Shakhtar 2-1 Chelsea: Shakhtar attack with pace and forward bursts from Fernandinho and Srna
Shakhtar dominated the match, and should have won by more.
There were no major surprises from Mircea Lucescu – Alex Teixeira was on the right, and Tomas Hubschman in the centre of midfield.
Roberto Di Matteo brought Frank Lampard back into the side, with Ramires pushed to the right. But Lampard only lasted 18 minutes – Eden Hazard came on, Ramires dropped back into the centre of midfield, and Chelsea were back to their usual format of three rotating attackers. John Terry returned in place of Gary Cahill.
This was an extremely fast, frantic game that Shakhtar dominated primarily of better attacking combinations.
A little like Chelsea’s victory over Tottenham at the weekend, this was an extremely open, shapeless match. On Saturday, Chelsea weren’t significantly troubled by Tottenham aside from a spell before and after the break – partly because of the lack of Gareth Bale and Mousa Dembele, Spurs’ best two players at attacking with pace.
But Shakhtar were well-equipped to take advantage of Chelsea’s slow transitions from attack to defence. The away side weren’t compact enough, leaving too much space between the lines, and also failed to protect their full-backs, with the rotating band of three attackers ending up too high and central.
Both played a 4-2-3-1 system. On either side, the wide players were theoretically supposed to form a second bank of four without the ball – but the game was played at such a high tempo that this was rarely obvious – often the game felt like six defenders against four attackers, and with the forward movement of a full-back (down one side – Darijo Srna and Ashley Cole attacked more than their opposite numbers) plus Ramires and Fernandinho, both sides were able to create overloads quickly after direct passing.
If there was one major difference in the formats of the sides, it was the role of the number ten. Oscar tried to get goalside of Tomas Hubschman, who was content to stay in position, so those two rather nullified each other. At the other end, however, Henrikh Mkhitaryan played between the lines and drew John Terry out from the back a couple of times – this created space for other Shakhtar players to attack into, and Mkhitarayan also had a good game, creating chances for others and having a couple of attempts from distance.
Chelsea conceded early – a scrappy goal after some poor penalty box defending, a feature throughout the game. From then, they had to impose themselves on the game and tried to press – but this isn’t something that comes naturally to this Chelsea side, and the closing down was disjointed. Sometimes, the attackers would press but no-one would follow, allowing Shakhtar to play the ball forward easily, with the Chelsea defence exposed. Though Shakhtar’s passing is generally short and neat, they weren’t afraid to hit longer balls into the front two, particularly when Mkhitarayan was unmarked between the lines.
The movement from the Shakhtar front four was excellent – the wide players could move inside and also drop deep, pulling the Chelsea full-backs out of position. The sheer attacking intent from Srna was also important – he had 94 touches throughout the game, 19 more than any other player, and attempted an amazing 15 crosses throughout the game (for comparison, Ivanovic attempted six, Rat one and Cole none), and was always an option in behind Hazard, who was simultaneously Chelsea’s best attacking threat and their weakness defensively, for the same reason – his and Srna’s aggressive positioning.
Chelsea’s threat on the break shouldn’t be ignored – with the full-backs out of position and the centre-backs not entirely comfortable when drawn into wide players (see Oleksandr Kucher’s incredibly cynical tackle on Hazard in the second half, when the Belgian had skipped away from Srna), they did offer a threat. But the interplay of their front four wasn’t as sharp, and Shakhtar’s central midfielders stayed closer to the defence, denying Chelsea space.
The movement of Fernando Torres was much better than usual, as he took advantage of an open game to draw left, then right, then move in behind the defence, then drag the defenders higher up the pitch as others looked to make forward runs.
However, his touch was still poor, and he often slowed down Chelsea attacks when a burst of pace would have resulted in a decent chance.
Ramires v Fernandinho
The most interesting feature of the game was Ramires’ battle with Fernandinho. Once the former had moved back into the deep midfield role, the two men were in direct combat – and are very similar players: the same nationality, the same height, the same build, the same number, the same stamina, – and the same role in this game.
They had the responsibility of connecting the side through sudden bursts into attack, a crucial role in a transition-based game featuring lots of space in midfield.
Both players had good games. Ramires produced a fine example of midfield energy when breaking forward to create a half-chance for Torres towards the end of the first half, but Fernandinho emerged as the game’s key player in the second half.
Shakhtar had actually become more conservative at the start of the second half – the wide players dropped deeper to form a second bank of four as Lucescu – like Villas-Boas at the weekend – desired a less frantic game. From here, Shakhtar are in their element, able to soak up pressure before breaking quickly.
The second goal settled the game. Fernandinho won the ball from Hazard in midfield, then stormed forward into attack to put the finishing touch upon a fine counter-attack, a fitting goal scored by the game’s best player. He broke into the space in behind Cole, who couldn’t get back into position quickly enough.
Di Matteo only made one change, with Daniel Sturridge on for Torres. Oscar got a goal back with a minute to go, after good work from Branislav Ivanovic down the right, but Shakhtar weren’t under significant pressure in the final 20 minutes, and created more goalscoring chances than Chelsea.
This was a fine example of what Shakhtar are all about. High-tempo attacking and quick combinations from the front four, supported by relentless attacking from Srna and forward bursts from Fernandinho.
Chelsea were actually set up in a relatively similar way, with one full-back and one deep midfielder supporting a fluid front four. The major differences were about (a) the level of compactness: Shakhtar were tighter between the lines, and (b) about familiarity: Shakhtar had cohesive movement, while Chelsea’s system still seems based around improvisation. The return match, in a fortnight, will be very interesting.