Oleksandr Zinchenko offers proof that Pep Guardiola’s magic does not need multi-million pound talents to work. No wonder Arsenal are sniffing.
The 2013/14 UEFA Youth League was an ostensibly unremarkable tournament. Barcelona thrashed Benfica in the final, with top scorer Munir netting in every knockout game. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City reached the quarter-finals. Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes coached James Wilson, Paddy McNair, Andreas Pereira and Manchester United to an exit in the group stage. And Arsene Wenger almost signed someone.
“He called and said: ‘I have a need for that player. He’s going to play in the first team. I know he is only 17, but I’m going to write a letter to his family that I will take care of him when he is with us and he’ll play in the first team,” Sandor Varga claimed two years later, Zinchenko having impressed at Euro 2016.
“Arsene had seen a youth game of Shakhtar and took 20 minutes to assess the potential of Oleksandr. Wenger asked me ten times about Zinchenko and I later informed him and felt even a bit sad because I couldn’t help him. [Arsenal] made an offer but there were some problems and then Zinchenko was discovered by a lot of people.”
A sprightly attacking midfielder, Zinchenko had scored the goal to essentially confirm Shakhtar Donetsk’s qualification in the competition at the expense of Manchester United. The Ukrainians met their young Arsenal counterparts in the next round and while the Gunners were victorious, a future four-time Premier League winner had made a lasting impression.
Zinchenko’s path to the top from that point was not linear. He left Shakhtar in 2014 due to the war in the Donbas region, sacrificing his professional prospects to play on the concrete pitches of Moscow after moving to Russia with his family. Contractual issues allowed the inconspicuous FC Ufa to take advantage and sign a teenager stationed well above their usual level. After spending 18 months with a club founded in 2009 and relegated to the Russian second division at the end of this past season, Zinchenko’s fortunes had turned. Manchester City made him one of Pep Guardiola’s first additions. And while the primary accusation against the Spaniard is that his managerial methods only work on multi-million pound players, his development of a £1.7m winger into an excellent left-back provides a compelling counter argument.
Oleksandr Zinchenko (£1,7M from Ufa) have benefited by the Guardiola management @mancity. He developed hugely last year and by his 2nd half performance against West Ham he will contribute even more this season. Could turn out to be one of City's best transfers ever. (THREAD) pic.twitter.com/UZpnvXhJlv
— Rostadius Development (@rostadius) July 19, 2019
It was precisely the sort of signing Wenger would pride himself on: the seemingly random discovery and subsequent polishing of a rough diamond at relatively low cost. Manchester City have bought 13 players for £10m or less under Guardiola and of that unlucky few, Zack Steffen is the only one other than Zinchenko to make a Premier League appearance for the club. The Ukrainian is the stunning exception to a rule which has counted against Marlos Moreno, Jack Harrison, Ko Itakura, Pablo Mari and many more.
Mikel Arteta would be foolish not to consider Zinchenko as an option. Experienced, versatile, Premier League-proven 25 year olds with an elite footballing education – including two and a half seasons working under the coach in question – do not become available all that often. He is perhaps the archetypal Arsenal signing when taking their recent transfer focus into account, all the way down to his character and leadership qualities.
With one move, Arteta can unlock that left-hand side. Zinchenko offers the perfect blend of Kieran Tierney’s consistency and Granit Xhaka’s build-up play, adding immense positional intelligence and reliability without the brittle nature of the former and the volatility of the latter. Wenger always did have a particular eye for talent and this deal can bring clarity to Arteta’s vision.