ASSESSED: Oleksandr Zinchenko | A Point to Prove

Change. It’s one of the only things in football, and indeed life, that is truly guaranteed.

As fans we get used to ways of thinking about positions on the pitch. A centre back must be big and muscular. A winger must be fast. A right back looks like this, and a left back looks like that. But if you told someone in 2012 that in ten years a “right back” will be second in the Premier League in terms of big chances created for the season…

And a “left back” had the most touches out of any player in the league…

They would never have believed you.

We, myself included, have to change the way we think about the game to see things more clearly. As I always say, it’s far more instructive to look at the zone, profile, role and responsibilities of a player to truly see what they do, and how and if they’re suited to it.

For Arsenal, change is afoot. And it’s on our left hand side.

25 year old Ukrainian international Oleksandr Zinchenko joins Matt Turner, Marquinhos, Gabriel Jesus and Fabio Vieira as Arsenal make their fifth summer signing. The deal has moved quickly after the deal for Lisandro Martinez didn’t happen — I word that carefully, as I don’t know whether Arsenal just didn’t want to pay over the odds, or actually did “miss out”.

To get it out of the way early, I don’t know if Zinchenko is better than Martinez. Some people say he is, but it’s big “didn’t fancy her anyway” energy. Here’s how they compare statistically.

Martinez comes out on top, but there’s some skewed statistics in terms of league quality — Martinez’s aerial win % in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League knockout stages over the last 4 seasons is 51.5% (20th percentile), as opposed to the high percentile seen here. Arsenal clearly wanted Martinez as they reportedly went after him first. He is truly special defensively and may have provided cover in other zones of the pitch. Zinchenko will just offer us different dynamics, and in my opinion he’ll certainly add something more in the final third.

The more interesting part to me is the ways in which they’re similar, which gives us a lot of information about what Arsenal are aiming to do with a signing in this zone. If we didn’t get Zinchenko, I’m convinced we would have gone for a Sergio Gomez, Mykola Matvienko or Caio Henrique. It doesn’t matter how we got there — Arsenal were chasing a specific profile this summer, and we’ve managed to recruit that.

So what is that profile?

This is a hunch, but I think it might be near enough right. Last season, Arsenal looked a little bit like this in possession when everyone was fit.

Xhaka pulling back slightly from left 8 allowed Tierney to be in the 5th lane on the outside, bombing on as he likes to do. It’s a really nice set up, but it limits you a little in three ways — in terms of ball progression on the left hand side with lack of progressive profiles behind the ball. You can also be caught in behind on the transition owing to the space created if you can’t get back quick enough, and you sacrifice a central creative profile for a full back profile — which has its benefits, but I’d prefer the former to the latter.

I think in possession next season, we’ll look a bit more like this, roughly.

Xhaka and Tierney will be sacrificed for Zinchenko and a new left 8 — completely revolutionising our left hand side. Zinchenko will invert, creating almost a 2-3-5 shape. You then get your 2 8s freed up to go further forward and form the 5 lanes in attack to add more attacking threat than Tierney or Xhaka could. There’s an extra man in the midfield who can progress with quality behind the ball and stop transitions, and the players are spread more evenly, defending more zones.

To do all that, this player must be more comfortable on the interior, be aware of the transition when playing inverted and crucially must have good ability on the ball to link up and progress — and oh, Zinchenko does.

His passes are crisp, accurate, well weighted and his stats are ridiculous when compared to other full backs in the top 5 leagues. Absolutely ridiculous.

Look at this.

We have to caveat that owing to his game time, it’s a slightly small sample size. But come on.

In an interview with YouTuber Timbsy, Kyle Walker is asked about training at Man City and who the most technically gifted players are. His top three? Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva… and Zinchenko.

“He’s incredible. Incredible. Two touches, head tennis… so good. So, so good. Then you’re leaving the likes of De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Grealish, Cancelo out. But they don’t come close.”

Having grown up playing as an attacking midfielder and playing there for his country, he’s really a midfielder playing at full back, as seen here by his passing radar compared to other full backs — but that’s not a bad thing if the defensive qualities are there.

And if you’re that good on the ball, it doesn’t matter where you play — you’ll have a positive impact on the team. We need more progression on the left, and there’s only one thing to know about there — Zinchenko averaged 8.45 progressive passes per 90 in 21/22 – only bettered by Joshua Kimmich (9.75), Toni Kroos (8.89) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (8.77).

Zinchenko can operate in standard positions for a left back – normal compact 4 in a defensive shape, wide in build up, or with chalk on his boots in the final third, getting beyond (more on that later). But where he really comes alive and shows his worth is in the central zones, and his ability to invert and receive in “Lane 2” (this one).

These are not normal positions for a nominal ‘left back’ to be picked up in regularly — so how does it help?

Where a Nuno Tavares might get the ball and drive in field, Zinchenko’s style is to use his intelligent off the ball movement to create overloads and options in more advantageous zones. An example here, against Real Madrid, De Bruyne’s options are limited, and he’s being pushed back.

Zinchenko moves in to a very aggressive position beyond the attacking midfielders in the 2nd lane, receives the ball and City can play forward — this is not something you see many left backs (especially at Arsenal) comfortable doing with the regularity that Zinchenko does owing to his technical quality.

Another example here, Zinchenko picks up the ball in lane 2 and plays a wall pass off Grealish.

Zinchenko gets it back and nearly plays Jesus in — all from an intelligent, inside run.

Occupying this space has a knock on effect too. I love Martinelli’s out to in runs from the left, and someone moving into lane 2 means he can hug the touchline and run defences into the ground.

