The question came right at the end of Pep Guardiola’s press conference ahead of Manchester City’s game against Wolves: “Do you regret now selling Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus?”
“It’s just ... because you’ve given your rivals a big boost?”
Pep smiled and shook his head. “When they want to leave they cannot stay. I wish the best for Gabriel and Oleks. Fantastic persons, and they helped us a lot ... it’s the club and it’s their decision ... It was a good transfer for the club. We are not in the position we are in because we do not have Oleks or Gabriel.”
A couple of things to note about this. First, Pep’s iron rule of “when they want to leave they cannot stay” never seems to apply to Bernardo Silva, who has asked to leave Manchester City at least twice, only to be told he’s staying because he’s a fundamental player in the system who is almost impossible to replace. Where can Pep find another Bernardo Silva?
Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus were not in the Bernardo Silva category. They were in the Raheem Sterling category, good but not indispensable: thank you for your service, and all the best for the future.
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With the arrivals of Erling Haaland and Julián Alvarez it was difficult to see how Pep could find many minutes for Jesus. As for Zinchenko, he had some great moments at City, not least in what proved to be his last game for the club, when he came on as a substitute against Aston Villa and helped to turn the tide of the game that won the title.
He was respected by his team-mates – Kyle Walker rated him one of the three best technical players in the squad – but he was never as consistently productive as the first-choice left-back, João Cancelo.
So Guardiola allowed them to join Arsenal, a club that had never finished higher than fifth in all his six seasons in England. Maybe would not have sold them to a team he considered a serious threat. Mikel Arteta’s remodelled Arsenal have turned out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Guardiola is probably right when he says of his own team, “we are not in the position we are in because we do not have Oleks or Gabriel” – although he could have done without Cancelo’s slump in form over the last couple of months. But Arsenal definitely wouldn’t be in the position they’re in – five points clear at the top with a game in hand – without the contributions of the players Pep sent them.
Jesus has been injured since the World Cup but his impact in the early months of the season was huge, helping to get this unexpected title charge off to the best possible start. As for Zinchenko, he has missed eight league matches due to various injuries, but last night, in an epic Arsenal win against Manchester United, he was an absolute mastermind.
For Erik ten Hag the game was decided by corners, in particular United’s mistakes in defending them which led to Arsenal’s first two goals. That seemed a rather harsh reading of Arsenal’s second, a stunning strike by Bukayo Saka, but United’s players are discovering that ten Hag’s talk about “high standards” isn’t just talk. If the second goal annoyed the United coach, you can only imagine his fury at the first, which his team conceded after David De Gea and Aaron Wan Bissaka contrived to turn a United goal-kick into an Arsenal corner.
Arsenal had 12 corners in the game and the thing you soon started to notice about them was not how dangerous they were in themselves, but how cleverly Zinchenko, waiting outside the box, recycled possession and kept the pressure on United’s defence after they had cleared them. Throughout the game he showed uncanny anticipation in reading where the ball was going to end up, then intelligence and composure to find his team-mates on either side, penning United in, making sure there was no let-up to the siege.
When Arsenal were in possession he drifted centrally into midfield, allowing Gabriel Martinelli to work the left wing. Somehow the ball kept ending up at his feet and it was no surprise to see he finished the game with more touches than any other player. But he can also do more traditional full-back things, as he showed in the 88th minute when he overlapped down the left and put in the hard low cross that Fred deflected into the path of Eddie Nketiah for the winning goal.
In a thrilling game of brilliant goals and fine margins, the difference between the sides came down to the difference between Zinchenko and the United defender facing him on that side of the pitch. Aaron Wan Bissaka saved United a point at Crystal Palace last Thursday with a brilliant late tackle on Wilfried Zaha and he produced another good challenge here on Martinelli. It’s not enough, though, for a side with the ambitions ten Hag has for United. He knows his team would be better off with a footballer like Zinchenko.
With Erling Haaland back on the goal trail, every second question Arteta is asked between today and May will be some variation on: can your team handle the pressure? Arteta’s approach is to break it down. Don’t think about the next three months, think about the next game, the next move, the next pass. Don’t conceive of the race as an unequal struggle with a vastly more powerful opponent. Really, it breaks down to a series of in-game decisions. And in Zinchenko they’ve found someone who gets those decisions right more often than most.