Five years ago, Ukraine lost 1-0 to Poland in Marseille to complete a miserable Euros campaign in which they lost all three games and failed to score. Their football was leaden and uninspired, predicated on three lumbering holding midfielders and the vague hope that either Andriy Yarmolenko or Yevhen Konoplyanka might do something spectacular. Yarmolenko remains but as Ukraine prepare for a European Championship quarter-final, almost everything else has changed beyond recognition.
The man responsible is Andriy Shevchenko, but there was a sense of trepidation when he was appointed after the last Euros; his only coaching experience had been as assistant to Mikhail Fomenko in that tournament. But Shevchenko’s vision of football is very different to that of Fomenko. Having played for Milan and Chelsea, his vision of the game is a modern one.
Raised at Dynamo Kyiv, Shevchenko’s first guru was, of course, Valeriy Lobanovskyi. “He gave me the understanding that there are no trifles in football,” Shevchenko said. “No detail of the work can be ignored. I listened to him with my mouth open, catching every word.”
And Lobanovskyi listened to him after he had moved to Milan, taking notes as Shevchenko explained what he had learned under Alberto Zaccheroni and then Carlo Ancelotti, who became his second mentor. “Our principles,” Shevchenko explained, “are compactness, balance between attack and defence, playing through short- and medium-range passes. We want to control the ball.
“There are times when you have to defend. At that point it is already necessary to build a certain concept of the game through the defence, when it is necessary to conduct a quick counterattack. Or vice versa – when you need to maintain the pace of the game through controlling the ball, and then impose our game. The team is going through all these processes now.”
His time in Italy clearly made a huge impression, as seen in his coaching staff which includes the great former Milan full-back Mauro Tassotti, and his tactical video analyst Andrea Maldera. “He has changed in terms of understanding his role,” Maldera said of his boss. “He is now more authoritative, more confident in himself.”
Maldera describes his own job as being “to study, watch, propose, have my own ideas” but working to general principles. In possession, “we basically ask two important things: recognise where the numerical advantage is, and identify the free spaces that we can occupy”. Without the ball, much depends on the opponent, but essentially the better the team Ukraine play against, the less likely they are to press high.
In that, perhaps the influence of a third coach can be seen. “I learned a lot from [José] Mourinho,” Shevchenko said. “He manages the team in a very interesting way – you must always find something valuable at any moment. His mentality is that you always need to believe.”
Given how Shevchenko’s time at Chelsea went, that may seem surprising, but he clearly feels a lot of warmth for the club and supported them in the Champions League final. That raised eyebrows, not just because it meant backing a team owned by a Russian oligarch at a time when Ukraine and Russia are at war, but because he openly celebrated Kai Havertz’s winner, despite the goal resulting in part from a mistake by his national captain, Oleksandr Zinchenko.
Ukraine’s improvement under Shevchenko has been clear. Although they finished behind Iceland and Croatia to miss out on the 2018 World Cup, the federation retained faith and was rewarded as Ukraine won promotion to Nations League Group A and passed undefeated through Euros qualifying, beating Portugal and Serbia. The plan was simple: a 4-3-3 with Taras Stepanenko sitting at the base of midfield with Zinchenko and Ruslan Malinovskiy creating in front of him and the centre-forward Roman Yaremchuk flanked by two of Ukraine’s glut of talented wingers.
But last year, results slipped and Ukraine were relegated from Nations League Group A. Shevchenko began to modify his approach and in March used a back three in a World Cup qualifier away to France, securing a 1-1 draw.
The 4-3-3 returned for the start of this tournament, but an injury to Oleksandr Zubkov in the opening game against the Netherlands disrupted his plans. The experiment with advancing Malinovskyi to the left flank didn’t work, leading to the return of the back three for the last 16.
That suggested both Shevchenko’s boldness and his flexibility, as he left out Malinovskyi, preferring a deep-lying midfield pair of Stepanenko and Serhiy Sydorchuk, supported by Mykola Shaparenko. That in turn meant Zinchenko switching to left wing-back, a decision vindicated as he scored the first goal and set up the winner. If anything, though, the other flank, where Oleksandr Karavaev linked with Yarmolenko, was the more consistently threatening, and Ukraine were at their most dangerous when switching play rapidly.
That almost certainly will be the model against England as well, depending on just how great the toll of an exhausting period of extra time was. Had, as it seemed they would, Ukraine gone home after the limp defeat by Austria, Euro 2020 might not have seemed much better than Euro 2016. The Sweden win, though, changed everything. It’s not just that Ukraine are in a quarter-final, it’s that Shevchenko has shown the way to the future.