After struggling at Manchester United, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is finding his feet under Unai Emery at Arsenal.
Following a shaky start to life in the Premier League with United, Mkhitaryan was shipped off to Arsenal as Alexis Sanchez went the other way in January. And he’s proving himself again in a side that’s now won nine consecutive games under new boss Emery.
It wasn’t always a comfortable life for the Armenia playmaker; Mkhitaryan came up the hard way. The Gunners midfielder spent his early life in France, where his father, Hamlet, played for Ligue 2 side Valence.
Henrikh was deeply attached to his dad, and would cry when Hamlet left for training. When Henrikh was six, the family moved back to Armenia. By this point, his father had stopped playing football and, although Henrikh didn’t know it at the time, Hamlet was suffering with a brain tumour. He passed away within a year of the family’s return to their homeland.
Mkhitaryan told The Players’ Tribune:
“I remember seeing my mother and older sister always crying, and I would ask them, ‘Where is my father?’ No one could explain what was going on.
“Day by day, they started to tell to me what had happened.
“I remember my mother saying, ‘Henrikh, he will never be with us.'”
Despite suffering the loss of his beloved father at such a young age, he soldiered on with his footballing career. At just 13, he left his family to train in Brazil with Sao Paulo.
“As tough as it was for us with my father gone, my mother and sister were always pushing me. They even let me go to Brazil by myself when I was 13 to train with São Paulo for four months. That was one of the most interesting times of my life, because I was a very shy kid from Armenia who didn’t speak any Portuguese. But I didn’t care at all because, to me, I was getting to go to football paradise.”
Mkhitaryan travelled with two other young Armenian players, and the trio had a room-mate: a skinny young Brazilian named Hernanes. The playmaker is currently plying his trade in China, having signed from a little-known club called Juventus, and has played 27 times for his country.
Mkhitaryan, with a basic grasp of the Portuguese language, became firm friends with Hernanes, and the youngsters lived and breathed football while at the Sao Paulo academy.
“That time was very important to me, because it shaped my style as a player. When I returned to Armenia after four months in Brazil, I was still quite skinny and weak, but I had technique and skill. I was feeling very free on the pitch. I was feeling like the Armenian Ronaldinho. (Hahahaha. No, I’m joking.) It was challenging because I now had three languages in my brain all the time — Armenian, French and Portuguese — and they were competing with each other.”
Mkhitaryan started his professional career in Armenia with Pyunik, before moving to Ukraine with Metalurh Donetsk.
Seven years after his time in South America at the age of 20, Mkhitaryan moved across the city of Donetsk to Shakhtar, and was completely unfazed by the mix of cultures. After all, his new club boasted 12 Brazilians in its ranks.
Three seasons later, he was courted by Europe’s biggest clubs, including Borussia Dortmund, who eventually brought him to the Bundesliga and the Westfalenstadion.
It was in Germany where Mkhitaryan’s star would rise even further, lighting the up the Bundesliga with a bucketload of assists and goals.
When he turned out for Manchester United on his debut, he made history by becoming the first ever Armenian to play in the Premier League.
It wasn’t meant to be at United, but his flashes of brilliance earned him cult status at Old Trafford. Mkhitaryan reportedly wanted to stay at Old Trafford, but Jose Mourinho’s mind was made up, so in came Sanchez and out went Mkhitaryan.
But it turned out to be a better move for the Armenian than it has been so far for Sanchez. Mkhitaryan is growing into his role under Emery, in the pockets behind deadly strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
In his final season with Dortmund, he chipped in with an incredible 11 goals and 15 assists in just 28 starts. Lacazette, Aubameyang and Arsenal fans everywhere will be hoping he starts moving through the gears at the Emirates this season too.