Just over a year ago the Ukranian side Shakhtar Donetsk were lifting the final edition of the UEFA Cup. The ‘miners’ also competed in the 2009/10 edition of the Europa league but were dumped out of the competition by beaten finalists Fulham FC. For all of Shakhtar’s wonderful, short, accurate passing they failed to penetrate the South West Londoner’s organised defence.
Throughout the two legs the Ukrainians failed to use any width to attack Fulham, choosing to cut inside and shoot into a crowded penalty area on almost every occasion. On the few occasions they did contrive to use width and were in behind the defence they scored, if only they had learnt to do this a little more often.
A season on and they have made it to the Champions League group stage, the draw has handed them as good a hand as was possible. They have been drawn against Arsenal, SC Braga and FK Partizan. The group is one they will fancy their chances of getting out of, especially after having taking 6 points from their first 2 games. It has been an intriguing journey, personally, to witness from afar the change in attitude and tactics that they have undergone since I saw them lose at Craven Cottage.
Their performances so far in the Champions League this season suggest that they have transplanted some of their lateral passing for more incisive movement at the attacking end of the pitch. Without winger Ilsinho who has moved back to Brazil and Fernandinho, carrying a long term knee injury, there have been outings for younger Brazilians in the squad such as Douglas Costa, Alex Teixera and Willian. Despite having come a long way since their over intricate passing style that appeared to ultimately result in no gains there are still a number of areas in which they will need to improve if they want to progress further than the 2nd round of the tournament.
Starting from the front, one of the signings made by Lucescu last January was the young Brazilian prodigy Douglas Costa. Costa had been linked with a number of clubs before having a poor season full of off the pitch troubles and then signing for Shakhtar. The young starlet has reined in his tendencies to cut in and shoot, but not enough to give him the real unpredictability required to open up the very best defences. Usually deployed on the right hand side of an attacking three as an inside-out winger, he has been given plenty of license to cut inside but he needs to change his approach at the top level.
Above we can see, marked in yellow, Costa when he does not have the ball at his feet has the tactical sense to stay close to the touch line and on the full back’s shoulder offering the threat of picking up balls in behind the full back’s inside shoulder. This is very good play for the winger and will cause full backs lots of problems if his team mates can play balls in between centre back and full back for him to run onto.
However when he does get the ball to feet, we see the same pattern emerging where by he will charge in-field and very often shoot from upwards of 25-30 yards because there is rarely enough space to continue a run or find an accurate pass. In fairness to the lad, on this occasion he feigns to shoot and lays off a nice pass for Luiz Adriano to score with. Willian, who regularly plays as the left winger (also inside-out), has a similar tendency to cut inside too often but usually finds a pass to Jadson or Gai in the centre. Willian’s pass completion rate in the game against Partizan was 91% to Douglas’ meagre 54%.
The central play of both wingers means that Shakhtar were often a very narrow team last season, to get by without the wingers width a lot of attacking play is required from both full backs. Darijo Srna (Right) and Razvan Rat (Left) tend to play very high up the pitch, particularly in games where Shakhtar are dominating possession.
There are a number of observations to be made from the pitch map above. First of all, as discussed earlier, the very narrow positions of both wingers (10 & 20) as well as the high positions of the full backs. While Tomas Hubschman (3) plays a very capable role as defensive midfielder he tends to get sucked into the middle of the pitch looking to block off play and intercept passes which leaves tons of space in the channels to be exploited on the counter attack.
Up front Luiz Adriano has shown that he has what it takes to bag goals and has steadily been upping his haul year on year since moving to the Ukraine. He is a versatile player who can play as a traditional number 9 on the shoulder of the last man as well as dropping deep to interchange and link up with Jadson in the hole. He’s not bad with his head either. He has been joined this summer by former Arsenal striker Eduardo, who appears to be rebuilding the career that was on the ropes after that Martin Taylor reducer. The Striker has 4 goals in 7 games so far this season, hopefully he can rediscover the ice cold finish that brought him to the Premier League in 2007.
To round off with a pointlessly interesting statistic, Oleksiy Gai the Shakhtar central midfielder passed to every one of his team mates 2 or more times when they faced SC Braga except to his central midfield partner Tomas Hubschman. I’ve not heard of any John Terry style antics from the pair so we’ll have to assume that this is a sign of their new found commitment to onward rushing attacking play?
The true test of just how far Shakhtar have come will be against a side who play a very similar brand of short passing football next week. They will play Arsenal on consecutive game weeks, first home then away. If they can maintain the kind of passing football I have seen from them over the last 18 months I would like to think that they will win over a few fans from these fine shores. These are the two games I have been most looking forward to in the whole group stage since the draw was made.