Orange Clockwork: the steady rise of Shakhtar Donetsk

by Chris Glover

The Orange Revolution is one of the defining moments in independent Ukraine’s short history which saw hundreds of thousands of protesters take to the streets and eventually overturn the election of Viktor Yanukovych. There is, however, another rising of orange in Ukraine, and while not as impactful on the world stage, it could have a real impact on the Champions League in this and future seasons.

The ‘oligarch’ era in football ownership has often seen owners demand immediate results and success, regardless of the infrastructure or history in place at a club. Roman Abramovich is the classic example here, currently employing his 6th manager since taking charge in June 2003. These demands of expecting too much too soon are almost a microcosm for the earlier struggles of Ukraine as it emerged as an independent state. Throw money at a problem and a solution can be found, and if one isn’t, then find someone new to manage the process.

So far at least, the changes at Shakhtar have been less of a revolution, so much as a slow transformation, based on long term planning and strategic thought. The appointment of Mircea Lucescu appears to have been inspired, though he was far from an obvious candidate for long term success. Lucescu has bounced around Europe for most of his career, failing to stick in one place for more than a couple of seasons since leaving Brescia in 1996. This period included a short lived stint at Inter Milan where Lucescu lasted just 22 games before being shown the door.

At Shakhtar though, his arrival and subsequent approach have been a perfect fit. With a focus on finding young talent abroad to play his brand of attacking football, Lucescu has drawn comparisons to Arsene Wenger, though Shakhtar fans may even contest that this comparison is not favourable enough given the five league titles and Uefa Cup he has delivered in just six seasons.

The model for success is no secret as Jonathan Wilson summarises; “[they] buy Brazilians to play in the creative and attacking roles, and eastern Europeans to play at the back”. Those Brazilians include one who will be very familiar to Wenger in Eduardo (I know, I know, he’s “Croatian”) along with several highly rated youngsters like Douglas Costa and Fernandinho. Make no mistake though, this is not the New York Cosmos buying Pele in the twilight of his career. Costa, Fernandinho, Alex Teixeira and Willian had an average age of just 19 when signed, for a total cost of £30m. They represent some of the most sought after talent on the continent and at least a couple of them will likely play in one of the major European leagues in the next few years (Costa has already been linked with a move to the Premier League).

With success being steady rather than spectacular in the Champions League, will Rinat Akhmetov be able to keep his patience? He has done an admirable job to date of developing the club’s infrastructure (including the highly impressive Donbass Arena) while staying out of day-to-day football operations. Recent interviews suggest he has a determination to take the next steps but he has also exhibited a resolve to develop the team naturally, which will hopefully continue as others around him lose their nerve.

Shakhtar take the field tonight as group winners, and were fairly dominant aside from the 5-1 anomaly against Arsenal (they only conceded once more in their other 5 games). Not unlike their opponents in that game, it is Shakhtar’s penchant for the odd defensive collapse which could hinder their progress to the quarter finals in this, and future, years but there is real hope for their long term progress thanks to the stability instilled at the club. Where others have looked for revolution, the resolution of Akhmetov and Lucescu is serving the club well and they are in a good position to take the next step on the long journey against Roma tonight.

A lack of depth in competition in the Ukrainian Premier League – Shakhtar and Dynamo Kyiv have won every title bar one since the league’s existence in 1992 – may prevent Shakhtar developing into a true elite force in European competitions but their strong development should ensure that their Orange revolution lasts longer than Mr Yushchenko’s.

3 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    Great stuff, though they wouldn’t like the comparison with Yushchenko in the Donbass ;)
    I doubt the lack of depth in Ukrainian football will affect Donetsk (it isn’t, after all, much worse than in Spain) as much as the difficulty in attracting the kind of players you need to win a genuinely elite competition. They do well bringing through young players (five under 21s played in their side against Braga), but you can’t imagine the likes of Fabregas, Ronaldo or Villa turning up there at the peak of their careers.

  2. Chris Glover says:

    I realised as I was writing it that Donetsk was one of the areas of strongest support for Yanukovych but I liked the loose metaphor and stuck with it. I may have to cross Donetsk off my list of holiday destinations for a while though ;)

    Totally agree on lack of depth – the issue is attracting top players in their prime or holding onto youngsters for a couple more years.

  3. Sam says:

    My one probably with Ukrainian football is that the league generates no prize money meaning the only way to make profits over the course of a season is by doing well in Europe. However, past Shakhtar, Dnipro, Dynimo Kiev & Metalist it’s tough for another team to try and compete. Shakhtar are just a team who consistency did well in europe in order to spend.

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