Manchester City need more Oleksandr Zinchenkos

Manchester City full-back Oleksandr Zinchenko

Moments of genuine jeopardy were few and far between for Manchester City during their five-star rout of Watford on Saturday but there was one instance when it briefly appeared as though Roy Hodgson’s side could make their way back into the game.

While the score was still 1-0, Joao Cancelo’s uncharacteristically careless use of possession sprang a Watford counter-attack. Emmanuel Dennis was running through one-on-one, albeit from close to half-way with a lot of ground to make up. Dennis made it to the edge of the box and was about to pull the trigger when the ball was swept out from his feet.

Oleksandr Zinchenko had already set up Gabriel Jesus’ opening goal. Now, he had prevented what almost certainly would be a Watford equaliser.

Those were the two early highlights of an all-round performance at left-back that Pep Guardiola would later describe as “absolutely exceptional”. And of course, it is arguably remarkable that Zinchenko is playing at all, never mind playing well.

Football has been a welcome and necessary distraction for a young man whose life outside the game has been consumed by the invasion of his country. “I can’t live outside this situation,” he recently told The Guardian. “Trying to follow everything is basically my life. The first thing I do every day is reach for my phone, and then it’s in my hand constantly.”

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“It’s not been an easy period for Aleks,” Guardiola said. “What happened in his country with his loved ones – people forget about Ukraine, now we don’t talk about it any more, there’s no flags for Ukraine – but Aleks is living it every day.”

It would be understandable if Zinchenko’s focus had wavered or even if his commitment in training had dropped over the past two months, but that is the last thing that Guardiola has come to expect from a player who has had to prove himself more than most in the City squad.

“It’s another occasion where the way he plays, the quality, the assist, he’s always focused, always concentrating,” Zinchenko’s manager said of his performance against Watford. “He’s incredibly appreciated in the locker room.”

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And as City’s quest for domestic and European dominance enters its final stage, Zinchenko’s presence is appreciated even more than usual. Ahead of Tuesday’s semi-final first leg against Real Madrid, City are short at full-back. Cancelo is suspended. Kyle Walker is an injury doubt. John Stones, who has deputised as a right-back, could also be sidelined.

Combine this quick and concentrated spate of injuries with Guardiola’s preference for a small, tightly-knit squad and it is easy to see how problems arise. There is not a fit and available natural first-team full-back at the club. “We don’t have many options,” Guardiola admitted on Saturday. “We don’t have full-backs.”

City do have Zinchenko, though. Upon his unheralded arrival in a £2million deal with Ufa, he was an attacking midfielder – “a No 10, a Phil Foden,” as Guardiola recalls – but first team opportunities in his preferred role were always likely to be limited. They are still limited for him as left-back. “There are periods where other players are better, more confident and he plays less,” his manager admitted.

Yet Zinchenko’s dedication and determination to forge a role for himself has meant that he is a valued and integral part of City’s small squad, just 17 established first-teamers deep. He is exactly the type of utility option that Guardiola needs but lacks, the type that he has struggled to hold onto despite his enthusiasm for rotation.

There is a constant tension at City over playing time. It was Ferran Torres earlier this season. Aymeric Laporte was not happy with his minutes last year. Leroy Sané left with similar misgivings. Raheem Sterling has voiced concerns.

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Guardiola understands all their frustrations, and sympathised with four-goal hero Jesus on Saturday over his lack of starts, but can offer no guarantees.

Zinchenko has never complained, though. He has got on with the task, even if it is ill-suited to him. “You are an incredible journalist,” Guardiola told one reporter asking about the Ukrainian, “and one day we ask you to be a photographer. You say yes you will do it but being a photographer for three years will be a problem. But he will do it every single day.”

That is invaluable in a small squad at City’s, especially when there is a queue outside the treatment room. Guardiola would have no concerns about selecting Zinchenko in a role closer to his natural position, or even as one of the more reserved central midfielders in his system if circumstances insisted upon it. He needs more players like him, not fewer.

If City fall short in either the Premier League title race or fail to win their first Champions League, a lack of squad depth will be identified as one of their vulnerabilities. But if they do achieve either, despite this mini-injury crisis, then Zinchenko’s ability to fill in at full-back will have played an important part in their success.

He may still have a bigger role to play too. “Who knows who will help us win the Premier League or reach the final of the Champions League?”, Guardiola said. “Everyone thinks they know – but sometimes it can be one who you don’t expect. That’s why everyone has to be ready and the glory will belong to them.”

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