tuchel at Dort­mund. Whether or not the eter­nally un­der-siege Wenger is the man to pro­vide it re­mains to be seen, but re­gard­less, Mkhi­taryan is op­ti­mistic about his own fu­ture.

“Whether you’re play­ing well or play­ing badly, you will get crit­i­cised – it’s nor­mal,” he says. “It’s im­por­tant to not pay at­ten­tion to it, as you can al­ways find a dog bark­ing. You have to see pos­i­tives in ev­ery­thing. “Hap­pi­ness is in here,” adds the play­maker, pat­ting his chest. Even his fam­ily have been weigh­ing in on Ar­se­nal’s strug­gles. “Yes, every­one has got an opin­ion,” he chuck­les. “My mother works for the Ar­me­nian FA and my sis­ter for UEFA, so they like try­ing to tell me how I should be play­ing.”

But, as his fa­ther told him, foot­ball is not ev­ery­thing. “Ev­ery day, you have to learn. It doesn’t mat­ter whether it’s on the pitch, off the pitch or in life, you have to study some­thing new. It’s im­por­tant not just to progress as a player, but as a per­son as well.”

Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan is a fighter and Ar­se­nal’s woe weighs heav­ily on his shoul­ders, but given the ex­pe­ri­ences he’s en­dured on and off the pitch, he has the char­ac­ter to cope and is des­per­ate to leave his mark.

“I want to write my name into Ar­se­nal’s his­tory and have my name as a leg­end here,” he in­sists. “I want to score goals, make as­sists and win tro­phies to make the fans happy.”

Achieve that, and he will def­i­nitely etch his name into the Ar­se­nal his­tory books – even spelt cor­rectly this time.

Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan wears adi­das Preda­tor 18+ Deadly Strike, de­signed for ul­ti­mate con­trol. For more info, head to www.adi­das.com/preda­tor

MY MOTHER WORKS FOR THE AR­ME­NIAN FA AND MY SIS­TER FOR UEFA, SO THEY LIKE TRY­ING TO TELL ME HOW I SHOULD BE PLAY­ING

Clock­wise from above Hen­rikh made his name at Shakhtar, scor­ing 25 league goals in 2012-13; he played a vi­tal role as Manch­ester United won the Europa League last sea­son; net­ting his fi­nal Premier League goal for the club against Ever­ton; Micki and Aubameyang formed a deadly duo in Dort­mund, and are now re­united at the Emi­rates

Clock­wise from be­low

right While he did en­joy sev­eral stel­lar mo­ments at United, Hen­rikh never quite fit­ted the bill for his boss Jose Mour­inho; the mid­fielder has seized his second chance to shine in Eng­land as a Gun­ner, mark­ing his home de­but by set­ting up a cou­ple of goals for Aaron Ram­sey

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