The latest in our Rising Nations series sees guest writer Alfie Wilson analyse the Euro qualification of Ukraine; a team on the up.
Ukraine’s position as top seeds in the Euro 2020 draw in November 2019, an event that now feels from a different era, came as a surprise to many. Rightfully so, since missing out by a whisker for the 2014 World Cup via narrowly and undeservedly losing a playoff to France, after blowing a two-goal lead, Ukraine have performed below par on the international stage.
A dismal campaign at Euro 2016, not only being the sole side to not get a point but also not to score, was exacerbated by a similarly poor showing in 2018 World Cup qualification. They finished third in their group after failing to win in 4 attempts against Iceland and Croatia, buckling in pressure games away in Reykjavík and at home to Croatia in two of their final three qualifiers.
Andriy Shevchenko, coming in after the dismissal of Mykhaylo Fomenko in 2016, seemed to be typical example of an appointment made without much thought to tactical setup.
However since the start of the 2018/19 Nations League have improved drastically, culminating in a really impressive Euro 2020 qualifying campaign where Shevchenko has used his improving pool of players to their maximum.
Euro 2020 Qualifying Campaign- March to June
Ukraine were drawn into a tough qualifying group with Portugal, Serbia, Lithuania, and Luxembourg. The former two were favourites among most pundits to qualify as the top two, perhaps based upon Serbia’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Luxembourg also proved a troublesome test, a side where their ‘micro-state’ status doesn’t correlate with their footballing abilities. However Ukraine grew from strength to strength as the campaign continued.
Some of the old guard were axed, notably centre backs Yevhen Khacheridi and Yaroslav Rakitskiy (admittedly not really having a choice in the latter after transferring to Zenit St. Petersburg, polemicized by his refusal to sing the Ukrainian National Anthem).
However some who still could offer quality to the side were kept. Notably the pair of explosive inside forwards in Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko, defensive midfielder Taras Stepanenko and, questionably, choosing to keep 36 year old Andriy Pyatov as starting goalkeeper.
Facing Ronaldo and co.
In their opener away to Portugal in March, Ukraine ground out a goalless draw, turning their 4-3-3 into a 4-4-1-1. Shevchenko selected arguably his strongest back four (Vyacheslav Karavaev, Serhiy Kryvtsov, Mykola Matvienko, Vitaliy Mykolenko; the two centre backs Shakhtar based, the two full-backs at Dynamo Kyiv) with Stepanenko as the anchor. The more defensive Oleksandr Zinchenko shuttled next to the more explosive Ruslan Malinovskyi, with Konoplyanka on the left, naturalised Marlos on the right and false nine Roman Yaremchuk as an attacking focal point.
In practice, it was a rear-guard performance from Ukraine. Pyatov made a string of saves during the game. Although, with few heart-in-the-mouth moments- Portugal’s best opportunity came from Ronaldo’s shot from ten yards.
Ukrainian fans have been pleased with this move toward a structured 4-3-3, especially the midfield trio of Stepanenko, Zinchenko and Malinovskyi. As Andrew Todos puts it:
“Stepanenko is the key man of the side- one of those players you don’t notice until they aren’t there. Zinchenko’s deployment at left-back for Manchester City has developed his positional awareness and defensive capabilities, and now an ideal partner for Malinovskyi. Malinovskyi should play deeper against tougher opponents, such as is the Portugal game, but be given more freedom against weaker opposition”. He too has clearly developed tactical awareness under Gian Piero Gasperini at Atalanta.
After selecting, naively, a rotated side in Luxembourg three days later, Ukraine only took all three points in the 93rd minute through a Gerson Rodrigues own goal. However, Ukraine left the March international break with the points haul that they set out for, albeit slightly unconvincingly.
However it was in June where their campaign would really take off.
Lviv crucial in battle against Serbia
Their game against Serbia in Lviv would give the winner the upper hand in qualifying automatically. A draw posed to being a de result for Ukraine after their draw in Lisbon. Lining up with the same back four as in Lisbon, Shevchenko altered system slightly, changing to a midfield double pivot of Zinchenko and Stepanenko. Malinovskyi played as a clear number 10, flanked by Konoplyanka to his left, Viktor Tsyhankov to his right and Yaremchuk up front.
Invigorated by relentless, surging runs from Karavaev and Mykolenko, and a dominance in possession provided by Malinovskyi and the pivot, the inside forwards had a field day exploding into the half spaces to fire off shots and drive at an ageing Serbian defence.
Painfully typical goals, from a Serbian perspective, from the inside forwards of Tsyhankov and Konoplyanka respectively followed. Both cutting in from their wing, one-touch out of their feet and a curled finish into the far corner. Konoplyanka’s second, and Ukraine’s fifth, was a carbon copy of his first. This sandwiched a goal by Roman Yaremchuk from another move typical of the new Ukraine.
An Emphatic Result
Tsyhankov cut inside. Then shifted the ball onto the overlap provided by Karavaev. Karavaev’s cutback from the byline was tucked away by Yaremchuk. 5-0 winners, emphatically and deservedly so. The choice of Lviv over Kyiv as the city of the game proved dividends.
“Often it is a more raucous atmosphere than Kyiv” says Todos; it is in a particularly anti-Russian area of country in the far west. “It’s a smaller stadium where the stands are closer to the pitch than Kyiv’s Olimpiskiy, with Karpaty Lviv ultras behind one of the ends building a really good atmosphere, though Kyiv should still be used for the bigger matches like Portugal”.
A 1-0 win over Luxembourg, also in Lviv, followed, a profligate performance with Yaremchuk firing them into the lead with an early goal.
