Oleksandr Zinchenko catches the eye as Man City overcome Bristol City
When Benjamin Mendy was seriously injured in Manchester City's 5-0 thumping of Crystal Palace in September, few expected Fabian Delph to step up to the plate and make himself at home in the left-back position. That injury to the first-choice full-back probably also opened up another opportunity, having the knock-on effect of forcing Pep Guardiola to rethink his options early in the campaign.
Had Mendy been fit, it's more than likely Delph would have been used sparingly in midfield -- perhaps dropping in to left-back for cup matches. With him on first team duty most matches since the start of October, it gave Oleksandr Zinchenko the chance to deputise.
By the time he was named in City's team for the 2-1 win over Bristol City in the Carabao Cup semifinal first leg on Tuesday, few fans were worried about what they were going to get from the 21-year-old. Had Zinchenko been forced to play in the Premier League at any point through injury or suspension, there would not have been a reaction as nervous as the one that emerged when it became clear that Eliaquim Mangala was to be thrust back into first team duties in December.
An attacking midfielder by trade, Zinchenko has not looked out of place on the left side of defence and has been a consistent performer in City's League Cup team. For someone still learning the ropes at a new club and playing out of position, he's not been afraid to take responsibility on the pitch, put in a boot to make a tackle and carry the ball into dangerous areas to join in with the attack.
Much in the same way that Delph has adapted to the position, Zinchenko has proven himself to wise beyond his years to be able to compete in a style that Guardiola demands. Instead of the more orthodox full-back role -- powering up and down the flank, offering support to a winger and defensive solidity -- he is more comfortable stepping inside to open up different angles for key passes. He's more at home in the middle, so Guardiola encourages him to move there when City have the ball.
The way City attack generally leaves Leroy Sane wide on the left and allows Raheem Sterling to drift into the middle from the right. That's why Sterling has found the net far more this season than any other, he's getting into positions to finish chances -- knowing that Kyle Walker or Danilo are able to get down the flank to offer width in his absence. With Delph or Zinchenko stepping inside, Sane doesn't have that luxury and so hugs the touchline.
Zinchenko was key to City keeping the ball moving quickly on the left side of the pitch on Tuesday evening. He was always an option for Sane to pass inside, rather than backwards, and that kept the home side on the front foot when trying to work an opening through the Robins' backline. On top of that, he showed some lovely touches to keep his team in possession and wasn't afraid of picking up the ball and running at his opposition.
It demonstrates how Guardiola has the team working as one unit rather than as individual departments. Zinchenko may be playing out of position, but his job in the side isn't that far removed from what he'd be doing if he were to be named in his nature attacking midfield role. Perhaps that's why the Ukrainian hasn't looked out of his depth since making his debut in the 0-0 draw with Wolves earlier in the season.
Against Bristol City, he was the best defender on the pitch for the home side -- and he's not even a defender. This isn't to say that the 21-year-old is the finished product. There are a few signs of naivety in his game, which could have been highlighted had they been punished. He was occasionally caught out high up the pitch, unable to cover against Wolves and he dived in rashly a couple of times against Bristol City, giving away a free kick and showing space in behind the home side's line.
But it's hardly surprising it's the defensive side of the game that he's making his mistakes with and he's still a developing talent. He is showing signs of improvement with each appearance for the club.
When Zinchenko was signed, it was suspected by fans he'd be the sort of player that was brought in cheap to be sold for a profit without getting near to the first time -- similar to Aaron Mooy or Enes Unal. However, he's surprised many by establishing himself as a solid option for Guardiola.
It's a shame his appearances have been limited to left-back this season, given some of the attacking awareness he's shown when in the team. He's a long way from living up to the impact that Kevin De Bruyne or David Silva have when playing in behind the striker, but it will be interesting to see how the Ukrainian develops in the coming months.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney