Shakhtar Donetsk 2-2 Zenit St Petersburg: open, attacking, attractive and plenty of chances. Why?

October 20, 2011

The starting line-ups

The simple answer to this question lies in the situation within Group G.

It is a tremendously tight group that, amazingly, sees APOEL at the top after three games – despite them having played two games away from home so far. A draw wasn’t a particularly good result for either side.

Then again, you’d be able to say that about many Champions League group games, and few are as attacking as this. Shakhtar and Zenit are two of the more counter-attacking sides in this season’s competition, and therefore a tight, cagey game was expected, with neither wanting to make the first move.

However, we had an early goal – score by Shakhtar, the side who had started with more proactive attacking intent. That was good for the game – it meant that Zenit had to come out of their shells and press (a little like Napoli the previous night) and we had an all-out attacking feast. Had Zenit’s Roman Shirokov not missed penalty five minutes earlier, the game would have had a completely different feel.

As a result, much like the Manchester United v Chelsea game earlier this campaign, it was so attacking that the usual tactical analysis becomes difficult to write. The interesting feature was not about specific factors, but about the overall pattern.

Positioning

There were individual positional reasons for the openness. Even more so than usual, Shakhtar’s full-back duo of Darijo Srna and Razvan Rat pushed very high up, stretching the play and allowing William and Douglas Costa into the middle. Danny and Viktor Fayzulin tracked back, but not particularly well, and so the full-backs got goalside of them, becoming options for crosses into the box.

On the other hand, of course, it meant that Danny and Fayzulin were now in a position to break quickly – and they did, to good effect. Zenit were the more dangerous side in front of goal – 23 shots to Shakhtar’s 14, and 9 on target to Shakhtar’s 5. If either side can feel that they ’should’ have won the game, it was the away side.

(It might be the case that in a match between two sides who play on the counter-attack (in Europe at least – Shakhtar are more proactive within Ukraine, but last year they recorded their most impressive European results on the break), it was the side who were less hasty in throwing players forward who then profited on the break – Zenit had more spaces to exploit than Shakhtar. In turn, Shakhtar were more likely to get a (fortunate?) goal by the ball falling to a player inside the box, as happened just before half time for Luiz Adriano’s goal.  In rational choice terms, though, Zenit were better off – more likely to benefit from attacking in the fashion both sides preferred.)

Another factor was Shakhtar’s use of Fernandinho in central midfield alongside Tomas Hubschmann, rather than Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Fernandinho is more of a shuttler than Mkhitaryan and spent much of the game moving forward to link up with Jadson. As a result, Hubschmann was often stranded in front of his back four on Zenit counter-attacks, reminiscent of Javier Mascherano’s problems against Germany in the World Cup. As soon as two Zenit attackers broke, he was caught out – often it was Danny and Roman Shirokov (who constantly made excellent forward runs that went untracked). One of these instances, when Danny was brought down by Srna in a promising position, led to Mircea Lucecu summoning Mkhitaryan from the bench.

Defences unsure

That Argentina v Germany game is relevant in another way, because Germany profited on the break mainly because of Argentina’s lack of compactness. The same was obvious for both sides here, and it is another result of counter-attacking sides trying to press, and being unaccustomed to it. The defences are used to defending deep, with protection from the midfield ahead. So what happens when the midfield (and attack) plays high up when out of possession? The defence has two options – either to move forward and stay compact – which then concedes space in behind, which they are not used to, and might not be suited to in terms of pace. Alternatively, they can stand off, play deep and then make it easy for the opposition to play between the lines.

They have to make a decision; Shakhtar didn’t, and ended up doing both at various stages – sometimes they were too high up, sometimes they were too deep. Either way they were vulnerable to pace, and Luciano Spalletti’s introduction of Danko Lazovic (in place of Aleksandr Bukharov, who had tired) gave yet more pace and looked like it might finally settle the game in Zenit’s favour.

It was a bit like a basketball game: one side attacked, then the other, and so on – often with little midfield battle inbetween. Often when this happens in the first half of games, managers go defensive and the second half is much quieter. This didn’t happen here, but then the ’second half’ is in two weeks in Russia. A tight, cagey 0-0 wouldn’t be a surprise, after some corrective instructions from both managers that subdue any attacking threat.

Shakhtar Donetsk 2-2 Zenit St Petersburg: open, attacking, attractive and plenty of chances. Why?

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