This season, through the haze of ecstasy and reverie at the Emirates, there are two images of Oleksandr Zinchenko that linger longer than most.
The first came back in August, when the Ukrainian sprinted down the touchline following Gabriel’s late winner over Fulham.
For the first time all season, Arsenal had met adversity. For the first of many times, they trampled through it towards victory. There was only one issue: Zinchenko was supposed to be injured.
Oleksandr Zinchenko has emerged a crucial cog in Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge
He celebrated jubilantly with fans as Eddie Nketiah netted his last-gasp winner against United
He was wearing a knee brace and his wild celebrations, it recently emerged, earned him a ticking-off from the FA.
Then on Sunday, after Eddie Nketiah’s last-minute winner against Manchester United, Zinchenko turned to the stands. He closed his eyes, punched the air, and let out a visceral roar.
Together, they encapsulate the emotions of this campaign and the spirit Zinchenko has added to Mikel Arteta’s squad since arriving from Manchester City.
In Orlando last summer, even before the Ukrainian had completed his £30million move, players such as Aaron Ramsdale could sense the shift. Having already landed Gabriel Jesus, Arsenal were signing another player for whom winning was a habit.
The versatile star reunited with Mikel Arteta last summer after leaving Man City for £30million
He tucks into the midfield more than Kieran Tierney to aid with Arsenal’s build-up in attack
That told Ramsdale and his team-mates: this club is not settling for Champions League football.
That message has been reinforced by Zinchenko and Jesus. By the standards they set in training. But also in their words.
‘When I just arrived… I realised on the pitch that we have everything to achieve the big things. And I started to speak in the dressing room like, “Guys, forget top three or whatever it is, we need to think about the title”,’ Zinchenko said on Sunday. ‘Some of them were laughing, but no one is laughing now.’
Arteta signed Zinchenko — and Jesus — to add ‘competitive edge’ and on Wednesday, he again highlighted the Ukrainian’s mentality.
Gabriel Jesus also arrived from Manchester City last summer and was superb before his injury
‘He has a real desire to make something special with this team and the experience that he has had in the past is very helpful to do that,’ Arteta said.
Yet to suggest the 26-year-old’s influence is limited to leadership and mindset would be to ignore the transformative impact he makes with his feet. Buying players from City has allowed Arteta to play more like their title rivals.
‘He is a player who gives us everything that we want in that position, he gives us versatility and he gets a lot of attention as well and fills other spaces,’ Arteta said. ‘That for us is very important.’
Arsenal are not the same team without the Ukrainian. In only 15 appearances, he has become one of Arteta’s most important players. A left-back-cum-central midfield-playmaker who has shone even while home is under siege.
Serial winners Zinchenko and Jesus have added a competitive edge to the Gunners this season
Zinchenko has spoken out emotionally following Russia’s invasion and given generously to those back home. He has said he would be fighting if his family wasn’t here.
And yet his performances continue to improve.
Rarely has his influence been more evident than over the past 10 days. At Tottenham, he constantly drifted inside to give Arsenal a 4-v-2 overload in midfield. That laid the foundations for their first-half dominance and a vital 2-0 victory.
Against United, Zinchenko led the pre-match team talk in the huddle. Arsenal were locked in a frenetic tussle for the first hour and only began to take control in the final stages, a period which coincided with Zinchenko growing in influence.
Pep Guardiola, who sold the pair last summer, is now five points behind Arsenal in the title race
He ended the game with the most touches. He also had a big hand in Nketiah’s winner.
Looking back, the dots are easy to join: as Arteta pointed out last summer, Zinchenko ‘was a natural No 10 early in his career’.
It was at City, under the now-Arsenal boss, that the Ukrainian was converted to a left back. But none of his ball skills faded. So even though questions remain over his defending, the cost-benefit analysis is wonderfully lopsided.
That much is obvious when Zinchenko doesn’t play. Kieran Tierney — injury issues aside — was one of Arsenal’s key players until this season. Now he is struggling for a start. No matter that the Scot offers greater solidity, and plenty of attacking thrust. Neither he, nor anyone in Arteta’s squad, can replicate Zinchenko.
The Ukrainian celebrates Arsenal’s winner against United with new signing Leandro Trossard
With Ben White on the other flank, they can shift between a back three and back four.
Don’t be fooled by their record without Zinchenko. He has missed seven Premier League matches through injury, with Arsenal winning six and drawing one. That is credit to Arteta and his squad but belies two key examples of the Ukrainian’s importance.
Arteta has picked Zinchenko for three of the biggest games this season despite recent revelations that he was not fully fit for any.
And then, on Sunday, another eight-minute explainer. When Leandro Trossard came on for his Arsenal debut, Zinchenko greeted the £21m signing by grabbing his head in both hands and barking a rallying cry. Before long, Zinchenko and Trossard had combined to set up Nketiah’s winner — and those celebrations.