The Ukrainian has been pivotal in two out of three Premier League’s won by Manchester City. Despite all his issues last season, this is the story of the left-back’s rise from an unreliable commodity to an unsung hero in Pep Guardiola’s mission to win the Champions League.
Pep Guardiola’s third Premier League title win made him only the fourth manager to win the competition more than once since its inception in 1992. Add that to City reaching the final of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history and the conquest of the club’s fourth league cup in a row under the Spaniard and many people will have you believe that it has always been an easy ride for the Sky Blues this season. Far from it. After surrendering their crown in the hands of Liverpool last season, City experienced their worst start to a league campaign since 2008/09 after a return of only 12 points from their opening eight games saw them languishing in 13th position. Moreover, City even had a negative goal difference after scoring a paltry 10 goals in the same time; a poor start to say the least considering this was the same team that scored a century of goals in the league last season.
But things did change for the better. After another bad performance saw City held to another draw against West Brom; Guardiola’s men underwent a renaissance by dropping only 9 points in the next 24 games and winning their third title in the last four seasons. Like in any winning side, there have been several key individual performances propelling the team. Some who have been cherished by the mainstream public and had a direct impact on the team’s success like Ruben Dias with Cancelo, De Bruyne, Foden and Gundogan also getting their worthy share of praise.
However, there are some who had key roles in the side’s resurgence but are often overlooked by the media and fans due to the complexity of their roles which enhances the team’s overall play rather than highlight their own performances. Oleksandr Zinchenko is the perfect example of a player falling in the latter category.
The Ukrainian was an instrumental figure in the 2018/19 season where City completed a clean sweep of all the domestic trophies, with Zinchenko being the primary left-back after Benjamin Mendy’s injury. However, a poor 2019/20 campaign with City gift wrapping their League title to Liverpool and a disastrous quarter-final exit at the hands of Lyon in the Champions League warranted many fans to believe the club needs new recruitments for a few positions.
At the top of the wishlist was a new left-back, primarily due to Zinchenko having a poor campaign considering the standards he had set back in the 2018/19 season. Although City were unable to sign any left-back, the Ukrainian didn’t seem to cement his place as the first choice full-back with the likes of Cancelo, Mendy and even Ake all being favoured over him.
However, his time came to prove his worth and he did make it count. After making his first start of the season in the Premier League against Chelsea, only Ruben Dias and Joao Cancelo have started more games in the league among all Manchester City defenders. His performances have also been supreme in crucial games- most notably in the semi-finals of the Champions League against Paris Saint Germain where his contributions in both attack and defense allowed City to reach their first Champions League final. We try to highlight the key aspects of what he offers to Manchester City.
Oleksandr Zinchenko in action against Paris Saint Germain in a 2-0 win at the Etihad Stadium.
Ball Progression and involvement in the build-up of the attack
Pep Guardiola in an interview with Rio Ferdinand expressed the issues he had with the side during the team’s poor set of results earlier this season. One of the main problems he cited was the lack of quality in their ball progression and a rather uncanny build-up play where the tempo of the game was sometimes too fast. He also said that the tipping point had been reached when City drew to West Bromwich Albion in a game they were expected to leave as winners.
One of the reasons for this could be the absence of a left-back who is able to recycle possession efficiently and is comfortable in playing the half-back occasionally (Fabian Delph in 2017/18 and Oleksandr Zinchenko in 2018/19). While Benjamin Mendy is a threat in the attacking third with a wide range of crosses in his weaponry, his contribution to the build-up is often questionable. The Frenchman started in six out of the seven league games in which he was available (he was sidelined with a muscle injury for a month) but the draw against the Baggies was the last straw that saw him relegated to the bench.
No defender had fewer per game touches than Mendy’s 70 showing his lack of involvement in the team’s possession play. His teammates also didn’t show the same to trust him as the left-back has the fewest passes received among all City defenders with close to 50 per game. This can be attributed to the Frenchman’s 0.66 misplaces and 0.75 dispossessions per game, a huge concern considering his low involvement in the possession. It was clear, Pep needed someone else to execute the job or rely on Mendy’s high risk-high reward bombardment of crossing.
Benjamin Mendy has failed to consistently deliver performances for Manchester City.
After trialling the likes of Nathan Ake and Joao Cancelo in the left side of the defence, Oleksandr Zinchenko was finally presented with the opportunity. Although initially there were some reservations considering his poor campaign last season, it is safe to say that the Ukrainian proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle.
Accruing to his midfielder roots, Zinchenko slotted into the role like a duck to the water and not only filled in for the deficiency in Mendy’s build-up play but also became one of the best full-backs this season in terms of ball progression. In the 2020/21 season, no other full-back has more touches per 90 (101.4) and carries per 90 (70.21) while he ranks in the top 20 for most progressive carries per 90 (8.94) and carries into the final third per 90 (2.91).
