Arteta looks to Manchester City alumni to revive Arsenal’s title charge

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It’s only been 11 months since Oleksandr Zinchenko, a force of nature in those final weeks of Manchester City’s campaign, reduced Rodri to equalize against Aston Villa to take them within a goal of the title. The player who recovered the ball from Robin Olsen’s net and brought it back into midfield was Gabriel Jesus, not a goalscorer that day but far from redundant during the run-in. Jesus would play an indirect role in Ilkay Gündogan’s winning goal, making a run behind which forced Tyrone Mings into a free touch.

These moments will live on in the city’s folklore for decades. They’re also snapshots of exactly why Mikel Arteta was so keen on bringing Zinchenko and Jesus to Arsenal for £75m for the two.

Both players were winners, B-lister by City standards but not exactly reserves. They knew better than anyone how to move the knob; they had operated in a team that, in those moments when adversity or insecurity crept in, almost invariably found the means to achieve greatness. On Wednesday, Arteta must be hoping he brought in plenty. Zinchenko and Jesus can number among the summer newcomers at Arsenal who have taken them from clubs to potential league winners.

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William Saliba, another crucial addition, will miss the showdown against the champions with a back injury and could struggle to play again this season. It falls to the former City pair, so well educated to be successful at the Etihad Stadium, to once again put those lessons to good use.

After Theo Walcott had given Southampton a 2-0 lead at the Emirates Stadium on Friday night, it was Zinchenko – rather than the captain, Martin Ødegaard – who gathered a shocked group and called the odds. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Ukrainian has become the key voice in the dressing room: the story that he was met with laughter in pre-season when he demanded a title push from his new team-mates is well told, but the conviction of him was contagious. Zinchenko understood what he needed and took everyone else with him.

Jesus is less rhetorical, but his diligence, helpfulness and professionalism have had a similar impact on the Arsenal training ground. At the start of the season his tremendous spark and work-rate from the front showed what the side would be capable of when he kicked up his attacking volume a notch. The improvement, which could be directly linked to Jesus’ example, survived much of his winter injury absence and the Arsenal front row can rarely be accused of looking flat.

Now, however, Arsenal find themselves in a bad situation, although the fact that three consecutive draws could be considered terminal speaks volumes for the ridiculously high standards required to challenge City. Their proven winners haven’t been immune to the kind of mistake that got things out of hand.

If we want to be champions we have to go there and win the game

Gabriel Jesus

Zinchenko was visibly disappointed after Trent Alexander‑Arnold drove him mad in preparation for Roberto Firmino’s equalizer in Liverpool; Jesus had scored four goals from three before the Southampton match, but his overall level of performance fell short of its previous highs of the season. At West Ham he spent more time on the pitch than in charge as Arsenal struggled to regain their intensity; converting a player up 3-1 against the Saints would have given them far more time to attempt a three-goal upset which they have all but completed.

“If we want to be champions we’ll have to go there and win the match, that’s all,” Jesus said of a match that justified weeks of hype. To stretch their lead, Arsenal need to find a way to subdue Erling Haaland and the vastly improved Jack Grealish, whose contributions showed why Jesus had little chance of being long-term favorites under Pep Guardiola, whether in center or left. external. They must mitigate Saliba’s absence more skilfully than they have since he stopped against Sporting Lisbon last month; their midfield must compete on terms with that of City and in attack they will simply have to be more lucid.

It’s easier said than done. But Zinchenko and Jesus got everything sooner and now comes the opportunity, sooner than expected or not, to validate Arteta’s reasons for involving them. They were brought in to set the tone for nights like this, arriving as emissaries from a world that had become alien to Arsenal; one in which victories spring of their own accord and trophies flow as surely as night follows day. Winning Wednesday would not transform Arsenal into City, but it would be the apotheosis of the process both players have been asked to implement.

“We have another final to play,” said Jesus. He and Zinchenko have learned enough; doing it again, in a venue where they know exactly what to call the tune, could mean last May’s scenes are being repeated in north London after all.

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