Euro 2012 preview: Ukraine
It’s difficult to make a case for Ukraine performing well at this competition. They have home advantage, of course (they wouldn’t be here otherwise) but in the long-term they’ve had four coaches in four years, and in the short-term their squad has been suffering from food poisoning, which has hampered pre-tournament preparations.
Oleg Blokhin is an experienced coach and was in charge of Ukraine for their previous international tournament, World Cup 2006. He’s something of an old-school coach who stresses the need for “players who are prepared to fight for their country”, and has a strict rule that “a candidate for the national side must be a first-choice player at his club.” They are hardly unreasonable demands, but Ukraine neither possesses any superstars nor a particularly deep squad, so hecan hardly afford to be picky. An injury to Dmytro Chygrynskiy, perhaps their best player, hasn’t helped.
Ukraine don’t have a particularly settled starting XI (the problems with food poisoning during the warm-up games made it particularly difficult to decipher), but this is a deliberate strategy from Blokhin. He understands that his side are unlikely to prosper by being proactive and taking the game to the opposition, and so instead will be reactive.
That could be said of many other coaches and sides in this tournament, of course, but considering Ukraine didn’t need to qualify to get here, and therefore haven’t had to build a stable side that regularly wins games, it’s particularly true here. Blokhin is likely to vary his starting XI from game to game, partly to keep his players fresh, but also because he’ll be trying to pick a team which finds flaws in the opposition, rather than plays to Ukraine’s strengths.
For example, four days after Ukraine drew 3-3 with an experimental Germany side (a game which Blokhin said “proved to ourselves that we could play with the biggest teams in Europe on equal terms”) he made four changes for the match against Austria. Ukraine won 2-1, but Blokhin’s starting selection was questioned.
“I read that we should play the first team against Austria,” he said. “But what is the first team? We choose the tactics for a specific opponent, depending upon the current state of the players.” That is the key to this Ukraine side. On paper they might be the weakest in the competition, but Blokhin will seek to surprise the opposition with switches from game to game. Therefore, it’s difficult to give a true overview of Ukraine’s formation, but they’re likely to set out in a team that is roughly 4-1-3-1-1 – a bit like Denmark at the last World Cup. It’s essentially a 4-4-2, with a player each from the midfield and the attack deeper.
However, they may be one of the more effective sides at pressing – they have energy in midfield and in the pre-tournament friendlies were happy to close down in the opposition half rather than sitting deep, though it remains to be seen how they combine this with a counter-attacking strategy.
The goalkeeping situation has been a nightmare. Oleksandr Rybka failed a drugs test and was banned for two years, Andriy Dikan suffered serious head injuries following a collision whilst playing for Spartak Moscow, and veteran Oleksandr Shovkovskiy was ruled out with a shoulder injury. Luckily, this is one area Ukraine are reasonably well-stocked in, and Andriy Pyatov is a capable goalkeeper.
At centre-back Blokhin is keen to rely upon existing partnerships. Yevhen Khacheridi and Taras Mykhalyk play together for Dynamo Kiev, but both are physical rather than graceful, and Khacheridi is constantly in trouble with referees. The two back-ups, Yaroslav Rakytskyi and Oleksandr Kucher, also form a solid partnership at club level, for Shakhtar. It’s not inconceivable that Blokhin could switch between the partnerships from game to the next, though that would be extreme even for him.
At right-back, Oleg Husiev is a right-winger dropped deeper and it shows – he motors up and down the flank but can be positionally unreliable and is the weakest player defensively. Yevhen Selin at left-back is a bulkier figure and won’t attack so readily.
Bayern’s Anatoliy Tymoschuk, who started the Champions League final at centre-back, will play an extremely deep midfield role, shielding the defence. There’s a legitimate concern that his defensive awareness is given too much credit by the rest of the side – he’s a fine player but can be left stranded on his own at defensive transitions, as Ukraine are slow to get back into position.
Serhiy Nazarenko will probably play as the second central midfielder, deeper than the two wingers but moving forward to join in attacks. Ruslan Rotan would play deeper but still be more attacking than Tymoschuk, while Denys Harmash would be an energetic option but very much a second holder to play alongside Tymoschuk. The selection in this position is key, as it will demonstrate what type of game Blokhin is looking to play.
On the wings are the wildcards, the potential players that could turn Ukraine from also-rans to dark horses. Yevhen Konoplyanka is the real young star, a fine dribbler who ran the length of the pitch to score a brilliant counter-attacking goal in the 3-3 against Germany. He could play in the centre, but his pace will be more useful on the left. On the opposite side will be fellow 22-year-old Andriy Yarmolenko, a more powerful player and probably a more direct goal threat.
Andriy Shevchenko appears to have been playing club football for the last couple of years solely to complete in this tournament, but there are concerns about his ability to play anything like a full match, and certainly not three games in nine days. He could be a substitute, with Andriy Voronin in the support striker role, linking midfield and the striker. His partner will probably be Artem Milevskyi, though Marko Devic is another decent option. Yevhen Seleznyov is a pure poacher and will probably only be used when Ukraine are trailing and desperately need a goal – one suspects he’ll be needed at some point.
The only overall strategy is to sit deep and then counter-attack. Ukraine are better at the latter than the former – they have speed and skill on the flanks, but their defensive shape isn’t impressive and they lack cohesion and understanding because the starting XI is changed so frequently.
Coach – Oleg Blohkin
Formation – 4-1-3-1-1ish
Key player: Anatoliy Tymoshchuk
Strength: Good speed on the flanks
Weakness: Slow centre-backs, a lack of goals upfront
Key tactical question: How much does Blokhin change things from game to game?
Key quote: “We choose the tactics for a specific opponent.”
Betfair odds: 60.0 (59/1)
Recommended bet: Poland to get further than Ukraine at 1.65
Further reading: Passive Offside is a great site for Ukraine articles throughout the Euros