In the 61st minute of Arsenal’s match against Aston Villa, down 2-1, Zinchenko stood all the way on the right side, just outside the box. As a pass from Martin Ødegaard rolled in his direction, he curved his body shape to let the ball roll across his body to put his laces through it. Not that he would know it, but the obviousness of his intended actions was met with groans of frustration across the world.
As the smashed hit, streaked past the outstretched paw of Emi Martinez and buried itself in the near-post corner, those groans were cut short and morphed into an eruption of ecstasy. With his first Premier League goal, Zinchenko levels Arsenal and breaths life back into a side desperate for three points in their race for a title.
“It was 2-2 and we wanted to score another one, so there was no time for celebrations,” he said after the match. “I’m so happy to help the team, but for me, the three points were the priority.
In added time at the end of the match, as Gabriel Martinelli raced toward certain victory and tucks away a fourth on an empty net, Arsenal’s Bench Cam shows Zinchenko off the bench and aflame with passion.
His whole celebration of this goal is a spectacle of focused, passionate energy. He knows what this means. As a four-time Premier League winner, high-stakes moments like these have filled his career. However, he would be the first to tell you his responsibility at Arsenal, the burden he carries for the Gunners, far outweighs his task with Manchester City. He’s a leader here.
Passion. A characteristic no one could accuse Zinchenko of being short on. But his passion for the thrill of competition and his evident love for Arsenal and the fans, doesn’t absolve him of errors, and it shouldn’t.
In fact, in the past week, many fans have taken it upon themselves to put Zinchenko under the microscope in a major way. Like a defendant on trial, people have laid claims at his feet as if evidence of crimes committed by him that lead to Arsenal’s struggles.
Claims that he’s the reason Arsenal are bad. That Zinchenko ruins this team. That Zinchenko is not the left back this team needs, despite the fact that he’s played a major role in some of Arsenal’s best performances.
Is it a witch hunt? Perhaps not. Perhaps thats as dramatic as my analogy of him sitting trial. But it’s lead to a rampant sensitivity and scrutiny to every move he makes, pass he attempts, shot he takes, and touch that people have differing opinions about. Redemption from this state seems to take the stairs while mistakes plummet in the elevator.
He’s not the first player to suffer from scrutiny like this, but he is the latest, and the whole thing feels unjust.
A few months ago, when Arsenal were strolling past teams with emphatic performances, the talk was about just how special a player he was for this team. That it was he who contributed in all phases, helped keep the team ticking, offered attacking versatility in the final third and perfected a left side that simultaneously looked controlled yet dangerous at the flip of a switch.
And therein lies some of the problem. Arsenal’s left side has floundered since the season returned after the World Cup. And while the reasoning for that is far more complex than “Zinchenko problems”, people have looked to foist blame on a singular person. In his case, it’s the player that now makes the most passes and takes the most touches.
Versus Aston Villa, Zinchenko had 100 touches, most of the team. He made 89 passes, most on the team. And his role since Gabriel Jesus picked up his injury has expanded. That expanded role inflated even further when Thomas Partey suffered an injury. He is now a player that inverts to help in the build up, has the ball funneled through him, pushes up the pitch to his normal left half-space, plays all across the middle at different times, helps make up for Jorginho’s immobility (or less mobile than Partey at least), and marshals a team that has been zeroed in on by opposition tactics and become a touch more predictable.
His heatmap is just incredible out for a left back:
But the reality is, it’s too reductive to call Zinhenko a left back. It’s why people often refer to his responsibilities as “the Zinny role”. To say he “just needs to do what left backs do and be simple”, is to undervalue and dismiss the assistance he provides so many other players.
Zinchenko solves issues in the buildup phase by joining Partey (or Jorginho) to create that numerical superiority. It forces a press to decide whether the deny Partey or him or supply the extra numbers to close down both players and vacate the wings. Only Manchester City have proven themselves capable of deploying a high press that could simultaneously deny all three options with relative frequency. Personally, I doubt there’s another team in the league with the talent or tactical coaching capable.
