With each game, Oleksandr Zinchenko looks more assured. Against Schalke on Tuesday night, Manchester City’s young left back was excellent again, creating chances with incisive through-balls and accurate crosses.
By now it should not be a surprise. Zinchenko has, over the last few weeks, established himself as first choice on the left of Pep Guardiola’s back four, and he has rarely looked out of place.
The 22-year-old is primarily a midfielder, a playmaker whose strength is his technical ability not his physicality. But he has slotted in perfectly at full-back. Crucially, Zinchenko has the energy to charge up and down the left flank, and the intelligence to pick out a teammate when he cuts inside.
Guardiola, too, has highlighted the youngster’s attitude. When Zinchenko was out of the team, when he was third choice at left-back and even further behind in the midfield pecking order, there were no complaints. He simply went about his work in training, patient and professional. Now, with Benjamin Mendy injured, he has taken his chance.
“Incredible is the only thing I can say,” Guardiola said of Zinchenko after Ukraine international impressed in last month’s Carabao Cup final win over Chelsea. “Oleks has showed me again what I thought before; the importance and the value of being a good guy, a good lad.
“And the fact he's a guy who was making a transfer – at the beginning of the season was close to going there [to Wolverhampton Wanderers] – there was six, seven or eight fixtures he didn't play one minute. But I never saw him in the period we were together with one bad face, one bad training session.”
Zinchenko has been rewarded for his persistence. And his performances of late have been so consistent that City may no longer feel the need to spend big on a new left-back in the summer.
This is not the first time that Guardiola has looked to midfield to fill a gap elsewhere in his team. Fabian Delph was utilised at left back last season and did the job admirably. At Bayern, too, Guardiola moved David Alaba into midfield and Javi Martínez to centre-back.
Positions have always been fluid for the Catalan coach. What is most important is that his players buy into his way of playing, that they are intelligent and receptive enough to respond to his ideas, regardless of where their starting position is.
Zinchenko has shown himself capable of that. At 22, he has areas in which he can improve, of course: he can still be vulnerable defensively and suffers from the odd lapse in concentration. But the signs are overwhelmingly positive.
In the Premier League this season, from seven appearances, Zinchenko has made an average of 96.51 passes per 90 minutes, with an accuracy rate of 92.6 per cent. This equates to an average of 89.39 accurate passes per 90, far more than any other full-back in the division and more, even, than any midfielder.
It is, of course, from a smaller sample size – Zinchenko has only played 594 minutes of Premier League football – but it is an indication of the qualities he brings to this City team at left-back. He is not a marauding athlete, nor a powerful defender, but a playmaker, a technician. It is easy to see, then, why Guardiola is so enamoured with him.
Zinchenko is not just playing safe passes, either. He is creating chances – assisting at a rate of 0.45 per 90 – and contributing defensively: he averages 1.51 interceptions and 2.42 tackles per 90 minutes.
Everything suggests, then, that Zinchenko has the makings of an excellent full-back in this City team. That he is still so young, still relatively inexperienced, only makes his adaption to the role even more impressive.
“Zinchenko is definitely important to us,” Guardiola said after his side’s 1-0 win at Bournemouth earlier this month. “Oleks is committed, smart, intelligent and he understands everything – he has incredible quality.
“Players play because they deserve it. He is playing top. With the ball, without, his attention is excellent.”
If Zinchenko continues to perform so reliably in what remains an unfamiliar position, Mendy may find that he faces a battle to regain his place when he recovers from injury.