Mikel Arteta was dealt a huge blow when Arsenal missed out on not one but two primary transfer targets Raphinha and Lisandro Martinez. Arsenal have since been continuing their transfer business at a more deliberate pace, in contrast to the initial rush of activity to bring Fabio Vieira and Gabriel Jesus to the club.
Bringing in a top-quality wide forward to bolster options in attack remains a priority for Arteta and technical director Edu. The Gunners also required technical depth in the left side of defence, which Manchester United-bound Martinez’s rare profile would’ve been perfect for. However, after deeming the pricetag set by Ajax too high, Arsenal decided to turn elsewhere.
For the second time this window, Arteta turned his attention to a player he has worked with before at his former club, Manchester City. Oleksandr Zinchenko is a natural alternative to Martinez in the sense that he improves the technical quality in defence whilst also offering similar versatility.
While Martinez would’ve been able to provide starting quality at both left back and left-centre back, Zinchenko provides high quality at left back and central midfield – another position where Arsenal could improve, hence the Youri Tielemans and Lucas Paqueta links.
Whilst the Ukrainian international can play in midfield to a top standard and is an upgrade on Granit Xhaka in the left 8 role, he’ll likely start most games at left back given how prone to injury Kieran Tierney is and the fact that Nuno Tavares, who could be loaned out as a result of this transfer, is still so raw.
Arteta wants to add Zinchenko to his squad mainly for his technical ability. Kyle Walker recently had high praise for his former teammate when he ranked Zinchenko among City’s three most technically gifted players, above the likes of Joao Cancelo, Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne. “They don’t come close,” Walker said. “Zinchenko is incredible. So, so good.”
This is obvious when watching Zinchenko pass the ball. The quality and weight of his passes are always clean, firm and accurate. He’s patient with the selection of his passes too – he will rarely force it.
He’s also incredibly press resistant thanks to his sublime close control and turning radius. He also effectively receives the ball in the half-space between the lines and crosses from deep, making him a top-quality central midfield option.
Zinchenko also boasts top ball striking ability, which is evident in the line-breaking passes he regularly pulls off as well as his ability to deliver pinpoint crosses into the box. Gabriel Martinelli in particular will thrive off Zinchenko’s defence-splitting through balls in behind, so expect his goals and assists tally to surge.
It seems likely Arteta will tweak his system and utilise Zinchenko as an inverted left back, a role he excelled at under Pep Guardiola. Here he is tasked with operating in central areas where has license to underlap or overlap, depending on the situation. He’s a completely different profile to Tierney, who primarily excels as a wide threat, so provides the manager with an alternative option, rather than a backup.
When play is active down the opposite flank, Zinchenko will be tasked with tucking in and joining the #6 in midfield to maintain central compactness in preparation for a potential counterattack. This is with the assumption that Arsenal will field a more advanced #8 on the left side ala Tielemans or Paqueta.
Though he doesn’t boast the same amount of dynamism as Tierney, he is still comfortable operating as a traditional wide full back, where he can provide crosses into the box or rotate and combine with the likes of Gabriel Martinelli, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Jesus.
The Ukrainian will provide the experience and calmness in possession that Xhaka offers but with the added bonus of being nimble thanks to his low centre of gravity. The fact that Zinchenko can turn on a dime and in all directions is so rare for a left back. It’s hard to argue against this being a top signing at £30 million.
The additional intangibles that come with acquiring Zinchenko combined with his tactical intelligence and flexibility are what really make this a top signing. At 25 years old, he is entering his prime years yet is already hugely experienced in the Premier League, being part of a team that has won the competition multiple times using an almost identical system to Arsenal’s.
The move just makes too much sense for both parties. Arsenal are adding a top technical player with an exceptional mentality to an inexperienced group, whilst Zinchenko gets regular minutes for a top club.
Of course, Zinchenko isn’t completely flawless. His weakness is probably his defending and in particular his physicality out of possession. He isn’t strong enough to knock forwards off the ball like his counterparts Tierney and Tavares. Zinchenko realises this and rarely opts not to dive in and instead holds back when defending, allowing his teammates to get back and cover.
Despite this, Arteta’s long-term plan is to defend with the ball, much like Guardiola’s sides, hence the focus on technical quality in their recruitment (Ben White, Aaron Ramsdale etc.). Zinchenko is so good technically that he’ll play a massive part in why Arsenal keep the ball so often and thus defending 1v1 situations will be less common.
All in all, whilst Arteta would’ve preferred to land Lisandro Martinez, Zinchenko is a fantastic alternative. Whether Arsenal continue to address the depth in central defence the former would’ve provided remains to be seen.
It is certainly an area Arteta will want to have sorted by the start of next season, but they’ll probably stick with having Rob Holding as a contingency option for now. Of course, they also have Takehiro Tomiyasu who can fill in should injuries occur to Ben White, William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes.
They may even sign a starting quality right back to displace Cedric Soares because of this, which may explain the brief Kyle Walker-Peters links a couple of weeks back. Of course, they also have hot prospects Brooke Norton-Cuffy and Reuell Walters breaking through who may provide internal solutions, though it could be a little too early for them, particularly for the latter.
As for Zinchenko though, he will essentially carry out Xhaka’s typical role on the ball (circulation of play, line-breaking passes, etc) but from left back, allowing an additional midfielder to join attacks from the left 8 – be it Ødegaard, Smith Rowe or possibly even Tielemans/Paqueta.
He’ll fast become a key character in the dressing room, as he is for his national side, for whom he has displayed a number of outstanding performances from both left back and central midfield.
Oleksandr Zinchenko ticks all the technical, tactical and psychological boxes that Mikel Arteta desires, who is already very familiar with his skill and character. But the kid he first met at the Etihad now arrives in North London as a man and an experienced player with exceptional quality.
By: James Lloyd / @Jlloyd20000
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Marc Atkins / Getty Images