As I mentioned earlier, his responsibilities have clearly expanded up the pitch. Earlier this season, in the wake of Jesus’ injury, I heralded Zinchenko as the most important man while Jesus is injured, a label I not only standby but feel has been proven within Arsenal’s struggles.
During Arsenal’s four match slide, a period in which they have looked their worst all season, Zinchenko was off. The complaints that he was sloppy at times and poor in his delivery weren’t unfounded. To argue such would be silly. But as he struggled, Arsenal’s attack, in part, did as well. It’s a team game. I won’t outright suggest, “it’s all Zinchenko!!” like a madman missing his tinfoil hat, but the stagnant attack felt like a plug created by a culmination of a few things.
Outside Zinchenko’s control was a lack of clinical finishing that separates tight margins. Within his control was a player that was sloppier on the ball, wasn’t making his reads and hitting his passes, and he has lost his passing zip. A zip that has defined this side’s identity, but was lost during this stretch.
As teams have cued into the need to stay compact centrally and dedicate two men to doubling up the wingers, it’s come in conjunction with Nketiah not drifting left as Jesus does and a Granit Xhaka that has withdrawn from those well-timed, deep attacking positions that netted him 3 goals and 5 assists. In the most simple fashion, an overlapping fullback can help free up the wings and pull a defender. People have noted it, and that’s where the shouts for Tierney are born.
But as a long-time Tierney admirer, dating back to before he was on Arsenal’s radar, when I watched him as a part-time Celtic fan, Tierney to Zinchenko is much like Nketiah to Jesus, but closer to Zinchenko’s talent level. That is to say, Tierney plays the game differently.
For everything that Tierney can offer in this situation – a frequent overlap, a dynamic drive, and better defender – there are aspects of this role that he cannot help Arsenal with. Before late last season, he had never been asked to play as an inverted left back. He had never had the demands of being a ‘makeshift midfielder’ heaped onto his plate the way this season’s ask has been. He’s has never been expected to be a player that has 110 touches of the ball as Zinchenko did versus Brentford.
Tierney plays the game his way and is fantastic at it. He’s even learning that inverted role, and admittedly has made good strides in doing so. After all, he is being asked to not only learn it, but perform it at Premier League wining levels.
When his number is called I have very few concerns. But it changes the way Arsenal have to play in other areas of play. It’s one less player that Arteta barks his orders through knowing they will be executed exactly has he envisages. It’s one less technical controller, it’s a different form of creation, and it removes a player that makes this team tick.
To cast that aside simply for the overlap potential feels rash. Is there a game and opposition to make that switch? Absolutely. Is it a game where the team is in a low-block and Arsenal are looking to pick the lock? For me, no. It’s not even most games.
Arteta’s usage of subs, especially in the late stages of Brentford and Manchester City, likely back this sentiment up. The value of Zinchenko to this system can’t be overstated, especially with Jesus and Partey’s absence.
He IS being asked to do more. He IS having more of a burden heaped upon his back. He IS someone that will have to rise to the occasion, but Arsenal need it to be HIM that rises if they want to play how Arteta wants them to play. As Saturday showed, in a tale of two halves, when Zinchenko is bad, Arsenal look bad. When Zinchenko is ticking and clicking, Arsenal score three goals and complete their comeback against Aston Villa.
A real litmus test for this is fast approaching. Gabriel Jesus is back in training and many are counting on his return to be a godsend. Intersecting with this return could be the return of Thomas Partey. The expectation will be that Arsenal’s left side sparks itself back into life and overcomes the double-team challenges set before them. That Zinchenko can take a slight step back and play a little more within himself after three months of his expanded role, and Arsenal’s attack will return to the humming form seen in the first half of the season.
Before then, Zinchenko is unlikely to see any of his minutes reduced and fans will have to take a deep breath and expand their recognition of what he supplies this team. He’s become a player that’s micro-analyzed and judged on each individual action, not on the culmination of his influence. He IS a player that team needs in the lineup. He’s asked to take the most touches, complete the most passes, assist in all phases of play, and marshal the side. You just don’t remove that influence from a side.
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