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It may yet be the most telling mistake Manchester City have made in recent seasons. The moments that cost them a English league three-peat -- as sizeable a mark of greatness as any in this country -- might have come before a ball was kicked when they sold first Gabriel Jesus and then Oleksandr Zinchenko to Arsenal. Not even the Gunners' own sales of Ashley Cole, Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie compare as an act of self-sabotage; Arsenal did not forge contenders with those sales nor did they have much of a title challenge to handicap. They had a stadium to finance. Pep Guardiola had no such concerns in sending two squad players to north London. It was the move the players wanted and the Premier League champions wanted to do right by them.

City did not see this Arsenal emerging, the one they will face first in Friday's FA Cup fourth-round tie, a mere warmup act to the title showdown that their meeting on February 15 may yet be. If they had, then the whims of their players would have counted for rather less. In their defense, neither did some of Zinchenko's new teammates. 

"To be honest, when I had just arrived, the quality I saw ... obviously I knew the Arsenal team, I knew all of them before, but still I realized on the pitch we have everything to achieve big things," Zinchenko said after Sunday's 3-2 win over Manchester United. "I started to speak in the dressing room, saying, 'Guys, forget top three or whatever, we need to think about the title.' Some of them were laughing but no one is laughing now."

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That is not entirely the case. What other reaction could Arsenal supporters have to a season rent straight from their dreams but jubilant laughter? There were those around the club who feared a hangover following the way in which Arteta's side let a surprise top-four finish slip out of their grasp in the final weeks of last season. Instead, Jesus and Zinchenko brought with them a mentality shift even when they are not playing.

Arsenal might have been coping quite adequately on the pitch without Jesus thanks to the impressive form of Eddie Nketiah but their third captain is still having an impact in the dressing room. 

"He's been incredible with the boys, the staff and everybody around the club," said Arteta in his pre-match press conference. "His energy and how positive he is to the boys -- he's always giving them advice and is always next to them. He's been terrific."

The same is true of Zinchenko. He may not be a formal part of Arteta's leadership triumvirate -- captain Martin Odegaard, Granit Xhaka and Jesus -- but he might as well be. He has brought a force of personality to Arsenal that is reflected in pre-match huddles and warmups, where he will be one of the most vocal players. For some, moving from perennial Champions League contenders to a club that has not even played in Europe's top tier since 2017 might not be ideal, but the Ukraine captain has relished the opportunity to build a contender. A boyhood Gooner, he has asked for photos with "Mr. Arsenal" Tony Adams and feels like he has found another family in north London.

All this would count for very little if his on-pitch impact had not been so transformative. It is curious to think that Zinchenko was not Arsenal's first choice when they looked to strengthen at left-back last summer. They envisaged Lisandro Martinez playing a more orthodox inverted role before they were priced out by Manchester United. What they got instead was a player whose touch map is Arsene Wenger's wish for football to become art fulfilled. What is this if not some pointillist masterpiece?

Take a look:

Oleksandr Zinchenko's touch map in Premier League matches this season Twenty3

It has been a rather rare occasion this season where Arsenal are chasing a game. When they do, Zinchenko comes to the fore. No one averages more passes when the Gunners are drawing and trailing than their nominal left-back, who is at his most free to wonder from his nominal position in possession. Every attacking move seems to cycle through the 26-year-old, as the graphic below indicates.

Arsenal's passing network when they are drawing or trailing in a Premier League game this season. Note how many arrows lead towards the Zinchenko at left-back.  Twenty3

It would be harsh to say that City erred in letting Zinchenko go. He only started 10 Premier League games for Guardiola's side last season, wanted to move on and recouped £35 million for them. But it might not be unreasonable to note that they are missing him as Joao Cancelo struggles for form. Nathan Ake has won plentiful praise from his manager for stepping in at left-back but Guardiola tends to couch that by acknowledging that the Dutchman is no left-back. On the opposite flank, Rico Lewis is performing ably in an inverted role but it would surely help if a veteran of four title wins was on hand to steady the ship.

For now, Guardiola seems only to want to garland praise on both his former players and Arteta, his one-time assistant at the Etihad Stadium. 

"Oleks and Gabriel have been amazing with us," he said before Friday's cup tie. "I have incredible respect for them as a person and then as football players. Of course, we want to beat them. But with all the success they had, their families, well, I am more than delighted. If it has happened, it Is because the players and both the clubs agreed with that.

"Many times Oleks could have left but he said, 'No, no, I want to stay, I want to stay,' and he stayed. Gabriel, the same. They were here for a lot of years and they needed a new challenge. Arsenal wanted them and it happened in a natural way. So, if it's going well for them, congratulations."

It is easy to say that now when all that is at stake is a spot in the fifth round of the FA Cup. One wonders if Guardiola might be so happy for his former charges if their decisive role continues into the Premier League clash that looms large on the horizon.