Oleksandr Zinchenko’s Unexpected Breakthrough

“Zinchenko is talented, but he must be realistic. He must get the experience and game practice. He can only play for Manchester City on his Playstation”.

Former Liverpool and Ukraine striker Andriy Voronin said these words about Manchester City’s attacking midfielder turned left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko, who is flourishing with regular appearances for Pep Guardiola’s high-flying league leaders.

Voronin wasn’t the only one to write Zinchenko’s chances at City off, however. The young Ukrainian was sent to PSV Eindhoven almost immediately after signing for City for £1.5m from FC Ufa in Russia, and struggled for game time, registering just 493 minutes in the Eredvisie, and thus found himself playing for reserve side Jong PSV. Following this, many fans thought it was time to move on for Zinchenko, and that he would never make it at a top level.

Despite this, injuries to Benjamin Mendy and subsequently Fabian Delph left Pep Guardiola with a problem at left back, and it is testament to Zinchenko’s ability that Pep has instilled his trust in him over Champions League winner and Danilo on a number of occasions.

He has excelled in an unnatural position for City when he has played, notably being a very key player in the buildup in games against Leicester and Newcastle. His defensive abilities have been tested, but he is learning with every minute under Guardiola’s leadership.

Most recently, however, the City boss trusted Zinchenko to play against Chelsea, the first time he has started against a ‘top six’ club. Pep’s decision paid off. In his 87 minutes on the pitch, Zinchenko managed 147 passes with 97% accuracy, which is the fifth highest number of passes in Premier League history. When Chelsea did attack, which was rare, they tried to exploit Zinchenko’s flank with the pace and energy of Willian and Moses, but the young full back answered every question thrown at him.

Zinchenko was born in Radomyshl, Ukraine, and moved to Ukrainian League giants Shakhtar Donetsk at age 13. He made the team of the tournament at the U17 European Championships despite Ukraine losing all three games.

He was destined for the top from a very young age, it would seem. However, Zinchenko has been through the mill with political controversies off the field. War in the region forced him and his family to flee the area, and he terminated his contract with Shakhtar. Ukraine decided not to call him up for the national team due to political tension between Ukraine and Russia, and although Zinchenko probably made the move for the good of his career, it backfired, and he was considered a traitor.

Eventually, Zinchenko signed for Russian outfit FC Ufa, after a turbulent few months that saw the youngster forced to train by himself on the streets of Moscow.

Now 21-years-old, Zinchenko is the third youngest player to have been capped by the Ukraine national side – third to only Sergiy Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko, both of whom went on to have careers at the highest level. The latter, is who Zinchenko says is his idol, spoke with high praise for the City youngster, saying: “He’s improving a lot, it’s great to see him play”.

Evidently, Zinchenko has talent, and if there is one man to notice raw talent from a distance, it is Pep Guardiola. When at Bayern, Pep had to quarrel for the board to authorize the signing of Joshua Kimmich from RB Leipzig, a player who Pep had spent hours and hours watching in reserve games on cold afternoons. Pep saw a raw talent that nobody else, even his most trusted assistant Manuel Estiarte did not get on board with. Five years on, Kimmich is transforming into one of the best full backs in world football. It is this raw talent that Guardiola obviously sees in Zinchenko, as he had to persuade City’s hierarchy to keep the Ukrainian at the club.

Like Kimmich, Zinchenko has had to move position to full back to get minutes, but this doesn’t symbolize a setback in his development. The two are completely different players that cannot be compared, but similar in how they have been rooted by Guardiola. At left back, this system allows Zinchenko to thrive, contributing to the build up, whilst offering width allowing Silva and De Bruyne more space in the middle.

With every passing game, Zinchenko looks like a typical Guardiola full-back – energetic, brilliant in possession, tactically aware. Defensively, there is much work to be done, but he will improve with time.

Above all, however, it is his attitude and work-ethic that will serve Zinchenko best in the long term. He takes the ‘first in last out’ attitude to training every day, and looks a charismatic player to have in the dressing room.

I have no doubt that Oleks Zinchenko will make it as a top player, be at City or not. Although still a very long way to go, Zinchenko is another one off the Guardiola production line who tick-boxes all key criteria to succeed – evident talent, work ethic, desire to succeed.

Writer: Lewis Steele

Photo: Getty