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The Most Important Man While Jesus Is Injured

With Jesus injured, this man could be the most important figure in keeping Arsenal’s identity fluid and dangerous.

On December 3rd, when Jesus got hurt, a collective inhale and holding of breath occurred. It will have been just about every single Arsenal fan’s worst nightmare heading into an unprecedented mid-season World Cup when Arsenal were on top of the league.

If you had asked people at the start of the year which players the team could not afford to get injured, you’d probably have received two or three consistent answers: Jesus, Partey, Saka.

After his injury, Jesus had been lively on social media, but Arteta had been reserved in his responses when asked about return dates. Finally, a small answer was coaxed from the managers lips and the response likely left most fans uneasy. The summary of his response: patience. 

“He’s progressing really well, he’s working really hard, he’s in the right place in his recovery in relation to the time that we set for him, but he’s still a bit far [off a return], to be fair,” said Arteta. 

“I’d like to see him very quickly but I don’t think that’s going to happen. We’re going to have to be patient with that one and let’s see.”

Understandably, in Jesus’ absence, eyes turned to Eddie Nketiah, albeit many giving him a concerned look. Arsenal find themselves pacesetting the league at a blistering 2.61 points per game pace, just under a 100 point pace.

The margins are tight at the top of the table, draws to third place teams now almost feel like losses, and finding ways to maintain this rate is what it will take to claim the title come May. In order to do that, Arsenal have to find ways to replicate and replace what Jesus offered, while playing to their available squad’s strengths. 

To Eddie’s credit, he has proved a lot of people wrong, myself included, who had concerns over his contribution levels across long stretches. Having said that, how fans feel about him will be judged across the full span of fixtures and his ability to contribute day in and day out for three-plus months. As of right now, few Arsenal fans will find much to complain about.

Nketiah is noticeably playing better and better each game with Tottenham being his best fixture. The only surprise was that Arsenal’s proverbial fox-in-the-box was let down by his finishing touch. His movement was great. His contributions to the build-up play helped breakdown and isolate Spurs fullbacks and have steadily improved as he has gotten more minutes. 

In fact, the only game I have found myself really saying I miss Jesus was Newcastle. I don’t think people would cast blame at Eddie for the Newcastle result, and I wouldn’t either. He played well and was able to battle toe-to-toe with the best defense in the league without looking out of place. The one thing I missed was Jesus’ ability to come wide and deep, get on the ball, turn, and really run at the backline with that devastatingly agile pace to make something happen on his own. Eddie has the ability to run at defenders in space, but I wouldn’t say his game lies in slaloming runs through tight spaces to create for himself or draw defenders to slip in others. 

All of that is fine! He has his physical play and stands a little closer on the spectrum to that out-and-out center forward.

This time is about Arsenal adjusting their game to put Nketiah, Martinelli, Saka, and even Ødegaard in dangerous positions to devastate. And without that Jesus ability to really self create, one figure stands poised to be Arsenal’s biggest difference-maker down the stretch: Zinchenko

A Title Race Difference Maker

When Oleksandr Zinchenko arrived at Arsenal this summer, the intent was clear: elevate the technical level and control of this team to dominate opponents in their half and amp up the fluidity.

At the beginning of the season, I had put out a thread on twitter about this obvious desire from Arteta and what it likely meant for Kieran Tierney — a player who admittedly has grown in his ability to invert but still remain steps behind Zinchenko in the role.

For the most part, this forecasting vision has come true. I have been impressed with the strides that Tierney has made to evolve his game to be effective centrally, but the fact is, Zinchenko’s profile and skillset embody the next evolution of the Arteta vision we have become familiar with this year.

But what makes “Zinny” not just a difference-maker but “the most important player in Jesus’ absence”?

Tactical Intelligence

There is not a single, crucial player or leader within this Arsenal squad that doesn’t possess elite levels of tactical intelligence. Understanding this complex, fluid system Arteta is setting forth demands high IQ from players to allow them to execute it at a high level, but also be proactive in their movement and actions.

When I think of tactical intelligence within this Arsenal squad, most of the players possess high levels, but the spine of this team especially: Jesus, Ødegaard, Xhaka, Partey, Saliba and Gabriel in their own right, and, of course, Zinchenko. Everyone is well aware of the fact that Zinchenko arrived at Arsenal after years spent under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage in a similar, inverted role. This role, and his ability to play it at this elite level, was born out of his foundational experience growing up as an attacking midfielder. It’s here where he really honed his skills and much of his astute intelligence.

Being asked to play in much the same way has given Zinchenko that leg up and really allowed him to combine this familiarity and tactical intelligence to open up a box of expanded-role potential.

Many now refer to his position within this team as “the Zinny role”.

A role that starts at the left back position, drifts inward creating a partnership with Partey, almost seeing Zinchenko play a #6 role at times, and then push up the field as Arsenal progress through their phases of play, into the final attacking third. A good way to get a glimpse of this is through his season heatmap (source: SofaScore).

