Most Arsenal fans would have been au fait with the concept of inverted full-backs prior to the arrival of Oleksandr Zinchenko. Under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal very typically tilted their attack to one side of the pitch and, in Wenger’s case, the left-back was often invited to push on and play like a support winger, while the right-back tucked in and played like a support centre-half.
Even last season, Arteta’s Arsenal had the same modus operandi. Tomiyasu would shuffle across like a third centre-half, allowing Gabriel Magalhães to push over to the left touchline so that Kieran Tierney or Nuno Tavares could provide an overlap on the left-flank. That all changed during the summer when Arteta raided his former club Manchester City for Zinchenko.
Guardiola has been playing with full-backs who invert into midfield for many years now, dating back to the time he used Philip Lahm in this fashion at Bayern Munich. Following his first game in charge of Manchester City, I recall the bemusement on Match of the Day as they observed former Arsenal full-backs Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy popping up in the centre circle when City had possession.
Clearly Sagna and Clichy were not going to be longed for that particular experiment but it set the template for how Guardiola wanted to play. Since then, Zinchenko and now João Cancelo have re-interpreted the full-back role under Guardiola in much the way Philip Lahm did in Bavaria. What’s especially amazing about how Zinchenko has revolutionised Arsenal’s approach is that we didn’t really see it coming.
Arsenal have signed Kieran Tierney to a new contract and bought Nuno Tavares during Arteta’s tenure. Perhaps Tavares, with his ability to drive inside on his right-foot, offered a slight clue of the direction of travel in retrospect. But the Portuguese is very much in the “winger in full-back’s clothing” mould of Kieran Tierney.
During the summer, Arsenal cased Lisandro Martinez from Ajax before being ‘gazumped’ by Manchester United and the offer of working with his former Ajax boss Erik Ten Hag. Martinez is a left-sided centre-half who can play at left-back. He is not in the same mould as Zinchenko, who is much more of a number eight disguised as a left-back.
Now, there is some suggestion that Arsenal wanted both players and given the lack of back-up for Gabriel, that would make some sense. Upon his arrival, it was thought that the Ukrainian could offer support to both the left-back position and the central midfield. Given that Arsenal essentially had the end of their most recent campaign ruined by predictable injuries to Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney, that made some sense.
I don’t think any of us foresaw the transformation Zinchenko would play left-back and central midfield at the same time. He has totally usurped Kieran Tierney by now and Takehiro Tomiyasu is often preferred to the Scot at left-back. As Arsenal sought to lock the North London derby down on Sunday, Tomiyasu replaced Zinchenko, with Tierney deployed higher up as a substitute for Gabriel Martinelli. A year ago, Tierney was essentially the deputy captain to Lacazette, so it is difficult to believe that Arteta had always planned to oust him from the team- at least not this quickly.
Because the way Zinchenko plays left-back for Arsenal has revolutionised the team. He isn’t really a left-back at all. In essence, he is a central midfield partner for Thomas Partey and his presence unlocks other key figures in the team. He offers that technical and physical support for Partey, often joining him in the high press and providing a consistent passing option for Partey.
Zinchenko is almost like a technical contractor, popping up here and there to plug gaps when needed and provide respite to his colleagues on the ball. Much like Cancelo at Manchester City, it makes him very difficult to control for the opposition. Man-marking is not a popular tactic in modern football because no coach likes to concede a whole player from their team and you certainly can’t man-mark the nominal left-back without pulling your team’s structure out of kilter.
Zinchenko attempts 74 passes per 90, according to FBRef. No player to have played 45 minutes or more has attempted more for Arsenal this season. After last season’s victory at Watford, when Arteta bemoaned his team’s inability to “play 300,000 passes in the opponent’s half”, few would have predicted that a left-back would solve that issue. Only Thomas Partey averages more touches in the middle third of the pitch at Arsenal this season.
Few of Zinchenko’s passes, individually, are especially cutting. He has one assist this season from 0.4 expected assists. He has 1.55 shot creating actions per 90, that’s lower than Kieran Tierney, Albert Sambi Lokonga, Ben White and Thomas Partey. If Arsenal are trying to play death by a thousand cuts football, Zinchenko is armed not with a gun but with a pocket-knife.
He is softening the opponent up with sly digs to the ribs. Crucially, he unlocks other players in the team who have been able to find a new level. Gabriel Martinelli stays high and wide in Arsenal’s attack and is encouraged to isolate the opposition right-back, he has no overlapping full-back to call on. Instead, Granit Xhaka underlaps by running inside him.
This explains Xhaka’s increased attacking output this season. He often finds himself available in the half-space inside Martinelli, where he can either offer the cut-back for a teammate, or else shoot himself. He is not really a central midfielder anymore, playing instead in that slither of the left half-space- the more central work has been outsourced to Zinchenko alongside Partey. Look again at where Saka’s goal against Brighton emanates, from a Zinchenko and Partey pincer movement to win the ball back high up the pitch.
They are the technical heartbeat of the team and should really be considered the central midfield partnership. Some players make the system, others are made by the system. The top teams are split roughly evenly between those two poles. Top teams have a good combination of foot soldiers and commanders and Xhaka has become a foot soldier so that Zinchenko can command.
The way Zinchenko has interpreted the role has caused me to assess Kieran Tierney’s performances far more harshly than is probably fair. He is an excellent full-back but Zinchenko has totally changed my expectations of the role. On two occasions against Oxford, Tierney blasted a loose ball into touch and I sighed audibly in a manner that I don’t think I would have before.
Zinchenko’s role is not without risk, of course. It can leave Arsenal vulnerable on their left-side, especially when teams counter quickly. West Ham earned their penalty at the Emirates on Boxing Day because they were quick to launch the ball into that space and catch Arsenal out. Antony scored against the Gunners at Old Trafford for similar reasons.
However, Zinchenko has so quickly become one of Arsenal’s most important players in a manner that has taken many of us by surprise. I expected him to offer strong squad support in two key roles, a little like an Emile Smith Rowe but for the back section of the team. Instead, he has transformed the way that Arsenal can play football, popping up hither and yon to provide technical support to his teammates like an office IT support guru.
He seems to teleport around the pitch yet, strangely, never seems to be in much of a rush. I can’t picture Zinchenko sprinting; I feel like I can’t conjure the image in my mind so seldom have I seen it. Yet he is omnipresent, allowing Arsenal to create numerical superiority in midfield with ease. He might be the most peculiar transfer success I can remember in an Arsenal shirt.
Follow Tim Stillman on Twitter: @Stillmanator