How low-profile Man City ace Oleksandr Zinchenko is sure to improve Arsenal
The €35m Ukrainian gives Gunners a master of versatility and technical skill
An indication of Oleksandr Zinchenko’s technical ability, and the regard in which he is held by his Manchester City team-mates, came from Kyle Walker earlier this year. The full-back was asked which players stand out the most in training, especially in Pep Guardiola’s keep-ball sessions, and he named the Ukrainian first.
“On technical ability, not in any order, my top three are Zinchenko, (Riyad) Mahrez and (Bernardo) Silva,” Walker told YouTuber Timbsy. “Zinchenko is incredible. So, so good. And you are leaving out the likes of (Kevin) De Bruyne, Phil Foden, (Jack) Grealish, (Joao) Cancelo. But they don’t come close to those three.”
It is high praise for a player of Zinchenko’s relatively low profile, when compared to some of the stars in the City squad, and there’s no doubt that many observers will be surprised by Walker’s selection. Zinchenko? More technically gifted than De Bruyne? Apparently so.
Walker is in a good position to make such judgments, having seen Zinchenko up close in training and matches. The same can also be said of Mikel Arteta, who worked with Zinchenko during his time as Guardiola’s assistant and is now on the verge of signing the 25-year-old for Arsenal.
Provided the £30 million (€35m) deal is completed as expected, Zinchenko will become the second City player this summer to be convinced to join Arteta’s project in north London. Gabriel Jesus has already arrived for £45m (€53m) and many of the reasons for signing the Brazilian also apply to Zinchenko: he knows the league, he knows the style of play, he knows the manager and he knows how to operate in a number of different positions.
Zinchenko’s versatility is perhaps his most appealing asset to Arsenal, who have been looking to sign a left-back and central midfielder. In Zinchenko, they have found one player who can play in both roles. He offers much-needed cover for Kieran Tierney at left-back, and also brings a high level of technical class and tactical understanding to midfield.
At this point, regular watchers of City might interject to say that Zinchenko has usually played as a left-back under Guardiola, and has rarely been seen in the midfield three. This would be a misunderstanding of Zinchenko’s role at City, though, as Guardiola’s system means he effectively plays as a left-sided central midfielder when they have possession.
At Arsenal, it is not hard to envisage him playing a similarly “tucked-in” role, alongside another central midfielder. More intriguing, however, is the prospect of Zinchenko starting in midfield and controlling the flow of the game from there.
Is he capable of doing so, having spent so much of his Premier League career in a different position? Ask the international players of Scotland and Wales and they will provide an emphatic answer. Zinchenko played on the left of a midfield three in both of Ukraine’s play-off matches this summer, and he was largely untouchable on both occasions.
Against Scotland, in particular, Zinchenko produced a masterclass of vision, close control and spatial awareness. Every time Scotland’s midfielders tried to pressure him, Zinchenko either popped the ball around the corner or spun out of trouble.
Guardiola has always been clear that Zinchenko’s best position, in the long-term, will be as a creative midfielder.
“In the pockets as the attacking midfielder,” Guardiola said in April. “That is his position. When we bought Oleks, he was a No 10, a Phil Foden, a creative player. But the needs we had… we didn’t have a left-back for many years. He adapted and said: ‘Okay, I’m going to do it. He is a reliable player’.”
The arrival of Zinchenko at the Emirates Stadium would reduce Arsenal’s reliance on Granit Xhaka, a divisive figure within the fanbase. Xhaka remains a vitally important player but, as Arteta looks to construct the same 4-3-3 shape that Guardiola has imposed, he is having to adapt.
Zinchenko seems a more natural fit as the left-sided box-to-box player, and it is likely that the two players will be rotated across the campaign.
On a basic level, Arsenal simply need more players. They finished last season with one of the smallest squads in the division, and this year have the Europa League to worry about in midweek. Five substitutions are also allowed in the coming season, meaning that squad depth will be more important than ever.
As a four-time Premier League winner, Zinchenko comes with experience of a high-performing culture.
At the very least, Arsenal are signing a dependable player who brings added depth to their squad. The hope and expectation, though, is that Zinchenko could be so much more than that. In an evolving side, he has the footballing brain and technical ability to help push them towards the next level as a team.
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