Shakhtar Donetsk: Could the Ukrainian Powerhouse Win the English Premier League?
Shakhtar Donetsk have been really, really impressive so far in the UEFA Champions League, but could they trouble the big boys in the English Premier League over 38 games?
Landing in a tough group among holders Chelsea and Serie A holders Juventus saw Micrea Lucescu's side come under the microscope early on, but the Ukrainian champions were not expected to pull up any trees.
What followed was pure brilliance from the Hirnyky, and they're currently at the top of Group E in a favourable position to qualify for the knockout stages.
It all starts with a manager who most can scarcely believe is still plying his trade in Donetsk.
Between 1980 and 2004, Mircea Lucescu managed a total of 11 teams across more than three different countries, so an eight-year stint at Shakhtar is something of an anomaly.
The Ukrainian outfit have benefited from the stability of a top-tier manager who's experienced UEFA Champions League football with Internazionale, along with domestic success with Besiktas and Galatasaray.
With the Hirnyky, Lucescu has pulled in six Ukrainian league titles, four Ukrainian Cup wins and one UEFA Cup—an impressive trophy cabinet that makes them the undisputed heavyweights of Eastern Europe.
The System, the Methodology
The basics of Mircea Lucescu's system have been easy to define over the course of his Shakhtar Donetsk career, but that doesn't mean anyone's been able to better it just yet.
The wiley Romanian has stuck to simple principles: Eastern Europeans at the back, Brazilians up front.
Sounds strange, but Lucescu has created a habit of importing flair players from the South American championships while looking locally to fill the void in defence.
|Notable transfers||Year purchased||Position played||Sourced from|
|Oleksandr Kucher||2006||Defence||Metalist Kharkiv|
|Andriy Pyatov||2006||Goalkeeper||Vorskla Poltava|
|Alex Teixeira||2009||Forward||Vasco de Gama|
|Henrikh Mkhitaryan||2010||Midfield||Metalurg Donetsk|
2010 marked a change in philosophy for Lucescu. Mkhitaryan, the darling of Armenian football, was brought to the Donbass Arena to play in an attacking midfield position.
At the time of writing, he's Shakhtar's leading scorer with 11 in all competitions, so perhaps that's not a criminal switch to make.
A consistent blueprint has made for a solid Hirnyky side who know what to expect every transfer window, every training session and every time they step onto the pitch.
The Formation and Personnel
Mircea Lucescu hasn't always had it easy. In 2008, he was the only manager to employ a 4-4-2 diamond out of the 32 team UEFA Champions League and weaknesses were found.
AC Milan destroyed them in the wide areas and proved Shakhtar Donetsk's system was not compatible with the big boys across Europe.
He's now firmly on the 4-2-3-1 bandwagon, but implements it a little differently to most. As Chelsea found out, the Hirnyky play one of the most direct and penetrative versions of this formation in world football.
The key to his system is the attacking runs by Razvan Rat, Darijo Srna and Fernandinho. The latter is one of the anomalies in Lucescu's transfer system, as the Brazilian takes up a holding role next to Tomas Hubschman, but he's far from your average defensive midfielder.
Where the 4-2-3-1 can bottle up outside the edge of the opposition's area, a surging run from Fernandinho can break things up. His forceful play was a direct factor in both of his team's goals at Stamford Bridge last week.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Willian are showing world-class form, while Alex Teixeira is threatening to show the full promise we saw back in 2009.
Is there anything wrong with this team?
The squad is packed full of talent, they've got elite full-backs, world-class midfielders and a team capable of breaking down any defence under a great manager. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as David Hendrick eloquently put it to me on Twitter:
"He looks like some who won a competition to play for Shaktar at times."
Yes, we're referring to the calamitous Andriy Pyatov, the one who headed the ball straight to Oscar for the Brazilian's 45-yard screamer.
Shakhtar Donetsk can never be considered elite contenders whilst carrying a pedestrian goalkeeper. Maxym Koval, a 19-year-old 'keeper currently playing for Dynamo Kiev, could be an option for the Hirnyky to take in the quest for that final step.
It's arguable that the Kroty are just one recruitment away from being able to light up a top domestic European league.
Over 38 games, Pyatov would make enough mistakes to spoil the party. Fix the goalkeeping problem, and you've got yourself a team capable of contending the English Premier League crown.