Arsenal have quickly outgrown £30m liability; it’s time for Arteta to copy Pep again

Jason Soutar
Arsenal left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko with Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta
Arsenal left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko with Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta

Oleksandr Zinchenko has always divided opinion amongst the Arsenal fanbase but it looks like the vast majority of the Emirates faithful have now turned on the left-back, which is quite the turnaround in 12 months.

A large part of the Gunners’ unexpected push for Premier League glory in 2022/23 was attributed to the signings of Manchester City duo Gabriel Jesus and Zinchenko, who brought a winning mentality, experience, leadership, and know-how in a title race.

The latter had played a crucial role in City’s comeback victory at home to Aston Villa on the last day of the previous season, a win that clinched the title ahead of Liverpool. He came off the bench at half-time with the score at 0-1 and was highly influential in a dramatic conclusion to 21/22.

Zinchenko had his fair share of injury problems last season, particularly with his calf, but Mikel Arteta did not miss him too much when absent during the opening months of the campaign; he only made seven Premier League appearances for his new club before the World Cup break. There were some red flags, but not enough to think Arsenal should give up on such a talented footballer.

Zinchenko has been a lot more available this season but more games means Arsenal fans have realised just how much of a liability he is defensively.

They always knew defending was not his strong point. His incredible technical ability was almost enough to make this downside to his game ignorable. Still, with the Ukrainian international looking out-of-sorts on the ball and leaving the Gunners exposed going the other way, there is an agreement amongst the club’s supporters that Jakub Kiwior or Takehiro Tomiyasu should come in for the rest of the season, unless Jurrien Timber returns.

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Kiwior had a difficult afternoon against Manchester City but ultimately did not cost Arsenal; they drew 0-0. A midweek clash against Luton Town gave Arteta the perfect opportunity to reintegrate Zinchenko after some time injured, and the Spanish manager decided to go with the ex-Man City man again for the trip to Brighton a few days later.

This felt harsh on Kiwior, who did not really deserve to be dropped at all. For the Luton game, it is understandable because rotation is important, but not for Brighton away. Despite a clean sheet at the Amex, the Polish defender returned to the starting XI for the home match against Bayern Munich but was the fall guy at half-time with Arsenal all over the place defensively. Zinchenko was brought on not to solidify things, but to help the Gunners salvage at least a draw from 2-1 down.

Zinchenko was poor in that second half against Bayern, over-hitting a bunch of passes and looking unconvincing in possession, which is…weird for him. Arsenal did at least draw 2-2.

Kiwior’s first-half showing in the Champions League quarter-final was enough for Arteta to decide Zinchenko would start against Aston Villa on Sunday. Another pretty harsh decision but it would have been fully justified had the Arsenal manager not changed so much, especially in an attacking sense.

Declan Rice playing as the deepest midfielder with Kai Havertz in the left-eight and Gabriel Jesus left Arsenal a little more vulnerable defensively. Starting Jorginho over Jesus with Havertz up front would not have raised so many eyebrows, but completely changing from the fundamentals of a team that has seen the Gunners be so successful this year was a mistake from Arteta.

📣 TO THE COMMENTS! Have Arsenal already outgrown Oleksandr Zinchenko? Join the debate here

Arteta, in his first job in management, has done an outstanding job at the Emirates but this does not mean he is exempt from criticism. He got it wrong, which is far from ideal given the incredibly small margin for error in this Premier League title race. However, managers make mistakes all the time, from tactics to team selection. The knives are hardly out.

Zinchenko was once again found wanting against Villa and when the momentum shifted to Arsenal being under the cosh amidst sustained Villa possession, Arteta probably should have realised it was no longer the game for him. Nor was it the game for Havertz to be in a midfield three.

Not only are there big question marks over Arsenal’s title credentials after losing a fixture we deemed their third-easiest from their last eight fixtures (admittedly, we got that wrong and were blinded by Villa’s record away to Liverpool and Manchester City this season), but there are also massive question marks hanging over Zinchenko’s ability, and thus, his future at the club.

Patience is wearing thin and it looks like Zinchenko’s race is run less than two years after joining, and less than a year after being deemed undroppable.

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This is not the start of a weird petition to bring Kiwior back in, because he also still has a lot to prove and does not appear to be the long-term answer at left-back. Tomiyasu is another player with injury problems and has been far from his best since returning to the team. Thankfully, Timber is returning soon and looks like being the answer to Arteta’s left-back dilemma.

A huge part of said dilemma is what to do with Zinchenko.

The Arsenal manager has replicated a lot of Pep Guardiola – who he assisted at City for three-and-a-half years – during his four years in management and it looks like the next thing to tick off is getting rid of Zinchenko for a proper defender. And if that doesn’t work, Arteta should shave off those luscious locks and go full Pep.

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More: Oleksandr Zinchenko | Arsenal | Premier League tables