Somewhere in the Shakhtar Donetsk media archives, there’s a video of a 14-year-old academy player showing off his skills, when someone asks him to reveal his career dream.
The young boy was Oleksandr ‘Alex’ Zinchenko and he said the ultimate objective was to play for Arsenal. The next day, a Shakhtar club official approached him.
“He said: ‘We need to film it again because the club is going to sack you!'” recalls Zinchenko in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports a decade later. “They told me: ‘just say you want to play for Shakhtar, not Arsenal!’
“It was so funny, I need to find that video!”
The long-term adoration for Arsenal helps to show how Zinchenko’s career has gone in multiple circles. The boy who lived and breathed in Arsenal shirts despite being in the Shakhtar academy is now a key player in the Gunners first-team set-up. The man who won four Premier League titles with Manchester City is now giving his old side a headache by topping the table with his new club.
Arsenal went into the World Cup break five points clear of City at the top of the Premier League table. It’s only the second time the club have been top on Christmas Day since they last won the league in 2004.
There are still six months and 24 games left to go in this top-flight season, but there’s a hushed belief – from the fans especially – that they are well-placed to finish the job after Christmas.
“I live in an area where there are so many Arsenal fans, [I see them out] while walking the dogs,” Zinchenko explains. “The way they support and believe that we can achieve something, it’s incredible.
“You can’t imagine how much energy it gives you, just talking to one of them.”
But do the players share that title-winning belief? “We don’t look that far,” Zinchenko says, firmly. “We need to be focused on every single game and go step by step.
“For sure, the way the fans are supporting us, it’s incredible and they deserve the best. But I tell you, there are only two things we need to do: hard work and belief.
“On top of it, there’s consistency. There is no limit to improvement, there’s a lot of space in every single detail. Every point is so important.
“I know it from the past. When I was at City, we were dropping a lot of really important points against teams where we were stronger [than them] because anything can happen in football. If we have chances to score, we need to score all of them.
“The most important thing is that everyone is humble and professional. Like you see now, we only have one striker – but we can play with no striker – and everyone needs to play his role. Now is the most important of the season and we need to fight for something big.”
Zinchenko highlights a problem for Arsenal – the first argument critics will point to as to why they may not pip City to the post. A knee injury for striker Gabriel Jesus sustained during the World Cup will rule the Brazilian out for an undefined period after his surgery – though reports have claimed it could be as long as three months.
Jesus has scored five goals and registered five assists in 14 games for the Gunners since he, like Zinchenko, made the switch from Man City to north London over the summer.
But injury brings opportunity, and Zinchenko is fully confident that Eddie Nketiah – the only recognised first-team striker left at Arsenal – can carry the responsibility.
“We are all behind him and supporting him, of course it’s a big miss for our team,” said Zinchenko about his close friend Jesus, first. “The impact of what he’s doing for the club is amazing. I’ve known him for a while and he’s a big warrior and I’m 100 per cent sure he will be much, much stronger.
“Since I came here, [Nketiah] has been amazing. Honestly, even watching him last season, I was surprised a lot because the ability and quality he has is incredible. He has an amazing potential and future for sure.
“The way he works so hard, I have no doubts about him. For sure, he’s going to help the team as much as he can and he understands the pressure now a little bit. He should realise how important he will be for the rest of the season.”
The third person to make the switch from Manchester City to Arsenal in recent years is current manager Mikel Arteta, once assistant to Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium but now driving a rival group at the Emirates.
Zinchenko, Arteta and Guardiola all arrived at Man City together in the summer of 2016. The Ukrainian was 19 years old at the time of that first meet and is one of a host of young players that Arteta has helped develop down the years.
“When I arrived at Man City, he was ready to be the head coach since day one,” Zinchenko says. “Every single bit of his advice was so important – it was exactly what the player wants to hear, especially for the young players.
“After every single session, he used to work a lot with the young players and the exercises, talks and advice were so, so important. That’s the amazing quality he has.
“You can be a top [former] footballer, but you may not know what you should say or when you should say it. He’s got this quality.
“I’ve been surprised since I came to Arsenal. He’s obviously improved since I saw him the last time at City, he’s amazing. I hope and I have no doubt he is going to grow as a manager for sure.”
Zinchenko was speaking to Sky Sports from Arsenal’s mid-season winter training camp in Dubai. There’s two weeks to go until the Gunners resume their Premier League season – but the team are getting back to full strength with only one player, the hardly used William Saliba of France, left at the World Cup.
Thomas Partey, Ben White and Matt Turner are already back training with the club, the recently eliminated Granit Xhaka, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Gabriel Martinelli, Aaron Ramsdale and Bukayo Saka are on the way to joining them.
There’s no respite under the Abu Dhabi sun from Arteta and his coaching staff. Zinchenko himself is close to putting the calf injury problems that ruled him out for a month in the autumn behind him, with Arsenal expecting him to be fit for the Boxing Day restart against West Ham.
“Some people think we’re chilling here, we are not,” Zinchenko says firmly. “We are working hard to prepare as much and as better as we can.
“That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re waiting for the rest of the guys. Some of them are still at the World Cup and some are joining day by day.
“We are nearly at full strength.”
Arsenal are aiming to restart the season in the way they ended it before the World Cup break. It’s time to see what this young group of players are really made of, with their die-hard Gunner helping the charge.
Watch Arsenal’s second game back after the World Cup break away at Brighton on New Year’s Eve, live on Sky Sports Premier League; kick-off 5.30pm