With the Henrikh Mkhitaryan transfer saga finally over, many of the recent discussions have been about what Liverpool have missed and Dortmund have gained. However the other side of the story needs to be explored — whether Dortmund could have signed a better replacement for Bayern Munich’s Mario Götze than Mkhitaryan.
Former Ukrainian footballer Volodymyr Lyutyi recently claimed that Mkhitaryan “equals” Götze and may even surpass the German prodigy because he can score as well. In fact, it is very plausible that he surpasses Götze in terms of key technical ability. The Armenian international’s finish is simply flawless, and it is something that Götze lacks. Moreover, he is able to consistently execute key, simple passes accurately to set teammates up for easy goals.
Nevertheless, this does not make Mkhitaryan a better player than Götze. Firstly, Mkhitaryan’s first touch is quite poor, which is a big problem as he will not be allowed the same amount of space in Germany. This could reduce his effectiveness tremendously. Secondly he is not overly comfortable on the ball. Unlike Götze, he is not the type of player that repeatedly dribbles past a solid defense with ease. Mkhitaryan is the kind of player who does a lot of direct running. But without the necessary dribbling techniques, he is going to struggle to create the spark against the stubborn defence of many Bundesliga teams like Freiburg. Finally, Mkhitaryan is quite quick, at least relative to his Ukrainian counterpart, but he is not pacey and agile like Götze. His playmaking is also limited as he does not tend to play through-balls, which is a crucial part of Dortmund’s pressing and counter attacking play. If anything, Mkhitaryan would be better off participating in the counter attack than engineering it, but once again, he lacks the pace and the skills to be the most effective player.
In Götze, Dortmund had someone who could be a playmaker in two ways – running at defenders and getting into a dangerous position, or sending through-balls to dangerous positions from the midfield. Mkhitaryan does not excel in either. He is simply a different type of playmaker: He executes simple passes or finishes by getting himself into a good position. The question is whether this kind of playmaker would fit into Dortmund’s effective counter attacking system.
In terms of surname, Mkhitaryan certainly fits in at Dortmund, as it is yet another surname that no one can pronounce or spell properly. In terms of playing, if Klopp puts Reus, Mkhitaryan, Błaszczykowski and Aubameyang together, then we might actually see headless chicken making direct runs all over the field. It is not clear if that will work but one thing is for sure: all of them require substantial playmaking provision from the midfield and the already fantastic Gundogan will have to step up another level to meet that demand.
However, since Mkhitaryan is not really a Götze, one might wonder how he would fit in tactically. He is someone who gets into the right position at the right time, who surges forward often, who is not afraid to shoot, gives out good simple passes, gets the job done, is not overly skillful with the ball or the quickest of players. A very familiar name immediately springs to mind – Shinji Kagawa at his best (in his season with Dortmund). If anything, the three times Armenian Footballer of the Year is the Kagawa replacement that has come a year late, and he is probably better than Kagawa in what he does. In that sense, Reus is more like a Götze replacement a year early, and on the left wing, he is an improved Götze who not only can dribble and create play, but also score for fun. Given Mkhitaryan’s physique and work rate, Klopp could even develop him into a Lewandowski but one will have to see about that.
BVB fans can only hope that this time round Klopp does not treat Mkhitaryan like Ivan Perisic, who is actually a remarkably similar player who came to Dortmund from very similar (but lesser) circumstances. Perisic, who scored 22 goals in 37 appearances and created a further 10 in Belgium’s top flight prior to joining Dortmund for around €5 million (a great deal of money for BVB back then), played best behind a striker. Yet, Klopp deployed him as a winger where he lacked the dribbling technique and the pace to excel. Nevertheless, he still managed 9 goals and 4 assists in just under 25 hours of football.
There are also several concerns, such as whether the former Shakhtar star can step up in the Bundesliga. There is little doubt that he is good enough for many Bundesliga teams, but is he good enough for Dortmund? This will depend on whether Klopp can utilize his strengths (and weaknesses) correctly. Some would argue that Mkhitaryan would play even better under Klopp because all players do, but one also has to remember that he has already played under the coach that is known to bring out players’ very best – Lucescu, who has already turned the likes of Willian and Fernandinho into world class players. One should not expect to see any dramatic improvement.
One final concern is that he is a potentially disloyal player. He seemed to only have joined Dortmund after a change of heart and he wants to play in England ultimately. Only recently, his coach Lucescu claimed that the goal scoring midfielder “is making a big mistake” by opting for a lesser club (than Shakhtar) “like Liverpool or Tottenham” and that “there is still time for him to change his mind.” This comment shows that he probably had his heart set on the Premier League and would probably go when a good opportunity arose. This is also supported by the fact that, unlike fellow new signing Aubameyang, he signed a four year contract instead of a five year one. The fact that he did not report back to training to engineer a move also means that he is probably the kind of personality Dortmund would not want (Shakhtar president: “I don’t know where Mkhitaryan is, now; solely his agent knows this” – Mkhitaryan was subsequently fined). Not even Lewandowski would do something like this despite his open love affair with Bayern. German paper Suddeutsche Zeitung, on the other hand, speculates that the Armenian left because he no longer felt safe in Ukraine.
Could Dortmund have made a better signing?
Bernard is a likeable player who is loyal, responsible and professional. He would have been a player who is much more similar to Mario Götze. However, it does feel like he is not as good and his club is demanding far too much money for him to make a transfer worthwhile. That makes him a big gamble since many Brazilian youngsters failed to settle in Germany (unless they went to Leverkusen). He is also more of a crosser of the ball then a passer, which might not suit Dortmund’s style entirely.
A player that could have fit in very well is Christian Eriksen, a great dribbler and playmaker who can pick out wonderful passes and also score simple goals like Götze. However, given that he is simply so similar to Götze, Dortmund’s management might feel that the best he can do is to consolidate rather than improve the team, at a hefty price. There were also concerns that he is not ready yet. In addition, Eredivisie stars often struggle when they move straight to the Bundesliga (Berg, Dost, Luuk de Jong, to name a few) and most former stars who succeeded in Germany succeeded in another country first (Van Nisterooy in England and Spain, Makaay in Spain, etc). Nevertheless, if Dortmund wanted a true replacement for Götze, Eriksen would have been the best choice.
If Edin Dzeko (27) was deemed too old and established for Dortmund and their philosophy, then the older Diego Ribas (28) is simply out of question. Nevertheless, Diego could have been the perfect signing for Dortmund. He brings experience that Dortmund lacks, he has a proven track record in the Bundesliga, and he is simply a genius as a playmaker. It would have been amazing to see what he can achieve under Klopp. Furthermore, his style would have fit perfectly into the system as a Götze-Kagawa hybrid. He would also have provided Dortmund with a world class set-piece taker. It is a shame that he was not considered, but it is perfectly understandable given the Champions League finalists’ philosophy.
Given the lack of decent alternatives, the Dortmund board has taken a (big) risk by bringing in a different player with different skill sets, culture and background in Mkhitaryan. Eriksen could have been a great Götze replacement, but that might not be in BVB’s best interest. Mkhitaryan is going to be a symbol of progress (or regress) as opposed to consolidation. Dortmund have made a brave choice, but it is a risk worth taking if they are interested in moving forward.