The ability to come inside and be comfortable there adds attacking value and more imperceptible overloads in central areas creating more triangles and angles for the likes of Silva, Gundogan and De Bruyne to play off.

But it also means you can hem people in. City ask their full backs to tuck in to form almost a semi-circle around the opponent as they attempt to break down a low block, but also to ensure the full backs are the first to step in and stop a transition, as seen here — low, on his toes, ready to jump in.

Here, he stops Sporting getting forward, keeping City high with a great bit of front-footed defending, which Arteta will love.

So — getting beyond. Zinchenko offers you a lot going forward. He progresses the ball superbly, his goal and shot creating actions are off the charts, and he’s in the 99th percentile for assists from full backs. Indeed, when compared to probably the best creative full back in the world, Trent Alexander-Arnold, he doesn’t shape up too badly.

A delicious ball into the box for Ukraine in the Euros shows he has a great whip too, which is underrated about his game.

One of my favourite things he does is switch it out to Mahrez. It’s extraordinary technique to constantly repeat it, just one example here, but you can imagine the balls out to Saka on the right hand side — just another way of getting us forward.

For what we’ll need from a “left back” in the system that I think we’re looking to use — Zinchenko ticks all the boxes.

So. That’s all great… but I have a few issues with Zinchenko on the defensive side of things. I saw him caught out on the transition a number of times on WyScout as seen here (apologies for poor quality).

Luckily we have more recovery pace these days in White, Saliba and Gabriel, and often Zinchenko’s aggressive position will be able to stop that counter-attack as seen earlier, keeping Arsenal high up the pitch — but it could hurt us. His defensive numbers are not good. Have a look at this, interceptions, pressures and actions are way down.

You can of course caveat that he plays in a Manchester City team that have 114% of the ball most games, but it’s still a concern.

I don’t mind his tackling technique though. Upright and clean for the most part from what I’ve seen. He is more one footed than other Arteta style full backs — FBRef have him at 91% left footed.

Zinchenko grew up in Eastern Ukraine and enjoyed an exciting development, captaining Shakhtar Donetsk at Youth Level, even scoring against a Manchester United team containing Andreas Pereira in 2013. However, at just 18 years old, he had to flee Ukraine with his family due to the war in Dombas. He was still under contract with Shakhtar but could not go back owing to security reasons, so he had to train (on his own) in Moscow, on concrete pitches. Eventually he signed for Russian club Ufa, going on to become one of the first signings of the Pep Guardiola era at Manchester City. 

He made his debut for Ukraine’s national team in 2015, became their youngest ever goalscorer in 2016, and was made Ukraine’s youngest ever captain in 2021. With the war on in Ukraine, it’s incredible how he’s managed to remain focused this season all things considered — he even delivered the assist to get City’s equaliser in the final game of the season.

In an interview with Gary Lineker earlier on in the year, as the most recent Ukrainian conflict began, we saw a truly human side of Zinchenko. Sensitive, mature and emotional, he spoke with startling clarity. This is a man who knows there is more to life than football, and is at an age where his experience is starting to show. To be where he is considering the difficult experiences he has had in his life, including being without a club at points, shows you just what kind of guy we’re getting.

As captain of the Ukraine National Team, he adds to a growing group of leaders at Arsenal. Ødegaard, Sambi, Xhaka, Vieira and now Zinchenko have all captained their sides at various stages — creating a culture is brick by brick work.

Let’s be clear here. Some people think we’re signing a “back up” left back. We are not. When compared to Arsenal’s current options there, Zinchenko absolutely wipes the floor with them in terms of tackles, interceptions, chances created and dribbles.

Immediately he is being compared to Tierney, but they will literally be asked to do different things on the pitch, as they have different strengths. Tierney hugs the touchline, is better in 1v1s, has more of an engine and gets to the byline — not Zinchenko’s game. It’s apples to oranges. I would love them both to stay. I think Zinchenko is the better fit for Arteta, I’ve said before I don’t think Tierney is right for us long term, but it’s great to have two quality options. Let’s not be afraid of having two good players.

Zinchenko has played some big games for Manchester City. He started the UEFA Champions League final against Chelsea, benching Cancelo and Mendy. But he’s never quite had a run in the team, despite there being some opportunities to do so with injuries and losses of form from other teammates. Since returning from his loan spell at PSV Eindhoven in 2017, he has played just over 25 games on average every season, with only one significant injury in that time — during the 2019/20 season. It’s not enough, and Zinchenko, with four Premier League winner medals around his neck, is hungry for more.

We’re saying something about all of these Arteta signings. No more Jenkinson, Mustafi, Kolasinac. We’re looking at proper technicians with excellent turning circles. Players who can receive it, move into different zones and facilitate ball progression. Vieira, Jesus, Zinchenko.

The interest in Zinchenko has been long-standing too — Arteta was supposedly interested back in the summer of 2020.

At that point, I think he may well have played in midfield, in a double pivot. Now, with the players we have around him, I don’t think he’ll have to. We may be becoming City-Lite. But if we can win even half as much as they’ve won over the last 5 or so years… I don’t mind it. By the way, we all owe Fernandinho a pint. He went to Brazil to convince Jesus to sign for City, and Zinchenko credits his move from Shakhtar as inspiring him to go to England.

I have concerns. No transfer is a sure thing. But in theory, Zinchenko is another top addition tactically for us, and another player with a point to prove.

I’ll leave you with this. Zinchenko once made a rap music video. It’s gold, go watch it. And I promise you, if we win the league with him in an Arsenal shirt, I will recreate every last moment of it. Maybe Zinchenko could lend me his…

Alexander Moneypenny, (@AMonFootball)

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