Back in the summer of 2013, it had looked as though Brendan Rodgers had found a key puzzle piece in the push for Champions League football. Emerging midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, it was hoped, would join Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, along with summer acquisitions Kolo Touré and Simon Mignolet, to take Liverpool to the next level. Instead, Liverpool were left frustrated by their dealings with Shakhtar Donetsk, and could only watch as Mkhitaryan became Borussia Dortmund’s then-most expensive purchase.
Fast forward to the 2016-17 season, and Mkhitaryan is now coming into his own under José Mourinho at Manchester United, after initially struggling to make an impression. As Old Trafford prepares to welcome Liverpool in a hugely important fixture, the Armenian midfielder shed some light on his reasons for making the move to Germany instead of the bright lights of the Premier League, and it turns out Liverpool’s current manager was a key factor.
“I spoke two or three times on the phone to Brendan Rodgers,” explained Mkhitaryan to the Daily Mail. “He was saying he really wanted me and that I'd get to play with Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard. Half of me thought I had to go there, the other half was not so confident, that the gap to the Premier League might be too big for a skinny player from the Ukrainian League.”
Remember that Rodgers - who had only joined the club during the prior summer - and Liverpool had not yet refined their high scoring circus act. While there were signs that Suarez might emerge as a special player in the Premier League, the Merseyside club was 7th in the league at the end of the 2012-13 season, and could not offer either Champions League or Europa League football. It would have been a tough decision either way, so naturally something special had to break the deadlock.
“Two weeks later, Jurgen Klopp broke off his holiday on an island next to Denmark to come and see me in Dortmund,” recounted Mkhitaryan. “I knew he had a good reputation for working with younger players and, after we met, I felt more comfortable to sign for Dortmund. I think I made the right decision.”
At least for the player, it was almost certainly the right decision, as Dortmund finished runners-up in the Bundesliga. Liverpool supporters enjoyed a roller-coaster 2013-14 which likewise culminated in a second place finish, and perhaps could wonder if the mercurial midfielder’s presence might have made the difference that year. Mkhitaryan, for his part, identified Klopp as a big reason for his personal and professional development.
“He was always next to you if there were playing problems or life problems,” explained the Manchester United star. “He is a good person. In particular, he helped me a lot because I was thinking too much about football. I took defeats too seriously, I'd obsess about any chances I missed. He told me that it's just life and I had to let it go because when the next chance comes, I needed to be in the right frame of mind to take it.”