In the summer of 2017, Pablo Zabaleta joined West Ham on a free transfer from Manchester City and for weeks after Blues instructed their London counterparts via social media to treasure their new signing. He was not merely a warrior on the pitch, who played like we would play if blessed with ability and handed a shirt. He was a special person. A legend, no less.
Hammers supporters took the comments in good grace, as befitting mutual respect between the two fan-bases that dates back to the late Eighties, but of course, personal experience will always trump imparted information. They therefore accepted the exhortations and moved on, no doubt still believing their club had recruited a very good right-back who was sadly on the decline, but a player who nevertheless would always give everything and more on the pitch. That was the summation of their excitement towards the move: that he had the traits required to become a fan favourite, one who would stand shoulder to shoulder alongside their other fan favourites.
Three years later Zabaleta left East London. A legend, no less.
A similar situation is unfolding during this present transfer window, with Arsenal fans understandably delighted at the signing of Oleksandr Zinchenko and focusing their satisfaction regarding the switch on his footballing attributes. After all, the Ukrainian is a proven Premier League talent, whose versatility means he played 127 times at left-back for Manchester City but is typically deployed in a more advanced creative midfield role for his country.
The 25-year-old – a player approaching his prime – has won four league titles and participated in a Champions League final. Furthermore, he possesses a footballing degree from Pep University, his first, second and third nature always being to retain and cherish possession, and to this aim there are few defenders better at keeping composed and playing through a high press. His acumen down the left flank is especially welcomed, given that Kieran Tierney has missed chunks of each season since arriving from Celtic, the Scot blighted by successive injuries.
Lastly, but significantly, two years of his development was forged under Mikel Arteta, the Gunners boss knowing intimately what makes the player tick.
When all of this is factored in, his £30m fee starts to look like a genuine steal and rightfully, Gooners are very pleased with the transfer.
Yet, as with Zaba, there is infinitely more to appreciate in Zinchenko than what he produces on the pitch.
It is tempting to state that Oleksandr Zinchenko’s career has been propelled by resilience and the overcoming of adversity only then his back-story is marvelled at, and we acknowledge that this applies also to his whole life.
Aged six he was rejected by a local football academy so he returned twelve months later, more determined than ever to succeed. Again, he failed to make the grade, on this occasion deprived of a chance to impress because the other boys barely passed to him.
“Go and win the ball,” his mother intoned, advice that can be extended above and beyond football, and soon after, Zinchenko was captain of the academy side and considered their prized asset.
A move to Monolith followed, an 11-year-old young boy leaving his family home for Odessa, hundreds of miles away, and there he schooled all day and trained in the evenings, using facilities that were primitive. His dedication to succeed is admirable when looking back. In one so young it is remarkable.
Gaining a reputation as an attacking midfielder of note it wasn’t long before Shakhtar Donetsk came calling, and now the kid was 500 miles away from his loved ones, occasionally heading home to visit them but always making sure to get up at the crack of dawn to continue his training. Years later, this obsessive need to improve himself was noticed by the most important football figure in his life to date when Manchester City arrived back from an away fixture at Huddersfield. As the rest of his team-mates drove home to rest, Zinchenko quietly entered the academy complex to train alone, an act of diligence that was not lost on a Catalan coach named Pep Guardiola.
Oleksandr Zinchenko progressed the ball through passes & carries 18.11 times per 90 last season in the Premier League, the most amongst defenders.
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) August 3, 2022
After establishing himself as Shakhtar’s youth-team captain – and becoming Ukraine’s youngest ever goal-scorer, beating a record previously held by the great Shevchenko – war broke out, necessitating a long exile from his homeland. For 18 months, Zinchenko was unable to play competitive football and for many this could have signalled a stalling in their development. With the driven star-to-be however, we can only imagine how much harder he pushed himself; how much harder he trained.
And then in 2016 came a move to Manchester City, a £1.7m transfer that immediately saw him loaned out to PSV, in adherence to the club’s business model. The player actually struggled in Holland which makes it all the more astonishing that to date, Zinchenko is the only player from hundreds to transform himself from a loaned-out commodity to a regular first-team player at the Etihad.
Which sort of brings us up to the here and now because we are familiar with the rest, except to point out a final pertinent detail. In the summer of 2018, after reinventing himself as a left-back and excelling against all odds amidst the highly convoluted matrix that is Pep-ball, Wolves swooped with a serious bid that was reportedly accepted by City. But Zinchenko refused. He backed himself, even though all logic suggested competition for places would be too strong for the year ahead.
That season, the player put in his best season of them all. He was superb.
Zinchenko: “One of the main reasons I came (to Arsenal) was our manager, Mikel Arteta. I know him very well from my time at City and don’t forget that my boyhood team was always Arsenal, so the dream has come true.” pic.twitter.com/fgkp0RyJk6
— Tattoos On The Pitch⚽ (@Tattoosonpitch) July 27, 2022
Of course, in recent times Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought further turmoil to the likeable defender, the likes of which it is hard to contemplate. There have been tears, some public, presumably many more in private, and plenty of heightened anguish yet the performances have always been there, with not a day of training missed. Off the field meanwhile, there is simply too much anecdotal evidence to lay out here regarding Zinchenko’s work in helping out his fellow countrymen, from welcoming exiled families to raising substantial sums of money via charitable endeavours, Save to say, he has been incredible.
Throughout his time in Manchester, the player has been an extremely popular figure, always up for a laugh such as going along with the joke that he is Kevin De Bruyne’s younger brother. Sometimes being the butt of his team-mates’ jokes. When City score, it is usually Zinchenko central to the celebrations, his passion infectious, his desire to succeed palpable.
It has been heartbreaking therefore to see such a spirit endure what he has endured this past year, and to become out of necessity and in effect a statesman at the tender age of 25. Heartbreaking, but to anyone who knows his story, not in the least surprising.
In Oleksandr Zinchenko, Arsenal have bought an outstanding left-back, capable of doing a fine job in midfield too. But as talented as he is a footballer, as a man he is better. He is infinitely better.