“Come to me my lovely.” With these words Oleksandr Zinchenko embraced the Premier League trophy in Manchester City’s dressing room at the Amex Stadium following Sunday’s 4-1 victory over Brighton.
Zinchenko had just become the first Ukrainian to claim two English championships, eclipsing Oleg Luzhny who won a single title with Arsenal in 2001-02. Yet the warmth of his sentiment might be the same as that felt when Pep Guardiola considers how the 22-year-old deputised so impressively, mainly in the second part of the campaign for Benjamin Mendy at left-back.
In the summer of 2017 the Frenchman Mendy was signed for £52m as 50% of the solution to City’s major weakness during Guardiola’s first season: the full-backs. Yet while Kyle Walker, who arrived at the same time, has been a near ever-present since in the right-sided berth, Mendy managed only 10 league starts this season to follow four last year, due to a series of injuries.
Zinchenko’s has been a tale of gradually convincing Guardiola of his worth – not until March did he finally do so – and of the manager’s ability to alchemise gold from what appeared a base-metal player.
When Mendy was ruled out from September until April of the 2017-18 season, Fabian Delph was the manager’s go-to option at left-back. Or, Guardiola would field a three-man defence with wing-backs. This season when Mendy was first unavailable – for the 2-0 win against Brighton on 29 September – Zinchenko was selected at left-back for what would be the first of 14 Premier League appearances (all starts).
He did not feature in league colours again until 1 December, for the 3-1 victory over Bournemouth. With only one more appearance in 2018 (another 3-1 win, at Southampton on 31 December), Zinchenko had to wait another six weeks (6-0, versus Chelsea on 10 February) for the next, and 17 more days (1-0 versus West Ham) before Guardiola began to trust him.
At the start of the new year Guardiola said City would have to recruit a new left-back this summer because of Mendy’s fragilities and just after the West Ham game Zinchenko was vowing to fight for this “place” in the team. It came after his manager had praised him while saying only “hopefully” might Zinchenko have a future at City.
Guardiola said: “Oleks has showed me the importance and value of being a good guy. At the beginning of the season he was close to making a transfer, and I never saw him have one bad face or had a bad training session from him.
“Some players want to show me how disappointed they are, but Zinchenko is the complete opposite. When this happens, you are always going to play good. He is going to have a long career, here hopefully. I can only say thank you to him – everybody has to learn from Oleks. He deserves to be where he is.”
Now Zinchenko can enjoy a mission accomplished: City will no longer seek a left-back in the close season as Guardiola views him as genuine competition to Mendy, having selected the former Ufa player for 10 of the final 11 Premier League matches.
Zinchenko is on the verge of adding a historic domestic treble to the CV. Having played in all of February’s Carabao Cup final triumph over Chelsea, his late season form makes him favourite to start Saturday’s FA Cup final against Watford at Wembley.
Of the prospect, he says: “It’s an unbelievable feeling to be honest. To play at that stadium, in the final and to go to fight for a title. A final is always special, and we can’t wait for that. For me when I was younger, the Cup was just as important as the Premier League. I don’t know how other players think about it but for me it’s like this. I would dream of playing at a high level, I didn’t realise that I would be here and getting ready for an FA Cup final. It’s a dream.
“It’s a special stadium with a special atmosphere. I’ve played there against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup final and the atmosphere was incredible. The stadium is special no matter who you are playing against. Watford have very good players, especially up top. Their manager and the way they play, I like it. It’s going to be tough against them, I’m sure of that. But I think every single game, our target is to show everyone who we are.”