Mark Temnycky –
Following the 2015/16 Russian Premier League season, Oleksandr Zinchenko successfully completed his first season with a senior men’s club. The Ukrainian made 31 appearances for Ufa and scored two goals, where he primarily played as a midfielder. His versatility as a footballer, however, allowed him to play as a full back or defensive midfielder whenever deemed necessary.
Zinchenko’s ability soon caught the attention of Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City, and the clubs began their campaigns to sign the player. As these Western European teams began to negotiate with Ufa, both clubs expressed a desire in signing young talented players for their respective teams.
There was a catch. During the negotiation process, Dortmund stated they wanted Zinchenko to play as a full back, which is his unnatural position. Meanwhile, Manchester City gave the young Ukrainian assurances that he would play his more natural midfield role.
While Zinchenko signed with City, what transpired was a new opportunity in unnatural circumstances.
Zinchenko – A new opportunity
The Ukrainian would initially go on loan to Dutch team PSV Eindhoven in what was a season to forget. Zinchenko only made 15 appearances for the senior team and was eventually demoted to PSV’s second team. By the time his loan ended Zinchenko was desperate to return to Manchester. Italian club Napoli then showed an interest in loaning the midfielder with an option to buy, but the opportunity did not materialise.
It would not be until an injury to Manchester City teammate Benjamin Mendy in what would see the Ukrainian soar. During the first half of the 2017/18 English Premier League season, Zinchenko was often left off of the team sheet. Desperate to prove himself, the Ukrainian adopted a “first in, last out” mentality when it came to training sessions. He would continue this philosophy for several months, and this caught the attention of City manager Pep Guardiola.
With the injured Mendy absent and an inconsistent Fabian Delph, Zinchenko eventually made his debut for Manchester City in a match against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the EFL Cup Fourth Round. Ironically, the Ukrainian played in his unfavored left-back position, and the club went on to win the match. As the season progressed, Guardiola began to trust the young player and Zinchenko would make 14 appearances across all competitions. During this span, he won the EFL Cup, and he played an important part in City’s Centurion season.
With the return of Mendy from injury and the option to keep Delph, however, it was believed Zinchenko would depart from Manchester during the 2018 Summer Transfer Window. Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Ham United had inquired about the player and offered to pay quadruple the price of what City paid when they acquired him from Ufa during the 2016 Summer Transfer Window. Zinchenko, however, declined as he was determined to earn his place in the Manchester City squad.
His decision paid off. A series of injuries struck Mendy during the 2018/19 season, and Delph soon became exposed as an unnatural left back. These events allowed the Ukrainian to slot into this position, and following the conclusion of the 2018/19 EPL season, Zinchenko made 26 appearances across all competitions, narrowly doubling his figures from the 2017/18 season.
Zinchenko’s role in the club steadily rose as the season progressed. He would start in the EFL Cup and FA Cup finals, where Manchester City kept a clean sheet in both matches. Moreover, the Ukrainian played an important part in City’s title defence as he started in several important matches, including the 6-0 rout against Chelsea, the nervy 1-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur and the 0-2 victory against Manchester United at Old Trafford. It appears Guardiola will now entrust his versatile footballer to play a part at the club.
Zinchenko – A left-back after all
The final reassuring factor, however, was City’s announcement that they would not pursue a new left-back in the 2019 Summer Transfer Window. This decision demonstrates the club have placed a great emphasis on Zinchenko’s ability. It is believed the Ukrainian will sign a new contract with the club, and it is expected he will play a more prominent role in the seasons to come.
Overall, Zinchenko’s story is rare but an important lesson in world football. Persistence pays off. The Ukrainian had countless opportunities to depart Manchester, where he could have joined the likes of Napoli or Wolverhampton. He would have found more game time at both locations, and it is likely he would have earned a heftier paycheck at either Wolverhampton or West Ham.
This may have been the easier way out, but Zinchenko chose to stay and fight for his place in Manchester City’s senior men’s team. The result? Two EFL Cup trophies, two EPL titles, a FA Cup and a Community Shield.
Three years ago, Zinchenko was adamant about not playing left-back at Dortmund. Three years later, Zinchenko has put in a solid number of performances for Manchester City at left back, and as a result, he is the most decorated Ukrainian footballer in EPL history.
Sometimes, life has other plans.
Mark Temnycky reports on the Ukrainian men’s national team and Ukrainian clubs competing in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League. Outside of the Futbolgrad Network, he covers Manchester City for SB Nation’s Bitter and Blue. Follow him @MTem33