Our Man In Cologne (26/01/15)

Henrikh Mkhitaryan is having his best ever season at Borussia Dortmund and apparently it’s all because of a book about tennis. Back in the summer, his new coach Thomas Tuchel gave him “The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance.” It was published in 1972 and 44 years on, it’s still working its magic. 

Over the winter break, Mkhitaryan told respected German magazine kicker that he’d learned a lot from it. “I think it was written just for me. Everything I did wrong is described in there. Then I started to change things, just like the book said.”

The difference in the Dortmund attacking midfielder was evident again at the Borussia Park on Saturday. Four minutes before half time, Marco Reus had put Tuchel’s side ahead, but Mkhitaryan missed a chance to double the advantage just prior to the break.

Unmarked at the back post, he controlled the ball on his thigh before hitting it into the side netting. The journalist  to my right tutted and shook his head. He shares the view of many a Dortmund fan – that Mkhitaryan is an immensely talented player but while he’s excellent at creating chances, he bottles it when it comes to taking them.

Taking chances has been something team-mate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has done with ease this season. On Saturday, Sky pundit Lothar Matthäus announced that he was worth €100 million. But the numerous opportunities the Bundesliga’s top scorer scuffed that day suggested otherwise.

Still, it didn’t matter. Five minutes after half time, Reus slipped the ball into Mkhitaryan’s path inside the penalty area. From there, Mkhitaryan managed to beat both Gladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer and whatever demons still lurked in his head. His first time finish was his sixteenth goal in all competitions this season, which already betters his two previous seasons with Dortmund. A good thing he read that book.

Mkhitaryan even created the away side’s third for İlkay Gündoğan after the home side had pulled one back. Facing Gladbach in their first game of 2016 was meant to be one of the most difficult tasks possible, according to Thomas Tuchel. In truth, they ticked it off without dominating. That’s not something they’ve managed to do, most notably in their games at Hamburg and Cologne earlier this season. Having that quality, the ability to win without playing well, gives the team something it lacked under Jürgen Klopp.

“Since Thomas Tuchel works here, they play much better football than before because they adapt to keep the ball,” says Matthias Dersch. He’s the Borussia Dortmund reporter for the Ruhr Nachrichten, a big selling daily newspaper based in the city. So Dersch has plenty of first-hand experience of Dortmund with Klopp and now with Tuchel.

“His [Klopp] reaction to problems was always: ‘More, more, more. More training, more work, more sprints,’” says Dersch. He thinks that the team have made a big step forward under Tuchel and will do so again in 2016, even if that doesn’t mean the Bundesliga title will be forthcoming this season.

Dortmund are eight points behind Bayern Munich after the champions snuck past Hamburg on Friday night, but a few more figures illustrate the step that Dersch speaks of. Dortmund have taken 41 points from 18 games, an average of 2.27 points per game. That return would currently put them top in England and Italy. Bayern, PSG or Barcelona haven’t scored in every league game this season. But Dortmund have.

Tuchel taking over after Dortmund’s seventh place finish was good timing. The second place they hold now looks even better against last season, even if Klopp’s past achievements might have seemed daunting. 

Last season’s travails were a clear message that Dortmund needed a new approach and Tuchel has proved that he’s the man to implement that, bringing with him a greater flexibility than Klopp ever had. 

“The system needs to have room for the skill of the individual,” said Tuchel to the BBC in 2013, the year that Dortmund reached the Champions League final. İlkay Gündoğan scored for them then but after a year out with a back injury, he’d struggled to recapture the form from that campaign. Yet his first Bundesliga goal of the season on Saturday was a reward for a series of performances which have made him invaluable to Tuchel.

Marco Reus falls into that category as well but injury too has hampered him in the past two seasons. Tuchel talked after the game of the great joy he’d had in watching Reus train so freely in the past few weeks. He took similar joy in his performance on Saturday but he took the attacking midfielder off 20 minutes from time. He’s not quite ready to go the full distance in Tuchel’s eyes but that aligns with what he said at the training camp in Dubai – Tuchel wants Reus fit for 29 games in the second half of the season.

Twenty nine games means that, yes, Tuchel has calculated how many games Dortmund will play should they reach the DFB-Cup final and the Europa League Final. He’s not short of ambition but the club’s CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke has said that just getting back into the Champions League will do fine.

As for a title race? Next season, says Matthias Dersch, and that’s with a few conditions. “If they are able to keep players like Mkhitaryan, Gundogan, Mats Hummels and maybe get one or two high class players, then it could work.”

The trio of Mkhitaryan, Gündoğan and Hummels all have contracts that run until next summer. It’s up to the club to persuade them to sign a deal, though part of that responsiblity lies with Thomas Tuchel. If he engineers a successful second half of the season, then that will surely help Dortmund’s cause in the long term too.

You can follow Archie Rhind-Tutt on Twitter (@ArchieRT1)

Our Man In Cologne (26/01/15)
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