When Arsenal and Mikel Arteta got their hands on Oleksandr Zinchenko, there was a feeling of familiarity and a notion that he could seamlessly fit into the new era of the football club. Of course, the pair have had a history at Manchester City, but since Arteta left the club to join Arsenal, the Ukrainian has grown to another level.
Zinchenko’s story at Man City is rare, one that defied all the odds as he was signed with the motive of making a profit (of course, City has done that now). Loaned to PSV in 2016, the then 21-year-old Alex found himself in Pep Guardiola’s plan out of nowhere the following season.
He turned down offers from several teams after a streak of convincing performances to remain at Man City and contend for a spot. His contribution to Manchester City’s 20/21 season, during which they won the double and advanced to their first-ever UEFA Champions League final, was a result of this approach and mentality, which ultimately paid off.
However, Arteta’s call now was perhaps hard to ignore. Although Zinchenko is still a work in progress, Arsenal will undoubtedly benefit from his talent. It’s difficult to predict how the Gunners manager will use his recent addition, but the two preseason games have already given supporters a taste of what they can anticipate from a player who is always developing.
Arsenal vs Chelsea – Florida Cup
Arsenal had an incredible pre-season campaign with the team gelling together on the pitch. After 3 years of chopping and changing the squad, Arteta has finally got the players going in the same direction. Tactically, he has experimented with a few setups, but Arsenal seems to be in cohesion with what the manager wants.
Zinchenko, meanwhile, made his debut against Chelsea after the Gunners played a couple of pre-season games. Contrary to the inverted role the former Man City man has usually played, Arteta used him as a proper fullback this time.
His relationship with Xhaka in and out of possession
Although it was his first game in a red shirt, Zinchenko had an excellent connection with Granit Xhaka from minute one. Here, you could see him and Xhaka interchanging positions on the ball. Both the players are similar in possession and Zinchenko, being a midfielder by trade, is an added advantage. It could provide a variety in another area of the pitch for Arsenal.
This interchange also happened off the ball when Arteta decided to use Martinelli to press the center half. As a result, Zinchenko pressed the right back and Xhaka covered his position on the left flank.
Zinchenko’s passing range
Another advantage of using Zinchenko wide is his ability to pick out a pass with precision. He rarely loses possession and has been praised for his ability to break the lines with a pass. According to Fbref, he is also ranked in the 99th percentile for progressive passes and 98th percentile for pass completion%.
From the preseason games, it was clear that Arsenal is building up on one side of the pitch and quickly switching it to the other to create overloads. Zinchenko is tailormade for this and here is one example where his switch of play put Bukayo Saka in a 1v1 situation against the opposing fullback.
Arteta also used him wide against a narrow Chelsea block which gave him acres of space. Cutbacks are another trade he has developed over the years at Man City. Although we did not witness this against Chelsea, the 25-year-old has shown this ability with his former team. Guardiola has played him as a natural fullback and he has undoubtedly progressed in this part of the game as well.
Arsenal vs Sevilla – The Emirates Stadium
90 minutes on the pitch against Sevilla followed a 45-minute appearance for Zinchenko. And his role changed this time. Arteta played him as an inverted fullback as Arsenal shifted to a 2-3-5 shape in possession. Once again, his rotation with Xhaka was evident as he dragged the opposition winger inside to provide space for the Switzerland international.
This also meant that Martinelli was left stranded with the Sevilla fullback in a 1v1 situation. From an inverted role, Zinchenko’s under-lapping runs were evident as well. Here is also where his stunning passing range comes into play. Martinelli, known for his explosiveness, makes a run-in behind the fullback and he picks him with ease.
Interestingly, Arteta seems to use Zinchenko as a hybrid in different phases of play. During the first phase or in a high press situation, the Ukrainian stays wide, and Arsenal players use him as an out ball to evade the press.
Here is an example of how the keeper Aaron Ramsdale seeks him. Moreover, his technical ability and the way he handles the ball mean the players can rely on him to maintain possession.
The £30 million singing has also come leaps and bounds in terms of defending. Question marks about this work off the ball at left back have always been raised, but over the past two years, he has quickly grown into a reliable defender. The stats back it up as well. As per Fbref, he has 3.28 tackles plus interceptions per 90 last season compared to 2.81 back in 2020/21.
Furthermore, for a 5’9″ player, he is unusually strong aerially, which could prove to be an important aspect for the Gunners’ defensive unit. However, it is fair to say that his defensive instincts are a work in progress, and his ability to track opposition runners needs improvement.
With that being said, Zinchenko will certainly slot in smoothly with Arteta’s men. Arsenal fans will also relate to his fighting mentality and emotions on the pitch. A midfield role could beckon for him as the season progresses, and it will be interesting to see how Arteta uses him as a number 8.
For now, the glorious atmosphere at Selhurst Park on a Friday Night awaits Arsenal. Zinchenko is expected to make his debut against Crystal Palace as the 13-time League champions look to kick off the season positively.