Manchester City, it turns out, might not need a new left-back after all.
The Premier League champions, blessed with so much depth throughout their squad, had been linked with a move for Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell, one of the Premier League’s standout full backs this season.
For City, the reasoning was clear. Benjamin Mendy has suffered with injuries since his arrival from Monaco, unable to manage a prolonged run in the team. So a potential rival for his place at left back was identified.
It appears now, though, City may not move for Chilwell and will instead trust Oleksandr Zinchenko – signed in 2016 as a midfielder – to continue his excellent progress in the position. The 22-year-old has made 26 appearances this season, starting eight of City’s last nine games in a role that was completely unfamiliar to him at the start of the previous campaign.
He has adapted impressively, adding dynamism and technical quality on the left of City’s back four. The Premier League leaders have certainly not suffered with Zinchenko in the team.
But there may still be some doubt as to whether City can afford to neglect the left-back position in the summer. Mendy’s injury problems, regardless of Zinchenko’s form, could mean there is a lack of cover, so it may be worth the financial outlay to bring in a player of Chilwell’s ability.
The Leicester man is a natural full-back, too, which might give him an edge over Zinchenko. That is unlikely to concern Pep Guardiola, however, given the Catalan coach’s history of moving midfielders into defence and vice versa. Positionally, City are fluid, hence Zinchenko’s success.
Guardiola has often favoured full backs who are capable of slotting into midfield and providing his side with a numerical advantage over the opposition. Zinchenko is almost perfect for this. He has averaged 87.22 completed passes per 90 minutes this season – far more than any other full back in the Premier League – at a completion rate of 92.2 per cent.
Chilwell cannot compete with these numbers, averaging 34.14 completed passes per 90 with a completion rate of 72.4 per cent.
Defensively, though, the England international comes into his own. He has won more aerial duels per 90 (3.2) than Zinchenko (1.94), more defensive duels per 90 (7.2 to 5.17) and completed more possession turnovers per 90 (1.91 to 0.46).
Chilwell is more direct and purposeful on the ball, too. Where Zinchenko instinctively looks to pass, the England international looks to drive forward into space.
When added to his natural technical ability, it is easy to see why Guardiola identified the 22-year-old. Chilwell averages 1.32 completed dribbles per game, compared to Zinchenko’s 0.46, though the latter has proven more creative, averaging 0.27 big chances created per 90 to Chilwell’s 0.05.
“He’s a talented player in this early part of his career,” Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers has said of Chilwell. “He’s got himself to be playing for England and I remember seeing him against Spain and he was absolutely fantastic. But there are areas of his game that can make him an even better player and that’s where we can sit down and talk him through it.
“You see now how he gets up to the ball, he’s more aggressive in his game and he’s really in contention with the opponent and it’s pleasing to see that. To progress and achieve you’ve got to be in the arena and be aggressive.
“Then he has his strengths. He’s so natural and graceful with the ball but it’s a mindset a lot for young players. You can’t be timid and you’ve got to push and that’s something we’ve looked to do from early on.”
For City, it may be a choice between Zinchenko and Chilwell, both 22 but with very different strengths.
Guardiola must consider, too, which of them is more likely to develop into a left-back capable of performing consistently at the highest level. The answer may prove difficult.