His versatility allows him to either hug the touchline or occupying the spaces in the middle, offering fluidity in City’s build-up. His composure has also been immense this season, as the graphic below shows he has been one of the best full-backs when it comes to ball progression under pressure. Unlike Mendy who quite often needs a helping hand under pressure, Zinchenko’s cool-headedness makes him an ideal player to swiftly maintain possession even if he’s exposed to heat from the opposition.
Zinchenko does not possess the zippy crossing of Mendy, raw pace of Walker or the vision of Cancelo which makes him stand out, but his ability to act as a facilitator and carrying out several simple and unglamorous parts of the game with utmost efficiency proves his status as a vital cog in Guardiola’s well-oiled unit (No pun intended).
Oleksandr Zinchenko ranked amongst all full-backs in the Premier League for ball progression (@ShelatNeel/breakingthelines.com)
One of the biggest criticisms of Zinchenko as a first-choice left-back last season was his relative defensive vulnerabilities. Last season, he was dribbled past almost 1.5 times per 90 which allowed the opposition to attack through the right in an attempt to benefit from the Ukrainian’s frailties. His temperament was also an issue, giving away fouls cheaply where it could’ve been avoided.
This was perfectly summed up in City’s game against Tottenham Hotspurs at the Tottenham Stadium where his unnecessary challenge on Harry Winks produced a second yellow card, putting City down to 10 men and eventually losing the tie. His 0.7 fouls per 90 ranked him only behind Cancelo, Otamendi and Walker amongst City’s defending contingent. Worse was yet to come, as his moment of lapse against Southampton allowed Che Adams to score the only goal of the game with the Ukrainian at fault for yet another loss. Pep Guardiola clearly had enough, replacing him with Joao Cancelo for the final few games. It took Zinchenko until the New Year to establish his position in the side. And so he did.
Oleksandr Zinchenko’s mistakes causing Manchester City to lose games against Tottenham and Southampton
There were some teething problems while he was familiarizing with his role, leaving Callum Hudson-Odoi free to tap home a goal in his first start in the Premier League this season. But the Ukrainian did grow into the role and it was evident that he left his poor displays from last season behind to become a much more reliable defender. His improvement in 1v1 tackling ability is showcased by the fact that he’s now been dribble past almost once a game, not an impressive stat by any means but shows how much he has improved from last season.
His other key stats have also improved from last season- Interceptions are up from 0.40 per 90 to 1.0 per 90, successful pressures up by 4% and successful tackles up by 6%. He’s now a much calmer defender, with fouls committed dropping down from 0.97 per 90 to 0.5 per 90, proving he has come a long way forward from his erratic self. His biggest asset in the defensive half is surprisingly his excellent aerial ability. Despite being only 5’9” and the lightest member of the City squad, Zinchenko ranks 6th in the City squad for duels won per 90 (1.5) while his impressive 69.7% duels won makes him better than 97% of the full-backs across the Top 5 leagues and European competitions combined.
This was particularly evident in possibly the most crucial set of games for Manchester City under Pep Guardiola’s regime, the Champions League semi-finals. Not only did the marauding full-back contribute in two out of four goals scored by City across the two legs, best his defensive actions meant that Paris Saint Germain were unable to register a shot on target during the presence of the Ukrainian. His five tackles and interceptions in the second leg was the third highest across both the teams when the French champions visited the Etihad, performing the herculean task of keeping the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe quiet.
Oleksandr Zinchenko’s Tackles and Interceptions per 90 (Sam Lee, The Athletic)
Although Zinchenko is not the best full-back with regards to defensive capabilities by any means, the fact that he plays for a possession dominant side allows him to play his role freely. And while he was found susceptible of defensive lapses last season, his resurgence in composure and awareness have aided in filling this void in his game to a great extent.
It will be a slight disservice to say the story of Oleksandr Zinchenko was just a player reviving his form. It is about a player whose abilities were often questioned of whether is he genuinely a world-class player or a stopgap put to use due to injuries in the squad. Although the 2019/20 season saw many lean towards the latter, his never give up attitude saw him scale new heights and made the doubters eat up their own words.
He may not be perfect in any particular skill set; his ability to perform different roles and new positions to a certain standard speak volumes that the most demanding manager in the world is putting his trust over the shoulders of a player who was originally an attacking midfielder by trade. Still only 24, Oleksandr Zinchenko is the perfect example of the product of Manchester City’s excellent recruitment system and Pep Guardiola’s abilities as a coach. Follow ManCityDelhi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more.