It was an afternoon that nearly saw Manchester City’s season fall apart, but an unlikely hero stepped in.
City trailed Aston Villa 1-0 at half-time on the final day of last season. Liverpool would go on to beat Wolves at Anfield, so Pep Guardiola needed inspiration or the title would fall into the hands of Jurgen Klopp.
During the break, Guardiola turned to his bench. Raheem Sterling was there, as well as Ilkay Gundogan and Jack Grealish. But it was Oleksandr Zinchenko who was chosen, replacing makeshift centre-back Fernandinho in a reshuffle of City’s defence.
The constitution and shape of the team had to change and Zinchenko was the man to help. The Ukraine international went to left-back and dictated the game, making 13 runs in the second half and setting up Rodri for City’s equalizer to make it 2-2. City, who suddenly seemed more fluid, won the match – and the title.
Sterling and Gundogan would join Zinchenko on the bench and make more notable impacts in the final third, reducing the latter to unsung hero status. As this could be his last game in a City shirt, it could well be a fitting end for Zinchenko, who has rarely been in the spotlight at the Etihad Stadium.
Arsenal are close to bidding for the Ukraine international – and given how easily the pursuit of Gabriel Jesus has gone – Zinchenko could well be granted his move to north London. Versatile, technically gifted and reliable are words associated with the 25-year-old Manchester City player, and here’s why…
Where he fits in at Arsenal
Mikel Arteta has considered left-back and central midfield additions in this summer transfer window. The Gunners wanted Ajax’s Lisandro Martinez, who has experience in both positions as well as centre-half, but he now appears destined for Manchester United. Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans has also been looked into, but that interest has cooled in recent weeks.
There’s a reason the Arsenal manager needs support in this role. At left-back, Kieran Tierney has picked up long-term injuries over the past two seasons at crucial times and while Nuno Tavares was signed as cover last summer, the young Portuguese full-back has struggled in big moments and found himself behind Cedric Soares and Granit Xhaka in the left-back pecking order at the end of the season.
In midfield, Xhaka is a mainstay in Arteta’s side but there is little competition for his specific role. Thomas Partey, Mohamed Elneny and Albert Sambi Lokonga are all vying for the same position at Arsenal’s midfield base, leaving Xhaka in the number 8 role. £1 Fabio Vieira would be a bit of a risk, given that two have the experience of being No.10.
If he played in midfield, a role he regularly performs at international level, Zinchenko would rival Xhaka at Arsenal – and a closer look at their respective heatmaps last season shows the two playing in the same area of the pitch, although the Ukrainian played at left-back and the Arsenal man operated from midfield.
On the ball, Zinchenko’s passing stats are better than Xhaka’s – but that’s to be expected given Guardiola’s City keep the ball and use it better than Arsenal. But even then, the Ukrainian has earned the respect of his Premier League champions teammates for being one of the most technically gifted players in the squad.
When asked in a recent YouTube interview about the City squad, fellow full-back Kyle Walker listed Zinchenko among his top three most talented teammates on the ball – ahead of Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Joao Cancelo.
“My top three are Zinchenko, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva,” Walker said. “Two touches, head tennis – all good.
“You leave De Bruyne aside, Foden [and] to cancel [too]but they don’t come close to these three.”
On top of that, Zinchenko and City defended far less than Arsenal last summer, but the Ukraine international’s defensive stats still trump Xhaka’s. Zinchenko has won more tackles, interceptions and air challenges than the Swiss midfielder – a reminder that both players operate in roughly the same area of the pitch.
Xhaka wins more midfield challenges than Zinchenko – but that’s the Arsenal man’s specialty. The Swiss captain ranks among the top 10 players for winning the ball.
If Zinchenko is needed at left-back, there would be no problem fitting him into the Arsenal setup.
Tierney moves into a very forward role, allowing left winger Emile Smith Rowe or Gabriel Martinelli to slip in to support the centre-forward. Although this differs slightly from Zinchenko’s full-back role at City – which is more of an extra midfielder – there is evidence that the Ukrainian can transition quickly.
In an excerpt from Manchester City All or nothing documentary from the 2017-18 season, Arteta was seen trying to make Zinchenko the type of full-back that Tierney currently represents.
“Danilo and Oleks have to attack this guy [the opposition full-back] like a winger, for the other side to come out,” said Arteta, who was asked by Guardiola to come up with a plan to bypass Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal.
And Zinchenko’s stats from last season show why he would adapt quickly to Arteta’s Arsenal – whatever position he played in. Sixth-best pass completion rate, Zinchenko shows he wants the ball and keeps it too.
Pep’s praise for reliable Oleks
Zinchenko also matches Arteta’s team in terms of the player profile 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 were signed in the last two summer windows.
And Zinchenko’s profile is very similar to Odegaard’s in that he started leading his country at a very young age. The Ukraine international became his country’s youngest skipper at 19 and his four Premier League titles, five other English domestic titles and 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 for the past three or four years playing in a position which is not his natural position,” the Spaniard said after having played a starring role in City’s 4-3 win over Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final.
“When you’re not playing your natural position, you’re [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 spirit.
“He will do it every day. But above all it is not an easy time for Oleks, what happened to his relatives [in Ukraine], the citizens. It was a difficult and challenging time for him personally.
“Oleks is so reliable because he’s always focused and always focused. That’s incredibly appreciated in the dressing room. Defending is about attitude, not talent. Oleks is always there, he’s not the most fast but his concentration is there.”
Reliable is an unusual word to describe Arsenal players, especially those who Zinchenko will be vying for a starting spot. Perhaps this unlikely hero at City is placed in the spotlight for his time elsewhere.