Following recent reports in the Russian media that FC Ufa wonderkid Oleksandr Zinchenko was set to join Manchester City, we caught up with Russian football expert Andrew Flint to find out more about the Ukrainian winger. Andrew, who is originally from Manchester, now resides in the depths of of Siberia and has been following the Russian Premier League since his move. His knowledge of the Russian game brought us to contacting him to discover more about this largely unknown starlet linked with City, and what exactly he could offer.
Firstly Andrew, do you see Zinchenko coming to a progressing club such as Manchester City, who want to be the best side in Europe, and becoming a success?
Zinchenko is first and foremost a fabulously gifted player who is still only a teenager, so in terms of pure ability I have no doubt he has the potential to cope in the English Premier League. The main concern I would have is whether it is a bit early for him to make such a huge leap, although with the very real possibility of his current side FC Ufa being relegated this season a move may be practically forced upon him.
His mentality seems to be very mature. He takes the set pieces with his excellent left foot ahead of more experienced pros, and has handled the pressure of expectation well so far, not to mention his involvement in a minor political situatuon when he was sent home from a Ukrainian under-21 fixture, supposedly for being based in Russia. With this in mind, he has a good chance of adapting mentallly.
What sort of player is Zinchenko and what will he offer to the side either now or in the future?
That’s not to say he isn’t quick, far from it; but he is most comfortable playing on the left flank – although is capable of switching to the right – and could potentially become a number 10 if Pep Guardiola chooses to mould him that way. He is certainly not afraid to do the dirty work when required, and for a slight frame he handles himself well physically. If used out wide, as I would expect him to be to start with, he would offer more variety and accuracy in his final delivery than Jesus Navas.
Coming from a struggling FC Ufa to a club the size of Manchester City would be an incredible jump in his career. Do you think the pressure of such a move would effect him?
I would be concerned about how he would handle the attention, simply because of the scale of change on all levels he would go through. He has been the star of a struggling side in an average league, and he will go to being either a very small fish in a huge pond, or if he flourishes early on, he’ll face the sort of pressure that English media is famous for heaping on young prodigies. With Pep coming in I would feel confident he will be handled with the right level of care, and he is a smart lad in himself, but the changes will be so enormous there are a lot of intangibles that worry me.
If the Russian media are to be believed, Borussia Dortmund attempted to sign him in the January transfer window but saw him as a left-back. Is he a versatile player capable of playing in such a demanding position or is his intentional solely to attack?
When I saw him live playing against Ural a month ago, he was forced to track back for large parts of the match due to his full-back being run ragged, and the pleasing part was to see him show awareness to adapt to an unnatural role. Without question he is an attack-minded player, but with the intelligence to at least support his defence if needs be. He wouldn’t be of great value as a full-back unless he is utilised as an out and out wing-back with minimal defensive duties; to close out a game perhaps, but nothing more permanent than that.
With young players it can be sometimes difficult to anticipate their futures, however should he sign for City do you think he has the potential to make a name for himself in the Premier League?
Potentially, he could be a truly electrifying talent. City fans have frequently complained to me about the frustrating final ball from Navas, and that is a simple area in which Zinchenko would offer much more joy, but his problem will come from competition for places. If he is given limited opportunities to show his ability, he could stagnate into his early 20s and be considered a flop in England, which would be a crying shame. For me it comes down to how Pep shapes his squad over summer, who he gets rid of and how he plans to use his squad; my gut feeling is it will be slow progress to start with, but I hope for the right reasons.
It could be argued that City’s academy facilities are currently the best on the planet, but a do you feel a move to City is the right thing for Zinchenko?
The facilities City have are truly breathtaking and will be of huge benefit to any player who joins, something Zinchenko will be shocked at in comparison to his current club Ufa. The medical care and sheer weight of off-field expertise available will of course be a great support to him, but I’m not sure it’s the ideal move at this stage for him. It’s simply too early, although I think City moved now for a couple of reasons; the interest from other European clubs forced their hand in a way, and the situation at Ufa means Zinchenko is virtually guaranteed to start elsewhere whether or not he receives a whole raft of offers. I would have seen him moving to one of Russia’s top clubs first, and then after a couple of seasons earning success, moving on to Europe.
If you’re incoming City boss Pep Guardiola, do you loan him out, give him first-team experience, or allow him to develop in our youth teams?
One thing that would be an awful shame would be to see him become another Scott Sinclair, or become a distant developing talent for a couple of years in an completely new environment. I would personally love to see the under-21 level revamped and taken even more seriously, as it would be the ideal environment for Zinchenko, but for now if I were Pep I would still start him out in the EDS and give him time to adapt to the style he is going to implement.
He is obviously well known for having a very particular style and set of demands on his players, and it would be a bit pointless bringing Zinchenko in only to send him somewhere with a different atmosphere and philosophy. The only option I would consider would be a loan back to Russia for a season; a loan move could appeal to the bigger clubs over here financially, and it could take the pressure of him.
FC Ufa’s financial crisis is common knowledge as the Russian game is suffering from a lack of investment but will the club demand a lot of money for Zinchenko or are City likely to obtain him for a rock-bottom bargain fee?
In English terms he will move for peanuts, unless a tribunal gets involved given his age, especially considering that we have seen eight-figure transfer fees for teenagers before. Bear in mind that the highest transfer fee in the Russian Premier League this season was about five million pounds. Even Gazprom-backed Zenit St Petersburg have only broken the six million pound mark once in the last three seasons to sign City’s Javi Garcia.
The financial security of most clubs in Russia is such that their bargaining position would be very weak, so I can’t imagine City needing to pay much more than seven or eight million pounds, although frankly I’d be surprised if it was as much as that. Ufa have next to zero control over Zinchenko’s long term future, and City will know that.
If there was a player in the Premier League or European football that our viewers would recognise, who do you feel Zinchenko’s style of play would be similar to?
Of City’s current squad, I would liken him in style to David Silva, in that he is not all about blistering pace to beat opponents, but has brilliant close control and intelligence on the ball. Artur Petrosyan is a well-known journalist online in Russia and he likened Zinchenko to Kevin De Bruyne; I disagree, because the Belgian will run at the defence more directly, whereas Zinchenko, while undoubtedly pacy, is more likely to look for a telling pass or cross. Don’t get me wrong, he is great at beating his man, but he doesn’t rely on it to have an influence.
Finally Andrew, thank you for your time in educating us all about Manchester City’s expected new signing. One final question I have for you is whether you think the fee City are going to pay is worth the risk and if you firmly believe he will one day line out for the Guardiola’s side?
Value for money, it’s a no brainer. Zinchenko is genuinely one of the most thrilling prospects in European football in my view, even though he is yet to prove himself in a top league, so to get him for less than Newcastle paid for Andros Townsend is a steal. I sincerely hope that if he does make the move, he will not be treated as a piece of meat given the relatively low outlay for his services. There are a few obstacles he will have to overcome if he is to become a fixture for a Guardiola-led Man City, but given time and patience, he could.