Based on his “hot zones” alone you can see a player that occupies areas usually associated with left backs, defensive midfielders, and left-sided attacking midfielders. In fact, Zinchenko’s heatmap expands more much centrally compared to his fullback partner Ben White. Maybe not surprising, but it’s an aspect made possible given Zinchenko’s midfield experience, technical security, and tactical intelligence. The whole package makes him and incredibly special figure within this team.

Technical Security

Just mentioned above as an aspect that makes Zinchenko’s “Zinny role” possible, it would be criminal not to talk about his technical security.

Seen in Pep Guardiola systems, and now definitely within this evolving Arsenal side, is almost a philosophy that asks, “how many midfield-like players can one fit within a team”. In the pursuit of this vision, advancing evolving the fullback role has seen the placement of a highly secure, technical controller in these areas to dominate the midfield, create overloads that are difficult to track, seize the ball and possess, and keep the attack angles fluid and varied.

From the left back role, Zinchenko provides Arsenal the following stats:

  • Most passes attempted per 90
  • Most completed passes per 90
  • 3rd highest completion % of regular starters (behind Saliba and Gabriel)
  • 6th highest progressive passing distance per 90
  • 2nd most progressive passes per 90 (.03 behind Partey)
  • The highest tackles per 90 in the attacking third (think about that one!)
  • Third highest tackles per 90 of regular starters (behind White and Partey)

Between his technical security and tactical intelligence he unlocks an ability to play such a calm, composed, and fluid game for Arsenal. But it also unlocks one of the best relationships in the league.

The Zinchenko-Partey Relationship

When many talk about Zinchenko, they use the word “calm”. When people talk about Partey, they also use the word calm. And when the two come together centrally they force opposition to respond to the overload. Because of this pairings technical security, ability to unlock a defense with a well placed pass, and Partey’s ability to carry the ball through the press, the opposition finds itself in a position where it can’t shut down every option often.

Given Arsenal builds play from the back, this overload often means Saliba, Gabriel, or Ramsdale have options to play through Zinchenko, Partey, or down the wings and through to the frontline if the opposition attempts to press forward and close this duo down.

Moving up the pitch, toward the attacking third, Zinchenko’s ability to run the midfield in the left half-space means that Xhaka has been allowed to push up and into that front, attacking five. While Xhaka’s output has simmered since returning from the World Cup, his presence in that attack is pivotal for making defenses stay accountable and preventing them from sitting on Eddie or Martinelli on the left side. Additionally, Zinchenko and Xhaka’s comfort levels in each others spaces allow them to fluidly swap and exchange to cause problems or break a press.

Meanwhile, behind the usual attacking line, Partey and Zinchenko can rove when the ball builds down the right through Ødegaard, White, and Saka, OR Arsenal are able to quickly launch their transition movement that sees build up play start down the left wing and switch over to Saka to spring an opportunistic 1v1 with his defender.

Game after game, Arsenal fans have seen this relationship with ZInchenko inverting to join Partey get stronger and the first half against Tottenham was one of their more impressive 45 minutes of the season.

Outcomes

So what are the outcomes of this, and how does it make him Arsenal’s most important player?

While Eddie Nketiah is proving to be a really impressive backup striker and one that can effectively help Arsenal win games, backups are backups for a reason. There are many things he offers, a few that Jesus does not offer, but at this point it’s probably unrealistic to expect Eddie to offer us that star-level of “wow-factor” that comes with some of Jesus’ playmaking. He also is simply not as good of an out of possession defender/presser (in his defense, Jesus might be the best in the world, at least according to Tite and Pep).

And when Arsenal don’t have someone like Jesus to make those slaloming runs, to change up the attack and keep a defense constantly guessing where the next attack is coming from at that same level, or to create those chances — they need to have someone that can really be a difference maker around the box, allowing Eddie to stay physical in those central areas around the goal mouth where he wants to be.

Zinchnko has the ability to step up and be that guy.

His technical security and tactical intelligence allow him to be in the right places all the time to keep Arsenal’s attack moving fluidly from left to right to central and back in order to unlock defenses not through solo dribbling and playmaking, but through exquisite ball movement and player movement. He marshals the left side allowing Ødegaard and Saka to be in positions to devastate on the right and across the top of the box.

Zinny’s ability to slip a ball into tight areas or pick out a pass creates opportunities for Arsenal to vary their attacking angles, push the ball at different tempos, and really dictate the play to stretch and expose opposing defensive setups. Nothing feels stagnant and static with him orchestrating.

On the defensive side, he shows time and time again that keen ability to make an intervention during counter-pressing phases, as seen by his most tackles in the attacking-third per 90, and he possesses the mobility to pick up loose balls and retain or regain possession.

While the defensive side of his game is weaker in the defensive third, especially when 1v1 with an opposition attacker, and his drifting central is something that can be exposed by a quick counter transition down his side, it takes nothing away from how crucial he is to this team whose identity revolves around dominating spaces, controlling the ball, lots of fluidity, and tempo dictation.

By allowing Eddie to be Eddie and Arsenal to really control games with the cool, calm, and collected dominance Arteta envisions — Zinchenko really could be Arsenal’s most important figure while Jesus is out (and maybe even when he returns).

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