“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
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