Man City left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko has completed his move to Arsenal; 25-year-old has won four Premier League titles but made just 15 top-flight appearances last season; Zinchenko can play at left back and in central midfield
Saturday 23 July 2022 11:12, UK
It was an afternoon that nearly saw Manchester City's season fall apart, but an unlikely hero stepped up.
City were 1-0 down to Aston Villa at half-time on the final day of last season. Liverpool would go on to beat Wolves at Anfield so Pep Guardiola needed some inspiration or the title would fall into Jurgen Klopp's hands.
During the break, Guardiola turned to his bench. Raheem Sterling was there, so too Ilkay Gundogan and Jack Grealish. But it was Oleksandr Zinchenko who was picked, coming on for makeshift centre-back Fernandinho in a reshuffle of City's defence.
The buildup and shape of the team needed to change and Zinchenko was the man to help. The Ukraine international went to left back and dictated the play, making 13 carries in the second half and setting up Rodri for City's equaliser to make it 2-2. City, who suddenly looked more fluid, went on to win the game - and the title.
Sterling and Gundogan would join Zinchenko off the bench and make more noticeable impacts in the final third, reducing the latter to unsung hero status. It was a fitting end in a City shirt for Zinchenko, who rarely stood in the Etihad Stadium limelight.
Versatile, technically gifted and reliable are words associated with the 25-year-old at Manchester City, and here's why...
Mikel Arteta has been looking at additions at left-back and central midfield in this summer transfer window. The Gunners wanted Ajax's Lisandro Martinez, who has experience in playing in both positions as well as centre half, but he has now agreed a deal to sign for Manchester United. Leicester City's Youri Tielemans has also been looked at but that interest has cooled in recent weeks.
There is a reason why the Arsenal manager needs support in that role. At left-back, Kieran Tierney has picked up long-term injuries in the last two seasons at crucial moments and while Nuno Tavares was signed as cover last summer, the young Portuguese full-back struggled in the big moments and ended up behind Cedric Soares and Granit Xhaka in the left-back pecking order come the end of the season.
In midfield, Xhaka is a mainstay in Arteta's team but there is little competition for his specific role. Thomas Partey, Mohamed Elneny and Albert Sambi Lokonga all compete for the same position at the base of Arsenal's midfield, leaving Xhaka to a number 8 role. A midfield of Xhaka, Martin Odegaard and new £35m man Fabio Vieira would represent somewhat of a risk, given two have experience of being number 10s.
Zinchenko operated as a left-back for Manchester City but he plays exclusively in central midfield for his country and showed his pedigree in the position with an outstanding individual display in Ukraine's recent World Cup play-off win over Scotland.
Graeme Souness on Sky Sports: "Zinchenko ran the show and I don't think there were any surprises in what we saw from him tonight.
"The way he plays at Man City, he flips in and out of playing as a left-back and in the centre of midfield.
"When he goes into midfield, he's a really good footballer and he was the catalyst for Ukraine keeping the ball, threading it through when the time was right.
"He played like a seasoned midfielder."
Should he play in midfield at Arsenal, Zinchenko would compete with Xhaka - and a closer look at their respective heatmaps last season shows that the two play in the same area of the pitch, even though the Ukrainian played at left-back for City and the Arsenal man operated from midfield.
On the ball, Zinchenko's passing statistics are superior to Xhaka's - but that is to be expected given Guardiola's City keep the ball and use it better than Arsenal. But even then, the Ukrainian earned the respect of his team-mates at the Premier League champions for being one of the most technically gifted players in the squad.
Asked in a recent YouTube interview about the City squad, fellow full-back Kyle Walker put Zinchenko in his top three most talented team-mates players with the ball - ahead of Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Joao Cancelo.
"My top three are Zinchenko, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva," said Walker. "Two touches, head tennis - so good.
"You're leaving De Bruyne out, Foden [and] Cancelo [too], but they don't come close to those three."
On top of that, Zinchenko and City defended a lot less than Arsenal last summer, but the Ukrainian international's defensive stats still trump Xhaka's. Zinchenko won more tackles, interceptions and challenges in the air than the Swiss midfielder - a reminder that the two players operate in roughly the same area of the pitch.
Xhaka wins more challenges in the middle of the pitch than Zinchenko - but that is the Arsenal man's speciality. The Switzerland captain ranks in the top 10 players for winning the ball.
If Zinchenko is needed at left-back, then there would be no problem with him fitting into Arsenal's set-up.
Tierney pushes on to a very advanced role, allowing the left winger in Emile Smith Rowe or Gabriel Martinelli to tuck in to support the centre forward. While that differs slightly to Zinchenko's full-back role at City - which is more of an additional midfielder - there is evidence that the Ukrainian can transition quickly.
In a clip from Manchester City's All or Nothing documentary from the 2017-18 season, Arteta was seen trying to mould Zinchenko into the type of full-back Tierney currently represents.
"Danilo and Oleks have to attack that guy [the opposition full-back] like a winger, for the other side to move outside," said Arteta, who was asked by Guardiola to come up with a plan to get around Arsene Wenger's Arsenal.
And Zinchenko's statistics from last season show why he would quickly adapt at Arteta's Arsenal - no matter which position he'd play in. With the third most touches per 90 out of any Premier League player, plus the most final third passes per 90 and the sixth best pass completion rate, Zinchenko shows he wants the ball and keeps it too.
Zinchenko also fits Arteta's squad in terms of the profile of player he likes. At 25, he is only a year older than Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, Gabriel Magalhaes and two than Odegaard and Takehiro Tomiyasu - all of whom have been signed in the past two summer windows.
And Zinchenko's profile is very similar to Odegaard's in that he began captaining his country at a very young age. The Ukrainian international became his country's youngest ever skipper at 19 and his four Premier League titles, five more English domestic honours, plus a Champions League final appearance make him an experienced figure, even at 25.
Zinchenko's mentality was praised by City boss Guardiola last season. "Oleks is another player who is so reliable, so he will never forget what he has done these last three or four years playing in a position that is not his natural position," the Spaniard said after he played a starring role in City's 4-3 win over Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals.
"When you don't play your natural position, you are [normally] going to play one or two games but playing seasons not in your natural position, you have to be so strong in your head and in your mind.
"He will do it every single day. But above that it is not an easy period for Oleks, what happened to his loved ones [in Ukraine], the citizens. It was a tough, tough period for him personally.
"Oleks is so reliable because he is always focused and is always concentrating. It is incredibly appreciated in the dressing room. Defence is about attitude, it is not about talent. Oleks is always there, he is not the fastest one but his focus is there."
Reliable is a word that has not been commonplace when describing Arsenal players, especially those with whom Zinchenko will compete alongside for a starting spot. Perhaps that unlikely hero at City is set for his time in the limelight elsewhere.