Back for a second season in Rome - this time as a permanent member of the squad - Henrikh Mkhitaryan is eager to build on what was a positive first campaign with the Giallorossi.
After formally saying his farewells to Arsenal earlier this week, we sat down with the Armenia international to discuss his decision to join Roma on a permanent basis, his hopes for the season ahead - and what he learned from a first year in Serie A that saw him score nine goals and lay on six assists for his teammates.
Last season you came here on loan, this time you come back to Rome as a permanent member of the club. How important is it to have you future sorted and be able to concentrate solely on your football?
“Well to be honest I was never worried about it. I always had it in my mind to play well and to help the team and then, at the end of the season, to see if we could get an agreement between myself, Roma and Arsenal to be able to stay here on a permanent basis.
“I’m very happy to be here now, I’m very happy to have signed a permanent deal with AS Roma. I think I made a good decision, the right decision for myself and my career, and I’m looking forward to another season here.”
Now you are a permament member of the team - does that change your mindset at all? Or the way you will conduct yourself within the changing room?
“Never. It changes nothing. I’m the same guy. I am the same player, I have the same ambitions – nothing changed. For me it doesn’t matter if I am on loan or have signed a permanent deal: I am always working hard, I am always pushing myself to do my best every day in training and the games.
“I can just say that I will give everything for the club and to try and do my best in the games and succeed with the team.”
This year it’s a very different pre-season from normal. How did you unwind during the shorter break, and did you do anything different in order to stay in shape for the return to action?
“First of all, the holidays we were given were in a bit of a different timing, because before we always had the holidays in a different period of the year. Vacations were always at the end of May and June and then we would start pre-season in July. This season was quite a bit different – I think we still had a break but not as much as we used to have before.
“But it is good, mentally and physically, to get a bit of rest, and then to start back fresh again. We won’t be able to go anyway for the pre-season, but I am pretty sure that being here [at Trigoria] we can work even harder and even better and be focused on training.”
Last season you joined the club with the season already underway, this season you will undertake the full pre-season with the group. For a player is that sort of stability really helpful?
“Well I didn’t miss a lot last season – I think I only missed two games, the games against Genoa and Lazio. This year of course I hope I will be available from the first game.
“The most important thing is I want to be fit and I want to help the team by playing and scoring and assisting as much as I can. Because it makes me happy when I see the team winning, and when I’ve had a contribution to those wins.”
On a personal level, you finished last season really strongly – playing consistently, playing a part in a lot of goals. Are you confident you can continue in that vein this term?
“I wish it could be that easy! But things can change. The only thing we can do is continue to work hard and then to see if you get the rewards from that.
“I am playing football to score goals and to assist; but of course it is not always important to do that, because in some games you can have just an amazing performance without scoring or assisting – but you can still have a really big contribution to the team and to the win. So I think it is more important to keep working hard on the pitch and to make the team win, instead of thinking about scoring and assisting.
“But I am going to push, I am going to do my best to surpass my statistics from last season and to have better statistics next season.”
How have you found the attitude among the players since returning? Obviously last season finished with a very strong run in the league, but the last game maybe saw some people forget that…
“Well, first of all we haven’t spent a lot of time all together so far, because the whole team was only here for a day or two and then many went off to the national team. But I think now it is a new season, it’s a new page in the book, and we have to be positive and we have to think positively.
“We have to be sure we can achieve something this year. It’s not easy, because all the teams want the same thing, but I am pretty sure this team has the capacity, and the ability, to achieve something bigger than last season.”
What did you learn from your first season in Serie A and Italian football?
“Well, I can say that football in Italy is underrated. It is not what people think, it is not what people say.
“Before I came here I was listening to a lot of people who would say the league is not good enough, the teams are not good enough… but I can say they are totally wrong. From the first game I had, against Sassuolo, I realised that Italian football is more than people talk about.
“I was really impressed with the quality of the players, even at the lower teams they have some great players. And all the teams want to have the ball, they want to attack, they are not only defending and waiting for the opponents to make mistakes. Instead, they are trying to play football, to enjoy the game and win some points.
“For me it was really impressive, because I wasn’t expecting such a good level of football from all the teams. I am enjoying playing football here in Italy and I feel good playing against all the different teams.”
Obviously this season will start without fans in the ground, but you must be hoping they return to the Olimpico soon. How much of an impression did the fans have on you last season – scoring on your debut obviously helped announce yourself!
“It was a great feeling! Of course it is painful to see that the stadiums are empty, because we are playing for our fans and we want our fans to see the goals that we are scoring and the games we are winning. We want to be giving them that happiness, those positive feelings.
“But we have to understand everything that is going on right now, that everything is for them in order for things to be safe and to not get any infection or any risk of being infected. So we have to hope to solve this problem as soon as we can – and then I hope to see them very, very soon at the stadium supporting the team.”
Have you felt the support from fans on social media, even in their absence at the stadium?
“Since the very first day I arrived I felt the support from the fans! Everywhere I went – the stadium, in the city, at the restaurants, even on social media – I felt it. I can say that they are very passionate about the club and I am very happy we have fans like that because you have to have true fans to feel good and play well for them.”
One addition to the squad so far this summer has been winger Pedro – a player you know well from your time in the Premier League. What qualities do you think he will bring to the squad?
“A great player, a great person. We haven’t had the chance yet to really speak a lot but I am pretty sure we will have the time soon. But as a player everyone knows that he is a great player; he has won nearly everything in his football career, he has played for the best clubs – Barcelona, Chelsea and now Roma. So I think his contribution will be very good and he can help us to achieve our goals that we have this season.
“Of course we have to help him to settle in quickly and be ready for the new season, but I am pretty sure with players like him we can have a good season.”