The big question, when Oleksandr Zinchenko signed for Arsenal this summer, was whether he would predominantly play as a left-back or a centre-midfielder. As it turns out, Mikel Arteta has asked him to do both at once.
It is a mark of the gradual evolution of Arteta’s Arsenal that the Spaniard’s tactical system now makes this possible, and indeed a measure of Zinchenko’s considerable technical ability that he is able to thrive in this hybrid position.
The left-back-who-tucks-in role is not entirely new to Zinchenko, of course, as the Ukrainian regularly played in such a way during his time at Manchester City. It is new for Arsenal, however, to have a player so adept at executing these specific requirements.
Saturday’s 4-2 win against Leicester City, in which Zinchenko thrived, provided the most compelling evidence yet that the £30 million signing will transform the shape and feel of this developing Arsenal team. It was not just Zinchenko’s own performance that caught the eye, but also his impact on his team-mates — most notably Granit Xhaka, who is rapidly (and perhaps improbably) evolving into an entirely new midfield force.
When Arsenal had possession on Saturday, Zinchenko effectively sat alongside Thomas Partey as the left-sided central midfielder. His touch map from the game shows how much he was willing to drift inside and play the short passes that set the tempo for his team:
Arteta’s other option at left-back is Kieran Tierney, who plays the position in a far more traditional style. Tierney stays wider, providing width on the overlap.
Compare Zinchenko’s touch map above to Tierney’s against the same opponent in March:
There will be matches when Tierney is needed ahead of Zinchenko, as there is little doubt that the Scotland international is the superior defender. In the opening game at Crystal Palace, for example, Zinchenko was replaced by Tierney after struggling to cope with the speed of Palace’s wingers in one-versus-one situations.
When Arteta expects to dominate the ball and the territory, though, it seems that Zinchenko is the more likely to start. He made the most passes of any Arsenal player against Leicester, with the best passing accuracy. As an indication of his control on the pitch, he also completed the most passes in the final third.
The knock-on effect for Xhaka is perhaps the most intriguing element of all this. Xhaka has long been criticised for a perceived lack of mobility, and he has spent the majority of his career as a deep-lying playmaker. But with Zinchenko now occupying those deeper spaces, Xhaka has the freedom to roam forward.
The graphic below shows how Zinchenko’s move into midfield gives Xhaka the opportunity to push much higher up the pitch:
All of a sudden, at the age of 29, Xhaka seems to have become a rampaging box-to-box midfielder. He scored one of Arsenal’s four goals against Leicester, and also assisted one of the two scored by the exceptional Gabriel Jesus.
Xhaka, never a prolific player, also struck the post with a close-range header, and at one point in the first half almost found himself clean through on goal. “I have got more freedom to go up and down,” Xhaka said afterwards. “I know I can do that. I have a lot of freedom from my coach, from my team-mates.”
In all, Xhaka took four touches in the opposition box on Saturday, the joint-most he has taken in any of the 190 Premier League games he has played for Arsenal. It was only the fourth time he had made so many contributions so high up the pitch, and the other three have all come in 2022 - Zinchenko’s arrival has accelerated a process that started towards the end of last season.
Xhaka’s second-half goal on Saturday, tapped in after Leicester goalkeeper Danny Ward had fumbled a cross, was his 15th for the club. It was only the fifth time, however, that he has scored from inside the penalty box.
All these changes contribute to the growing sense of excitement at the Emirates, where the atmosphere was vibrant on Saturday. The new signings have brought a renewed sense of optimism, and one of them has not even played yet: £30m midfielder Fabio Vieira will soon be fit enough to make his debut.
Vieira’s gradual introduction into the team, one suspects, will further accelerate Arteta’s tactical plans. The Arsenal manager has been vague on where Vieira will play in this team, but suggested on Saturday that he will be competing with Xhaka for a place in that more creative left-sided role.
On this form it will take some time for Vieira to dislodge Xhaka, but Arteta needs depth and options in these areas of the pitch. Arsenal are evolving in front of our eyes, thanks in large part to the positional intelligence of Zinchenko, and Xhaka’s newfound sense of adventure is currently embodying the optimism at the Emirates Stadium.