Ukraine at 2019 U20 World Cup
Ukraine becoming champions in Poland came as a surprise to most. Admittedly, it is nothing out of the ordinary for a side without the best squad on paper to win a youth tournament. They are the best example of tournaments where teams focus on taking it ‘one game at a time’. However, some players with excitingly high ceilings have emerged from this victorious crop.
Real Madrid’s Andriy Lunin is clearly the star of the group. He was awarded the Golden Glove at the tournament. His most memorable moment was clawing away a powerful header from Lee Jae-ik in the final.
He displays absurdly good reflexes and mix this trait in with his 6ft4in build, and here is a keeper that can dominate La Liga’s defences for years to come.
At the other end of the pitch, Vladylsav Supriaha is the cause for much excitement. Dubbed the ‘Ukrainian Håland’, he is an explosive forward with lightning pace. He can also play off a more aerially dominant target man as a second striker. It is unsurprising that he’s been heavily linked with a move away from Dynamo Kyiv to Serie A outfit Bologna.
Finally, many hope the two stalwart centre backs , Denys Popov and Valeriy Bondar, born ten days apart from each other, will become regulars of the senior squad. Popov is a more traditional centre back, and is especially a nuisance from attacking set pieces. By contrast, Bondar’s long passing is his greatest asset. He is continually displaying this in Poland, spraying diagonal balls for the forward line to bring down.
Euro 2020 Qualifying Campaign- September to November
After the summer, two games against Lithuania, followed. These were spread over the two international breaks of September and October accompanying friendlies against Nigeria and Estonia.
Despite receiving criticism for his failure to integrate members of the Under 20 side, most notably goalkeeper Andriy Lunin, the dynamism and confidence of Ukraine’s performances in these games helped to fuel optimism.
Most notably in these were the sensational performances of Malinovskyi. The Atalanta man exudes élan and looked on another plain to everyone else on the pitch in Vilnius. He rounded off his performance with a beautiful long range drive to seal a 3-0 win, and scored both of Ukraine’s goal in a 2-0 win over the same opponents in Kharkiv a month later. Todos agrees with the view that he has one of the best long-range shots in Europe.
Positivity surrounding the team
Perhaps even more exciting, however, was the atmosphere surrounding the side. The Zbirna have been difficult to embrace in recent years. Nonetheless, this current iteration might be the most loved side since 2006. They have reaped the rewards of this with their travelling support.
“There certainly is a really nice vibe surrounding the side now, especially with travelling support. For the game in Vilnius, a 5,000-capacity stadium, there were around 3,500/4,000 Ukrainians there, it was like a home game!”
Their games at home to Portugal and away to Serbia in November would define whether their qualification bid. Ukraine were duly successful in obtaining the necessary three points and finishing as a top seed. They ended up four points from their final two games after a late equaliser in Belgrade.
However their 2-1 win over Portugal three days earlier in Kyiv was the culmination of Shevchenko’s work. After taking the lead sixth minute, a patient move between Zinchenko and Mykolenko down the left produced a one on one. Mykolenko delivered a perfectly weighted ball for Yarmolenko, rushing in from the right half space towards the penalty area. After getting in behind the two slow Portuguese centre backs, the winger tucked away into the bottom corner.
Nations League break, September 2020
Despite an impressive win over Switzerland, the 4-0 pasting by Spain sounded a few alarm bells. As Todos said, it highlighted how crucial Stepanenko was to the system.
However the break has also crystallised the opinions of some fans who want to see changes in personnel. There’s a consensus that Konoplyanka no longer justifies his place at the expense of members of the U20 side to get minutes in the attack. For example the likes of Supriaha, or even to move Yaremchuk onto the left.
In defence, Bohdan Mykhaylychenko and Oleksandr Tymchyk were thrown in the deep end against two strong opponents. They are certainly promising, but the need for a consistent back four, which was fairly prevalent in qualifying, has strengthened.
Ukraine at Euro 2020(1)
The side’s position as top seeds and record of six wins and two draws in qualifying is no fluke. They now go into the Euros with a lot of confidence.
However, there is also a healthy dose of traditional fan scepticism. Opinions are mixed on how far they’ll go. Some believe they’ll be knocked out in the groups, others think Round of 16.
Ultimately everyone is in agreement that anything less than the quarters finals would be a disappointment. They’ll face a tough opening test against the Netherlands and may be further disadvantaged due to its hosting in Amsterdam.
Their next two group games, both in Bucharest, are winnable and are likely favourites for both. However, the likelier scenario is that they’ll play the weak Playoff D winner, alongside Austria. These are potentially two must win games, and they’ll be desperate to get at least a point against the Netherlands.
Winning the group would be so significant, as they would play a 3rd placed side in the Round of 16 in Budapest. It is a location where Ukraine would take thousands to the game.
Alternatively, finishing second would mean facing the Group A winners, likely Italy, a far tougher proposition. The expectations are higher and it would take something catastrophic to suffer a similar campaign for Euro 2016.
“Sheva and his coaching team- squad rivalries aside- have created a really thriving and positive atmosphere in the camps, which will serve us well for the Euros” says Todos.
Shevchenko has turned Ukraine around. Malinovskyi is in his prime. Zinchenko’s drastic development under Guardiola. A sturdy domestic backline with a goalkeeper on Real Madrid’s books. Add to this a fresh batch of Under 20 World Cup Winners, the world is looking up for Ukraine. Without a clear favourite, and ‘big’ nations faltering, they could even win the whole thing.
Enormous thanks to everyone that has helped me write this piece; their time they have given up and fascinating insight has been of great use to me. Special thanks to Andrew Todos (@ZoryaLondonsk), and to TheUkiHatter (@ARamwithaHat), but also to Dima (@1927dima), Roman (@SlavaUkraini09), and Mircea Paishovskiy (@richpaish). Anyone wanting to find out more about Ukrainian football should give these great people a follow.
Images credited to UEFA.tv and Sky Sports Football