Eduardo fails to track Igor Denisov, and Zenit get the upper hand in important victory

November 1, 2011

The starting line-ups - key man Denisov highlight in blue

After such an exciting first game between these two sides, the return match was something of a disappointment.

The match essentially revolved around a single key battle in the centre of the pitch. Zenit are usually 4-3-3 with one midfielder in the holding role, whilst Shakhtar generally line up 4-2-3-1. As in the first game, the midfield triangles were set to match each other.

Mircua Lucescu sprung a slight surprise in his side, though, with the use of Eduardo in the centre of the pitch, in support of Luiz Adriano. Eduardo has usually been used either on the flank or as the centre-forward – this was the first time he’d been used as a central player in the attacking band of three, with Willian and Alex Teixeira in the wide positions.

This changed that midfield battle. Eduardo is not used to tracking central midfielders, and therefore constantly failed to get goalside of Igor Denisov, Zenit’s deepest midfielder. It was unclear whether Lucescu had asked Eduardo not to track his man and stay in a position where he could launch quick attacks, or if he was simply not following orders. Either way, he played much higher up the pitch than Jadson in the first game.

In a game that took a long time to get going, the obvious result was that Denisov was always in space, and was allowed to dictate the game. He completed the most passes of any player – 62. The next highest player was his midfield colleague Konstantin Zyryanov on 50.

What made his freedom particularly obvious was that he didn’t just sit in position and knock passes from side to side – he sprinted forward to get into goalscoring positions – the Arouca role. Zenit play a wonderfully fluid midfield where Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov take it in turns to drop deep and cover Denisov’s forward runs (look at the midfielder’s average positions – right on top of each other) so he was able to make it to the edge of the box to attempt five shots. All came in the first half – as Zenit went ahead in the 45th minute, he was asked to be more conservative after the break.

His tendency to move forward also meant that he played more passes in the final third than any other player – 28. And he created two chances for teammates, too. All this is rather surprising for a side’s deepest midfielder.

It’s notable that his shots and chances created all came from a centre-right position. It might well be the case that this was because Eduardo tended to stray to (his) right of the pitch, and therefore Denisov had more space to exploit by moving to the right himself.

If it was calculated gamble by Lucescu, to get Eduardo into space, it didn’t work; he barely created anything on the break as Shakhtar were particularly poor. Instead, Denisov took advantage to control the game – the only surprise was that his influence didn’t result in a goal or an assist – Zenit deserved to win by a greater scoreline.

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