When Oleksandr Zinchenko joined Arsenal in the summer, those who had seen him regularly run the show for Ukraine felt he could transform the way the Gunners play.
The £32million signing from Manchester City has since made an immediate impact at the Emirates Stadium. He revolutionized Arsenal’s midfield, but did so from left-back.
Mikel Arteta has longed for more goals from his midfielders and Zinchenko seems to be the key to unlocking that.
He caught the eye in an Arsenal side that top the Premier League with maximum points in their first three games.
He slotted into the squad on the left of a four-man defender, but calling the 25-year-old a left-back doesn’t really seem fair given he spends so little time there.
Instead, Zinchenko pushes and slips into midfield alongside Thomas Partey, which gives Granit Xhaka and Martin Odegaard the freedom to continue.
The pair took full advantage, with Odegaard scoring twice in Saturday’s 3-0 win at Bournemouth and Xhaka finding the net in the 4-2 win over Leicester the previous week.
“He gives us the flexibility to attack in different ways depending on what the opponent wants to do, wants to prevent and creates spaces that we want to exploit,” Arteta said when describing Zinchenko’s impact.
“It’s something good to have in the team. We encourage it [to move into midfield] and he is a midfielder who plays as a full-back, this gives us the adaptability and variety of positions to attack and defend spaces. It’s an extra weapon to have because we’re more unpredictable.
It was noticed barely a minute into the game against Bournemouth that Arteta called Zinchenko for a chat and asked him to add more.
The thinking behind his role is that Arsenal then essentially play a 2-3-5 formation when in possession, with Ben White and Zinchenko moving from full-back to flank Partey in midfield. In front of them, Arsenal then essentially have a five-man forward line as Odegaard and Xhaka have attacking rights.
The results so far have been incredibly positive, not just because Odegaard and Xhaka are assisting and scoring, but because of the way they have contributed to goals. Xhaka’s goal and assist against Leicester came from inside the box, which was the case for Odegaard’s brace at Bournemouth.
Arsenal’s front five flood the opposing box and it’s causing serious problems for defenders already worried about scoring Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli.
Arteta finally found the key to unlocking goals from midfield – and all it took was signing a new left-back
Arteta often speaks of creating ‘overloads’ and this new 2-3-5 formation is a prime example of that, with Arsenal advancing more bodies and reaping the rewards.
Zinchenko is the key. He takes a more central position, while White, as Arsenal’s second goal against Bournemouth shows, is still looking to come out wide to straddle Saka down the right.
On the other hand, Zinchenko dominates the midfield similarly to Joao Cancelo for Manchester City. Cancelo has revolutionized the full-back role and early signs suggest Zinchenko is following in his footsteps at Arsenal.
Opposing teams will surely familiarize themselves with the new tactical system and try to come up with plans to stop it, but for now, it’s paying dividends for Arteta. The Arsenal manager has finally found the key to unlocking goals from midfield – and all it took was signing a new left-back.