Oleksandr Zinchenko is the ultimate high-risk, high-reward player – but to Arsenal he is worth it

Oleksandr Zinchenko is the ultimate high-risk, high-reward player – but to Arsenal he is worth it

When the final whistle blew on Arsenal’s victory over Wolves on Saturday, Oleksandr Zinchenko did not celebrate with any of his team-mates. While the rest of the Arsenal players pumped their fists and exchanged congratulatory pats on the back, he instead walked alone towards the other side of the pitch.

With a grimace on his face, Zinchenko stared at the ground and shook his head in disappointment. Arsenal had won, extending their lead at the top of the Premier League, but Zinchenko was evidently still ruminating on the error he had made in the final moments of the game.

Zinchenko’s doubters have held up his mistake as further evidence of the Ukrainian’s vulnerability in Arsenal’s defence. Understandably so: he lost possession in his own penalty area, allowing Matheus Cunha to score for Wolves, and was perhaps fortunate that a similar error had not been punished earlier in the game.

But if those mistakes were signs of the risk that Zinchenko brings to Mikel Arteta’s side, then Saturday’s win also demonstrated the enormous rewards of sticking with a player who is among the division’s most impressive technicians.

Yes, Arsenal would not have conceded if Zinchenko had not lost the ball so cheaply. But they also would not have scored their second goal without his brilliance on the ball. His assist for Martin Odegaard, following a thrilling exchange of passes with Gabriel Jesus, was of the highest quality.

It was, in short, a weekend that summarised the best and worst of Zinchenko. It also encapsulated the conundrum facing Arteta every time he selects his team: do Zinchenko’s strengths outweigh his weaknesses?

“Every player has got qualities that are so good in certain things and you lose in other things,” said Arteta. “Like when you have a blanket and you are cold, if I pull it up then my feet are cold. And then I put it over my feet, and I am colder up here. It is [the same] with every player, with every formation. You have to find the right balance.”

What is clear is that, for all of Zinchenko’s defensive flaws, Arsenal remain a significantly better side with him than without him. Since Zinchenko joined the club from Manchester City last summer, Arteta’s side have won 72 per cent of the 36 league matches he has started. Without him, they have won 63 per cent of 16 games.

“With Alex, the win rate that we have is incredibly high,” said Arteta. “That is it. He is an exceptional player, he gives us so much. He makes us more dominant, the way he progresses the ball, the way he defends forward. He is really intuitive, he has so much courage to play. He wants the ball, he wants to play. I love that about him.”

Zinchenko, Telegraph Sport understands, is well aware of his own strengths and weaknesses. He has been working relentlessly in recent months to improve certain aspects of his game, including his physical strength.

Before this weekend’s meeting with Wolves, most observers of Arsenal’s recent performances would have acknowledged Zinchenko’s defensive growth. On their treacherous trip to Brentford last weekend, the 26-year-old produced a performance of genuine steel. Without his sliding goal-line clearance that night, Arsenal would probably have lost.

Since the start of last season, Zinchenko has made four errors leading to shots in the Premier League. It might surprise some Arsenal fans to learn that William Saliba, rightly heralded as perhaps the league’s dominant defender, has made five in that time.

Arteta: Zinchenko connects with people in a special way

The discussion around Zinchenko’s errors also does not take into account his importance off the pitch. He is the joker of the squad, but also a fierce competitor. Sources credit his mentality as a key reason for Arsenal’s development since last summer.

As Telegraph Sport reported earlier this year, Zinchenko arrived at the Emirates and immediately told his team-mates to forget about challenging for the top four. He wanted them to believe that winning the title was possible. Over time, they did.

“He can change the energy in the room,” said Arteta of Zinchenko. “He has a special sense of humour and he connects with people in a special way. You need people like this in the dressing room.”

He is not perfect, evidently, but Zinchenko is still fundamental to Arteta’s system. No player in the Arsenal squad can do what he does — part full-back, part central midfielder — and no player offers the same quality in that position. Yes, there is a risk. But, in Arteta’s eyes, Zinchenko is worth it.