Oleksandr Zinchenko is a player who giveth and who taketh away for Arsenal. At the end of last season, I wrote about an increasing sense of supporters becoming frustrated with the Ukrainian as the pressure of the title race cranked up and our nerves began to fray.
Anxiety causes us to overindex down sides and the more anxious one becomes, the more one fixates on the worst possible outcome. That noise in the death of the night that is almost certainly just an old floorboard creaking, or a pipe expanding as the heating kicks in, is always a burglar in the mind of the anxious home owner.
Following Arsenal’s 1-1 draw at Anfield on Saturday, Zinchenko has come into even greater focus for Arsenal fans given how easily he was roasted by Mo Salah for the Liverpool equaliser. Wherever you stand on Zinchenko, nobody would say one-on-one defending is his greatest quality. Nor will it ever be.
It’s very likely he would not have started the game had either Tomiyasu or Timber been fit and this is because Arteta is aware that there is a trade off in playing Zinchenko between what he gives you in possession and what you lose in raw defensive ability. I think, generally speaking, Arsenal fans have moved to a space where his qualities are totally disregarded in service of fixating on his flaws.
Nobody should pretend his presence in the team comes without a tangible defensive trade off but, by the same token, nobody should pretend his absence would not cause Arsenal to lose something fundamental that they would find very difficult to replace.
Arsenal have the best defence in the league and they have done that with Zinchenko as a significant member of their back line. The best defence in the league is never the best defence in the league because the defenders spend 90 minutes throwing themselves at shots, hither and thither, blocking, heading and tackling.
Those are important defensive elements, of course, and White, Saliba, Rice and Gabriel are on a different planet to Zinchenko in those respects. But the best defence in the league usually doesn’t spend much time performing the more tangible aspects of what we recognise as defending.
You have the best defence in the league when you keep the ball and the opposition away from your goal and nobody helps Arsenal to do that more than Zinchenko. Without him, Arsenal might be able to play with a left-back who is more solid in the traditional sense, but he and the team would come under more pressure because they wouldn’t control possession as well.
I also think we lose sight of the difficulty of what Arteta asks Zinchenko to do. He is literally asked to be a left-back and a central midfielder simultaneously. That is a big ask and there is a reason not many teams play in this manner this smoothly. He has an enormous personality and that is a huge asset to the role.
At the beginning of the second half at Anfield, Zinchenko and Arsenal had a bad 15 minutes. The majority of my twitter timeline was begging for him to be spared. Arteta did not make that sub and Zinchenko persisted with the plan, inverting into midfield and taking the ball under pressure. Arsenal got out of the hole and so did Zinchenko because they played their way out and did not panic.
That happens due to the bravery of the player and not many possess that ability to persist under pressure. Coaches really value that and it makes a big difference in a manner that fans often don’t perceive through the fog of anxiety and emotion. Every team needs big personalities and Zinchenko is arguably the biggest Arsenal have. The value of his ball progression has increased this season in the absence of Xhaka and Thomas Partey.
Personality comes with a price, of course. It might be a goalkeeper willing to try the difficult and having to suck up the occasional howler. Patrick Vieira was the enormous personality Arsenal needed during his tenure but his personality to dominate games came at a price. He was often red carded and suspended as a result.
Granit Xhaka was a leader and a player with a big personality and we all recall how that sometimes translated. Thierry Henry was a big, match winning personality and you just had to tolerate the fact that sometimes he’d shoot a young teammate a withering look if a pass was not delivered onto his shoelace.
Of course, every coach also has to weigh up when a big personality becomes too much personality? As Arsenal trailed Southampton 2-0 last April, Zinchenko called for a team huddle which captain Martin Odegaard pretty swiftly dispersed. Zinchenko’s heart was undoubtedly in the right place but the gesture tilted a little too much the Gallas extreme of the performance spectrum.
The frustration with Zinchenko is not so much his average one-on-one defensive ability but the extent to which he gives the ball away needlessly, or fails to read the temperature of the moment and should just clip the ball up the line rather than passing back in-field and into danger.
Of course, passing calmly in-field is usually a rouse to bring the temperature of the game down and when it works, it really works and when it doesn’t, you feel like ripping your arm off so that you have something to throw at him. It is fair to say that he needs to correct that equation a little.
The Fulham game from earlier in the season is a good example of the yin and yang of Zinchenko. Arsenal were struggling for fluency and creativity with Kiwior at left-back and Havertz dropping a stinker in the left eight role. Zinchenko came on with Fabio Vieira and immediately unclogged that stodgy left side and Arsenal quickly went from 1-0 down to 2-1 up. Then, later in the game he gave the ball away needlessly in his own area and conceded the corner from which Fulham equalised.
Big teams make these calculations in their defensive units. John Stones is not a world class defender in the tangible sense but Guardiola uses him because of his ability to move into midfield and use the ball. Trent Alexander Arnold’s defensive abilities are regularly in the spotlight but Jurgen Klopp simply never sits him down because of what he can do with the ball at his feet.
There will always be a trade off with this sort of player and, often, fans are guided by our anxiety and anxiety is often the midwife for safe, conservative decision making. Coaches cannot think in the same way, they have to measure upsides against downsides and cannot become emotional and throw the baby out with the bath water.
However, there is no getting away from the fact that Zinchenko, though still for my money one of the most crucial players in the team, has to work to correct that dial just a little between risk and reward. Last season, every game was considered ‘a Zinchenko game’ and that is no longer the case and that’s a recognition of his weaknesses.
To move into that John Stones / Trent Alexander Arnold category, he doesn’t have to become Paolo Maldini in one-on-one situations but neither should he play teammates into trouble in dangerous areas too often. I think he remains an eminently coachable player who can correct the dial and I don’t think it needs as much correction as many believe. But it is up to him to meet that challenge.
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