Arsenal: Signing Zinchenko will take pressure off Tierney and Xhaka

Man On Monday 009

You can feel that Arsenal are moving in the right direction. 

Despite their failure to qualify for the Champions League, Edu and Arteta have already managed to secure the signatures of players that address immediate issues. Gabriel Jesus, Fabio Vieira, and now Oleksandr Zinchenko each bring something the club specifically needed.

Jesus offers mobility and penalty-box quality in a way they didn’t have before. Vieira provides creativity and versatility the moment Martin Odegaard’s ideas begin to go stale. Even American backup goalkeeper Matt Turner brings a determined personality to this still very young dressing room. 

The signing of Zinchenko, however, will add an extra dimension to this Arsenal side — a player that allows for flexibility in team shape, provides positional versatility, and gives Arteta multiple tactical options in various roles across the pitch.

Video originally tweeted by Sam Dean (@SamJDean). Zinchenko playing on the left of a midfield three for Ukraine in June.

The left-back that doesn’t have to overlap

It became quite clear – particularly two seasons ago – that Arsenal could and should not rely on Tierney as their primary source of attack. At the time, the Scotsman was the club’s most consistent player and looked poised to become the next captain. But due primarily to his injuries and the continued development of other players, Kieran Tierney is no longer as indispensable as he once was. His bombarding runs down the left flank remain effective but have become more predictable. 

Tierney’s injury woes have been consistent since he joined Arsenal

Arsenal addressed this issue by bringing right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu in on deadline day last summer. Despite not being the prototypical marauding full-back that is so typical of today’s game, Tomiyasu made an immediate difference. He defended exceptionally and served as a pressure relief valve in possession (when the ball started on the left) by tucking inside alongside Partey. This not only meant that Odegaard could venture further forward, but that the outlet pass from, say, Gabriel or Xhaka, was much shorter, hence reducing the time it took for the side to escape pressure and move up the pitch. 

The next step in developing the team’s shape is to provide that same option on the left. Oleksandr Zinchenko, who has been playing in that exact role for Manchester City, is now an Arsenal player.

Arsenal were reportedly determined to land Lisandro Martinez from Ajax, but it seems the player has chosen to reunite with Erik ten Hag for a fee that Edu Gaspar probably wasn’t prepared to pay. Zinchenko, while not as robust as Martinez (who is also able to play center back), brings similar qualities as a natural midfielder that plays as a left-back for a possession-dominant side. He captains and plays as a number eight for Ukraine, but has consistently acted as deputy over the course of his Manchester City career. But make no mistake, usurping Joao Cancelo would be difficult for anyone…

Signing a player from Manchester City reaffirms both Arteta’s affinity for Guardiola’s set up and players, and his determination to get Arsenal to play like his mentor’s side. 

Pep’s usage of Joao Cancelo has shown his desire to prevent transitions while gaining numerical superiority in midfield, but has primarily been a success due to his quality in the final third. Zinchenko doesn’t provide the same knack for decisive actions in attack, but he does offer the same fluidity in build-up play and defensive positioning. 

Zinchenko tucking in allows Gundogan to push up into the final third. These movements led to the title-winning goal.

That profile is lacking in the current Arsenal squad. Tierney has done it before, but isn’t necessarily convincing, and his lack of permanent availability means he can’t always be relied upon. Nuno Tavares is still a work in progress, and the fact that Cedric occasionally plays off the left should be telling. (Arteta even went so far as trying Xhaka there.) Zinchenko is needed.

Tucking inside to create more options for the lone defensive midfielder

Zinchenko’s immediate impact may well be mitigated, as it would be unwise to drop Tierney from a squad dynamics standpoint. Yet having the option of playing Zinchenko at left-back would help Granit Xhaka, who has been ever so crucial for Arsenal under Arteta.

At the start of last season, Arsenal’s shape looked most like a 4-2-3-1. Odegaard pushed into the final third, but Xhaka did not. He was there to aid Partey in build-up and shift wide to cover for Tierney. From deeper pockets on the left, he would dictate play and act as a conductor in possession.

In the build-up, Xhaka had license to pick up pockets just behind or around Partey to serve as an outlet. Xhaka was always ready to turn the other way and escape the press. Of all players who started 20+ games, he took the most touches (aside from the aforementioned Tomiyasu) of any Arsenal player with 68.2 per ninety (FBref). Up to now, Arteta has desperately needed Xhaka to get the ball from back to front.

Xhaka peeling wide in Tierney’s position became commonplace two seasons ago. Despite suiting the skillsets of both players, the rotation is now a bit more predictable than it once was.

But as Arsenal’s shape evolved into a clearer 4-3-3, Xhaka’s role did too. He found himself in and around the box more often. He was positionally sound and didn’t look out of place, but it did feel odd to see Xhaka so high up the pitch. Both he and Arteta said it wasn’t necessarily comfortable.

Xhaka gradually moved higher up the pitch last season as Arsenal’s formation evolved into more of a 4-3-3. He looked fluid, but not entirely comfortable in his final actions.

Enter a player like Zinchenko, whose ease when tucking inside from left-back, alongside a lone pivot (Rodri and now Partey), takes some of that responsibility away from Xhaka. That allows Arsenal to play with an additional attacking player — potentially in Xhaka’s place. It allows a left-winger like Martinelli to stay wider and specialize in one-on-one duels, something Guardiola and (in turn) Arteta have always had a soft spot for (think of Leroy Sané). It allows for close-to-perfect symmetry, making Arsenal a more balanced and unpredictable attacking force.

Pushing up into the box from midfield is not Granit Xhaka’s strength, but Arteta’s will to give him that responsibility is a clear sign of his tactical plans. Zinchenko’s arrival relieves Xhaka of many organizational responsibilities week-in and week-out, even if he’s playing left-back.

What it really means is Arteta now has more tactical choices to make. Tierney will still be the biggest threat in certain games. The two-striker system that has been flashed in pre-season could prove to be very effective against weaker teams. Saliba returning makes you wonder about the possibility of a back-three system.

Having a player like Zinchenko gives the opponent even more to think about on a weekly basis. Arteta hasn’t had that luxury since becoming the Arsenal manager.

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