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The Evolution of a Left Back

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Oleksandr Zinchenko has impressed over the last week, and has the statistics to back it up.

AFC Bournemouth v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Everyone reading this is probably aware of the widespread praise Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko has gotten recently. He has started and gone the full 90 (or 120) in each of the Blues’ three matches this week, and to say he’s look the part at left back, a position he only starting playing last season, doesn’t even begin to do the Ukrainian justice. Though it may have seemed unlikely earlier in the season, Zinchenko is quickly making left back his natural position.

Sports fans have a habit of making knee jerk reactions, both positive and negative, to what they’re seeing on the field. I’ll admit the response to Zinchenko over the past week seem a bit over the top initially. But after digging a little deeper, it’s clear all the credit coming Zinchenko’s way is more than justified.

We’ve seen Zinchenko play 300 minutes at left back in the past 7 days, partially out of necessity with the injuries to Benjamin Mendy, Fabian Delph, and now Aymeric Laporte. But it is also evident that Pep Guardiola has a tremendous amount of confidence in this player. When he is on the pitch, he’s not a placeholder because the team needs a warm body at that position, but is a central figure in everything Manchester City does.

His defensive play has been the primary concern throughout his time at left back, though the signs of progress are obvious. Zinchenko is quite strong standing up opposing attackers dribbling at him, and has a good understanding of when to step. Out of the 18 tackles he’s attempted in these three matches, 12 have been successful with a team high 8 against Chelsea in the League Cup final. Zinchenko has also been first (or tied for first) on the team in interceptions against Chelsea, West Ham, and Bournemouth, with 3, 2, and 2, respectively.


Chelsea v Manchester City - Carabao Cup Final Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Zinchenko’s contribution on the attack is far more notable, however, which makes sense given his lifelong experience as an attacking midfielder and winger. Manchester City usually feature their fullbacks as big parts of the buildup, especially with many teams trying to cut out the passing channels from the center backs to the midfielders. The young Ukrainian has taken this responsibility and thrived with it.

Simply put, the offense has flowed through him for much of the three matches this past week. Zinchenko has averaged 128 touches and 115 passes across these fixtures, ranking either first or second on the team in both categories in every match. Granted, passing statistics can often be propped up by short, trivial passes among defenders in deep possession. But that has not been the case with Zinchenko.

With the attack concentrating down the left 40% of the time in these 300 minutes, Zinchenko has contributed 3 key passes along with 14 long passes. More importantly, the left back has been second on City each match in passes within the final third, averaging 41 per match.

Expected goal statistics are only available for Premier League matches so there’s no available data for the League Cup final, but across the West Ham and Bournemouth matches, Zinchenko led City in xGBuildup. This is a statistic that measures the total expected goals of every possession a player is involved in without key passes and shots considered. You could tell his attacking influence has been massive just by watching him play, but the statistics make his importance all the more remarkable.


From a tactical perspective, Zinchenko could potentially give Pep Guardiola his best option at left back due to his versatility. In comparison to the other left backs, he’s not as good as Mendy providing service into the box, not as good as Delph in the defensive midfield, or a natural fullback like Danilo. But Zinchenko has the most balanced skill set of them all for the sets Guardiola prefers to run.

The Kevin De Bruyne lookalike can provide width well since he is a dangerous crosser that has proven an ability to pick teammates out in the box. He simultaneously has the midfield experience to be comfortable in the inverted role, albeit in a deeper position. But the ability to be a difference maker throughout the ranges of positions a Manchester City left back sets up is something no other player truly has. His heat maps from the past week display the versatility he brings to every match.

Oleksandr Zinchenko heat maps against Chelsea (R to L), West Ham (L to R), and Bournemouth (R to L), top to bottom.
WhoScored

Each heat map illustrates perfectly how interchangeable Zinchenko’s positioning can be. Often, the City left back heat map is indicative of Guardiola’s tactics whether it be heavily favored down the wing (Mendy) or inverted into the midfield (Delph). Yet Zinchenko does both movements to relatively equal degrees, while still participating in building out the back from the traditional fullback position.

Moreover, we are so used to seeing City implement dynamic, combination passing in the final third to unlock the defense, but it is less prominent in the midfield. Zinchenko does a great job of bringing this style of play to the left back role, where a one-two combination play or triangle passing set can remove a number of defenders from the play with a lot of space left to attack. Playing like an attacking midfielder from a defensive role can be very useful since you’re simply changing the distance and angle of attack.


All of this isn’t to say that Zinchenko is now a perfect fullback and all City’s transfer dealings for a new left full can come to an end. In an ideal world, some variation of that possibility does exist but he must continue to prove his metal. The concerns with him being beaten by long balls over his head still exists. Off the top of my head, there were no attempts from any of these three sides to attack him that way but a time will come when someone does.

There are still signs of a player continuing to adapt to left back. Zinchenko was liable for West Ham’s best chance of the match when he lost Andy Carroll and allowed a low cross through for a dangerous shot on goal. But it should also be noted that was the only shot on goal the City defense allowed in the past week. Similarly, Zinchenko deserves criticism for a poor turnover in the midfield against Chelsea that led to a dangerous free kick opportunity. Once again though, that was his only loss of possession in the past seven days.

Yes, the mistakes are there, but they are becoming few and far between. And to ask any player to never make any mistakes is just unrealistic. If Zinchenko can eliminate the high profile errors from his game and find a consistent defensive capability, Guardiola will be hard pressed not to keep selecting him.

Not to mention, Manchester City have been better when he is on the field this season. City have a 2.48 expected goal differential per 90 minutes during Zinchenko’s 504 Premier League minutes (admittedly small sample size), compared to a 1.61 xGD/90 without him. Granted, on-off metrics in football need to be viewed contextually as the impact a single player can have among eleven can easily be under/overplayed, but it is noteworthy nevertheless.

Everything you hear about and from Oleksandr Zinchenko tells you he has the drive and hunger to improve at left back, subsequently leading you to believe he will succeed there. He is well aware that position is his best chance of establishing himself as a first team regular at Manchester City and clearly dedicated himself it. You want players like that on the team. I’m not saying three matches definitively makes him the left back of the future for the Blues, Mendy still has some say in that matter if he can stay healthy. But if Zinchenko keeps this up it may change the thinking from buying a highly rated first team left back to a depth player of a squad rotation caliber. Right now though, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable betting against Oleksandr Zinchenko.