Shakhtar's rising star comes from strong Armenian stock but had to graft to become one of eastern Europe's most exciting players
When Jádson returned to Brazil to join São Paulo last season, the expectation was that Shakhtar Donetsk would buy another of his compatriots: how else could they replicate his creativity and goals from midfield? Mircea Lucescu, though, simply advanced one of his deeper lying midfielders, breaking the habit of the previous few seasons by playing an eastern European towards the front of his team.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan had, in fairness, only been playing so deep because of Fernandinho's broken leg but still, nobody quite expected the explosion when he resumed his former role. His first 14 league games of last season brought 16 goals and he went on to amass 25 for the season. He is not, though, he insists, a forward: rather, he is a midfielder who can operate either as a deep-lying distributor or behind a striker. In Shakhtar's fluent 4-2-3-1 system, he was pivotal, a hub whose movement helped shape the whole. In that regard, it's easy to see why Brendan Rodgers is so keen to bring him to Liverpool: Mkhitaryan has the ability to find and generate space that is vital to possession-based teams – and he also has a ruthlessness in front of goal that Liverpool have lacked over the past couple of seasons.
For Mkhitaryan the move feels logical. Liverpool aspire to a style of football relatively similar to Shakhtar's. At 24, now is probably the time to make the step up to the consistent competition of the Premier League, particularly as the Shakhtar team is dismantled, with Willian, Fernandinho and Razvan Rat already departed (it's not Liverpool's fault, but there is something sad about seeing another bright young team – like Athletic Bilbao and Porto before them – broken down and sold off after one season of flickering achievement; one of the curses of the economic disparities of the modern game).
Whether Mkhitaryan would adapt is impossible to say but the signs are good. Mkhitaryan has a gift for languages – it's a family trait: his sister Monica works as a translator for Uefa – and has a down-to-earthness that suggests he is smart and pragmatic enough to adjust. Just as importantly, he gives a sense of understanding his own game: he is not a savant to whom excellence just happened; he has worked methodically to develop his talent, something in which he was helped by his close relationship with Lucescu.
"It wasn't easy for him from the start," said the Romanian, "but his integration was speeded up by his high level of football intelligence. His game awareness is perhaps his most valuable quality – that and the speed and power and technique Henrikh was gifted by nature and that he's developed. Because of those virtues, he's one of the players who most consistently fulfils the tasks set by the coaching staff. Working with him is fun."
Mkhitaryan's father, Hamlet, was a well-respected centre-forward for Ararat Yerevan, Armenia's most successful club in Soviet times, in the late 80s. He had a brief stint at Kotayk Abovyan, and then, in 1989, a few months after Henrikh's birth, he was transferred to the French club ASOA Valence, where he spent five years before a move to Issy, picking up two caps for the newly independent Armenia. Even then, Henrikh's love for football was clear. "When I was a child, I used to watch my father playing football, and I always wanted to follow him to training," he said. "When he didn't take me with him I stayed next to the door, crying. I always wanted to become a football player, and I thank my parents, as they helped me so much to realise this dream. They always supported me on my path."
The Mkhitaryans returned to Yerevan in 1995 and, just a year later, when Henrikh was seven, his father died from a brain tumour. Football, though, remained a major part of the family's life, with his mother now heading the national team department at the Armenian football federation.
In the pantheon of Armenian footballers, Mkhitaryan stands at the very top, alongside Nikita Simonyan, Eduard Markarov and Khoren Hovhannisyan. As the greatest Armenian player since fragmentation, he probably carries a greater responsibility than any of them, a role of which he is well aware. "Not so many Armenian players are given the chance to play in the Champions League, and this is really important for me, because I want to do everything to impress the children who are watching me playing," he said last season.
"For those children, I want their goal to be to play in the Champions League, and for the most important European teams. They don't have to stop in the Armenian league, thinking that they're not able to achieve anything more. Every person has to keep in mind that they can grow up and reach the top, no matter where they are born, whether it's in Russia, in Ukraine, in Europe; they've still got the opportunity to show their talent and the culture of their people."
If he joins Liverpool, he will of course have to forego Champions League football but it may be that he can help bring the competition back to Anfield.