Looks can be deceiving in football and few players know that better than Oleksandr Zinchenko, who has spent much of the past few months shaping to pass in one direction before suddenly whipping the ball to another player, in another part of the pitch.
You might call it a “no-look” pass, but for Zinchenko it is more than that. The Arsenal left-back (who is not really a left-back at all) is a master of deception on the ball, and he uses far more than his eyes to mislead opponents. The position of the foot, the angle of the torso, the direction of the head: it all suggests one pass, when Zinchenko is actually planning another.
For Arsenal, this vision and ability to pick out a teammate, even when looking the other way, has become one of the most important weapons in their charge for the Premier League title. Zinchenko is Mikel Arteta’s quarterback in midfield, spotting the openings and the angles that move the ball up the pitch and unpick opposition defenses.
The Ukrainian’s latest passing masterclass came on Wednesday night, when he did more than anyone to deconstruct Everton’s backline. It was Zinchenko’s slaloming run that unbalanced Everton’s midfield in the first half, and his subsequent pass to Bukayo Saka that created Arsenal’s opening goal.
He was at it again in the second half (see below), playing a measured through ball to Eddie Nketiah that led to Arsenal’s fourth, scored by Gabriel Martinelli. Zinchenko waited for his moment, shifted the ball to create the angle, and then ripped open Everton’s defense with one simple pass. It was neither his goal nor his assist, but it was undoubtedly his creation.
Zinchenko’s performance against Everton was perhaps the best possible argument against him being described as a left-back. Yes, he lines up there when the opposition have the ball. But Arsenal usually dominate possession and that means Zinchenko is effectively playing as a central midfielder, alongside either Jorginho or Thomas Partey, for the majority of the game.
His touch map in midweek proves the point. The 26-year-old appeared in all sorts of positions, from one touchline to the next and everywhere in between. His versatility and flexibility helps to create space for the other attackers, to such an extent that Bournemouth should be as worried about Zinchenko this weekend as they are about Saka and Martinelli.
Per game this season, only one player in the Premier League – Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne – has played more passes into the final third. Zinchenko is the man who moves the ball from a harmless part of the pitch to an area of opportunity, often before the opposition has realized what is happening to them.
Nobody at Arsenal plays more progressive passes per game, and nobody at Arsenal touches the ball more frequently. While so many of their attacking moves flow through Martin Odegaard, Granit Xhaka, Saka and Martinelli, it is usually Zinchenko who starts the process by funneling the ball into the feet of those players.
There is one particular pass that is fast becoming Zinchenko’s trademark. In an inside left position, he will shape to play the ball wide, to his left winger. He looks to the left, and he positions his body in that direction. At the moment of execution, however, Zinchenko’s leg contorts, and the ball is reversed, at pace, through the lines. A classic misdirection, and a lesson to his opponents: watch the ball, not the body.
These attributes are especially valuable because most of Arsenal’s opponents are now playing with deep-lying, compact defenses. When the final third of the pitch is so congested, it requires a player of Zinchenko’s class and precision to find the gaps when they materialise.
“That is why we brought him here,” said Arteta this week. “Because he brings something different to the team. His mentality and his quality to do certain things allows us to be unpredictable and to generate a lot of threat every time we are in ball possession. He has played those kinds of games against low blocks 200 times, and that is very helpful.”
Arsenal have excelled in recruitment in recent seasons and Zinchenko must already be considered one of their best signings in the post-Arsène Wenger era. He was not cheap but, at £30 million from City, he was not hugely expensive either.
And this is all before one considers his enormous impact behind the scenes, where he has already emerged as one of the leaders of the squad. Zinchenko is a vocal presence in the dressing room who knows what it takes to win titles, and he has set high standards for his teammates.
Zinchenko has helped to take Arsenal to another level, then, but it should also be noted that the club has helped him in turn. He was an effective player under Pep Guardiola at City, but never to this extent. Zinchenko has started the last 10 league matches at Arsenal, which is a longer run of consecutive league games than he ever enjoyed at City.
As with Gabriel Jesus, Guardiola’s loss is Arteta’s gain. In Zinchenko, Arsenal have found a new leader and a new orchestrator, and his sleight of foot will prove crucial if they are to win this title race.