Wednesday, April 17, 2024

What next for Zinchenko?

A lot of the focus on Arsenal’s evolution this season has rested on players the club bought in the summer. The signings of Kai Havertz and David Raya gave birth to lengthy discourses on both players (I have written about both several times in this column), both took some time to really settle into the team but now I think most Arsenal fans ‘see the vision’ to indulge internet vernacular for a second.

The signing of Declan Rice did not require any such squinting, his induction was swift and the need for him was obvious. Arsenal fell short of the title last season because, among other things, they weren’t quite tight enough off the ball. Havertz and Raya have helped with that in a tangential way but the way in which Rice amended that weakness has been glaringly obvious.

While all those elements have been important and worthy of discussion, more quietly Arsenal have also been able to reduce their reliance on certain important players- particularly players for whom fitness has been an issue. The signings of Jorginho and Rice in consecutive transfer windows in 2023 has made Thomas Partey’s absences more of a footnote.

The ‘false 9’ partnership between Kai Havertz and Leo Trossard has downgraded Gabriel Jesus’ recent absence from catastrophe to inconvenience. The purchase of Jurrien Timber was intended to give Arsenal a renewed depth at centre-half and full-back after the twin losses of Saliba and Tomiyasu last March totally derailed the Gunners’ title charge.

Arsenal have slowly been building depth and variety. Arguably, Bukayo Saka is the only remaining member of the ‘core’ team for whom prolonged absence would spell disaster. It is to the credit of Arteta and Edu therefore, that Arsenal have been playing with, arguably, their fourth choice left-back in recent weeks in Jakub Kiwior and nobody seems to have really noticed.

The brittleness of Tomiyasu and Zinchenko remains an annoyance, while Jurrien Timber has been unavailable all season. At the beginning of the campaign, Arteta appears to have recognised that Tomiyasu and Zinchenko’s bodies are not capable of the sort of stress endured by players like Gabriel, Bukayo Saka and Ben White.

Arteta’s solution appeared to be for Zinchenko and Tomiyasu to timeshare the left-back spot in a sort of 60-30 or 70-20 model. Fans began to talk about ‘Zinchenko games’ and ‘Tomiyasu games.’ When Arsenal were set to dominate possession against a team camped in its own half, it was argued that Zinchenko would be preferred to help control the ebb and flow of Arsenal’s passing game.

But the Ukrainian’s weakness for one-on-one situations meant most fans preferred Tomiyasu at left-back for games against bigger, more ambitious opponents. Tomiyasu is not quite the technician Zinchenko is but is possibly Arsenal’s best ‘shutdown’ defender. Splitting game time in this way also seemed to be an optimum way of managing both players’ loading. That was, until they both got injured, of course…

Kiwior has played at left-back in recent weeks and after a few ‘fish up a tree’ type performances, the Pole looks far more comfortable in an adjusted role where he is not asked to invert into midfield. ‘At the end, you can’t ask players to do things that they don’t feel capable of, especially of doing in a natural way,’ Arteta explained in relation to Kiwior last week. ‘So we have to tweak a few things to make sure that the players play in their strengths.’

I admit to being a Zinchenko truther. I think he is too harshly criticised by supporters who have become so inured to the idea of him PLAYING TWO POSITIONS AT THE SAME TIME that we underplay how unbelievably difficult it is to PLAY TWO POSITIONS AT THE SAME TIME. There is a reason that nobody else has been able to do it with anything close to the same level of effectiveness. I can’t think of (m)any players in the league that can.

The issue for him, reputationally, is that the control and swagger he adds in possession is so voluminous that it is sometimes difficult to detect. He averaged over 70 completed passes per 90 minutes last season, comfortably the most in the Arsenal squad. He also averaged 89.9 touches per 90, one a minute. Again, the most in the squad by some distance. That level of repetition, especially given the passes are ‘controlling’ passes rather than cutting passes, washes over people in a way his weakness for one-on-one situations doesn’t.

However, it is difficult to argue that Arsenal have missed him during his latest injury. I very much detected supporter patience with the player wearing thin online after a careless error against Wolves in December and after Mo Salah skipped past him like he wasn’t there at Anfield a few weeks later. I think supporters tend to be uncomfortable with their defenders playing in hybrid roles anyway. When our team is defending we are anxious and when one is anxious, one is cautious.

As supporters, we are often very keen to write players out of the club based on small sample sizes of form. We are also desperately keen to know what the ‘best XI’ is when, in reality, the strongest teams do not have any such concept. The best teams use different tools for different assignments. Things change quickly too, as we have seen innumerable time over the last 18 months. Opponents adapt to you and then Arteta has to thumb at the hem of the team, making tweaks and alterations, like Marge Simpson and her Chanel suit.

However, undoubtedly Zinchenko had already experienced a relegation of sorts this season, even if not an especially humiliating one, in rotating with Tomiyasu at left-back. Arsenal have, so far, been able to amend his loss by playing Jorginho and utilising his metronomic ball skills in deeper areas and by dropping captain Martin Odegaard into deeper positions to collect and manipulate the ball.

Gabriel Martinelli’s job has looked markedly easier with a more orthodox left-back behind him. That Martinelli has looked isolated at times this season isn’t Zinchenko’s fault, of course. He is doing very much what he is asked by inverting into more central areas. I still think Zinchenko’s qualities are incredibly useful and not totally disposable.

However, there have been very few noises about a new contract to this point, which might well be informed by his physical fragility. It is easy to forget that Arteta wanted Lisandro Martinez before moving down his list to Zinchenko in the summer of 2022. If he were to be fit for the Brentford match on Saturday, I doubt he would force his way back into the team and with Timber and Tomiyasu unavailable, that would have seemed a remarkable sentence even as little as two months ago.

As I said earlier, good teams are fluid and the demands on them change all the time, which means personnel and shape has to change too. Opponents will respond to what Arsenal have been doing soon enough and the Gunners will have to respond and adapt again. I think it will be fascinating to see how Zinchenko fits into that picture.

Will he renew the level of importance he enjoyed last season? Will he fall more into a ‘horses for courses’ type role and be considered one of the tools at Arteta’s disposal for certain games? Or will he suffer the same fate as Joao Cancelo at Manchester City and will Arteta just decide to move on from what he offers entirely? I could honestly foresee any one of those scenarios playing out in the coming months.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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