Manchester City old boys Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus remind Arsenal of their quality

Oleksandr Zinchenko of Arsenal during the UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg match between Arsenal FC and FC Bayern München at Emirates Stadium on April 09, 2024 in London, England. 

It requires a considerable amount of coaching courage to watch Leroy Sane destroy the left side of your team, eviscerating one of your most solid defenders, and respond by throwing Oleksandr Zinchenko into the action.

Zinchenko is a wonderful technician and one of Arsenal’s best passers, but he is not known for his defending in one-against-one situations. So when he replaced Jakub Kiwior at half-time of Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Bayern Munich, more than a few of Gunners’ supporters would have feared the worst.

Zinchenko, up against the flying Sane? Clearly there were risks there. But from Mikel Arteta’s perspective, there were also huge potential rewards. Zinchenko cannot defend like Kiwior, a natural centre-back, but he can do so much more with the ball.

Arsenal were trailing 2-1 at half-time and they needed control of the game. Zinchenko, perhaps more than any player in Arteta’s squad, helps to provide that control in possession. His arrival at the break transformed Arsenal’s shape with the ball and helped them to come back into a tie that might have got away from them in the first half.

The decision to bring on Zinchenko was one of three substitutions that proved crucial to Arsenal’s second-half comeback. The others were Leandro Trossard, who scored after replacing Gabriel Martinelli, and Gabriel Jesus, who excelled after replacing Jorginho.

The difference between Zinchenko and Kiwior is enormous. Zinchenko is a playmaker at heart, while Kiwior is primarily a rugged centre-back. By swapping Kiwior for Zinchenko, Arteta effectively added another midfielder to his team and changed the way Arsenal built up from the back.

With Kiwior, Arsenal started the match with a back four. By turning to Zinchenko, Arteta changed the left-back position into an inverted role, in which the Ukrainian shuffled inside whenever Arsenal had possession. It was a shift that made Arsenal more calm, secure and solid.

Zinchenko was able to slow the game down, or speed it up when required, and was significantly more involved in the action than Kiwior had been. In the first 45 minutes, Kiwior had 27 touches of the ball and completed 16 passes. In the second 45 minutes, Zinchenko had 52 touches and completed 35 passes.

In recent weeks, some Arsenal supporters have wondered whether the club might already be moving on from Zinchenko and Jesus, the two signings from Manchester City who did so much to transform the team following their arrival in the summer of 2022.

It is a reasonable argument: Zinchenko’s form and fitness has been more erratic this season, while Kai Havertz has seemingly overtaken Jesus as the first-choice centre-forward.

​Tuesday’s meeting with Bayern, though, provided a reminder of the quality and experience that these two players can bring to the side. In the case of Zinchenko, it is added midfield control. And in the case of Jesus, it is added attacking chaos.

Whenever he is asked about Jesus, Arteta speaks glowingly about the Brazilian’s unpredictability in the final third, his ability to conjure chances and create goals out of nothing. The 27-year-old demonstrated this skill throughout his 23 minutes on the pitch against Bayern, not least with his spectacular assist for Trossard’s goal.

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It was the perfect example of what Jesus, at his best, can bring to the Arsenal team. Close control, bravery on the ball and an exceptional awareness in tight spaces. Havertz is a different sort of attacker, more of an off-the-ball runner than an on-the-ball magician, and Arsenal looked much more dangerous once Jesus came into the attack.

Over the course of 86 minutes, Havertz took four touches in the Bayern penalty area. Jesus, in just 23 minutes, took three. Jesus also created two chances (to Havertz’s one) and completed three of his three attempted dribbles (Havertz did not attempt one dribble). As with Zinchenko, the arrival of Jesus ultimately proved to be game-changing.

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