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An astonishing number of one on ones wasted, terrible defending and a slip up at the final moments of the game allowing a goal in the 96th minute put Ukraine’s 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign in a desperate state, despite Ukraine dominating the match against Kazakhstan.
Fans have increasingly grown to expect the traditional collapse from the national team as it is a constant theme within domestic and international football. Ukraine’s most recent world cup qualifying matches have resulted in five straight draws including twice to lowly-rated Kazakhstan and even a 1-1 draw to Finland at home in Kyiv.
Ukraine had a successful Euro 2020 campaign finishing atop the group, beating Portugal and even thrashing Serbia 5-0 in Lviv. Despite losing twice in Group C in Euro 2020, they scraped through to the last 16 as one of the best third placed sides with some luck.
Ukraine were fairly dominated by Austria and were lucky to lose only by one goal. They also barely scraped by vs one of the lowest ranked sides in the tournament – North Macedonia – who nearly overwhelmed Ukraine in the second half and narrowly lost 1-2.
The quality of Ukraine’s domestic league – the Ukrainian Premier League (UPL) – showed itself in the match against England where Ukraine’s players were burnt out and didn’t have much skin in the game. Dynamo Kyiv midfielder Mykola Shaparenko even mentioned before the tournament that he expected the players playing in foreign leagues, such as Oleksandr Zinchenko or Roman Yaremchuk, to carry the team’s performance.
Andriy Shevchenko throughout his tenure complained about the Ukrainian Premier League, and he even complained about the squad fitness for Euro 2020 despite calling the players a week early to prepare. Shevchenko rarely called up domestic players who didn’t belong to Dynamo Kyiv or Shakhtar Donetsk.
Shevchenko as a head coach did come and modernize the national team by changing Ukraine’s playing style, switching from a physical, counterattacking approach to a less passive, possession-based game and making it much more dynamic. Previous coaches settled on playing a defensive game and relying on sharp counterattacks which was not easy on the eyes for fans.
During Shevchenko’s tenure, Ukraine’s training sessions were crafted more meticulously and every detail began to matter. To raise performance levels, he brought in modern technology such as drones to film training sessions, advanced GPS and heartbeat-tracking, and the use of statistics for analysis. The Guardian went even as far as saying modern methods have revolutionized Ukraine.
Despite all his efforts and historic run in Euro 2020, Ukraine’s domestic league quality and the players within it simply can only be stretched so far. All the modern technology and tactics still won’t help develop the players past a certain point when their league competition doesn’t challenge and force the players to get better.
In normal circumstances, most of the clubs currently in the Ukrainian Premier League would have no business playing there. Many clubs no longer have youth divisions or scouts, further eroding the talent within Ukraine’s domestic league. The loss of many established and historical teams in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 has furthered deepened the gap between the top two clubs and the rest of the league.
The league is stale with little to no excitement with Shakhtar or Dynamo winning the title every year and crushing every team within it. The opposition constantly plays closed football, parking the bus and playing on the counter against Shakhtar and Dynamo. The players rarely have to put in much effort and the matches are not very demanding. These qualities of the UPL are reflected in how Ukrainian teams have performed abroad recently.
Apart from Shakhtar Donetsk beating AS Monaco in Champions’ League qualifying, the remaining Ukrainian clubs were abysmal in Europe this year.
Zorya Luhansk in Europa League qualifying were crushed by Rapid Vienna in a 6-2 aggregate. Kolos Kovalivka drew to FC Shakhter from Kazakhstan 0-0 and then lost in penalties 3-1 and were knocked out of the Europa Conference group stage qualifying rounds.
Vorskla Poltava in Europa Conference League qualifying lost to a small Finnish club KuPS 4-5 on aggregate. In traditional Ukrainian fashion, Vorskla in the second leg in Poltava were up 2-1 before squandering the lead in the 93rd minute and then losing in extra time in the 111th minute in a devastating manner. Finland’s UEFA coefficient is 42nd compared to Ukraine’s 11th to give insight into what a shock loss it was for Vorskla.
The struggles of the Ukrainian domestic league have had serious implications for Ukraine’s standing in European football. The more successful a country is in the European competitions, the more team slots and money they will receive for participating — thus, allowing clubs to manage and grow their operations. These were, and remain, key revenue streams for Ukrainian clubs. Once Ukraine’s top clubs can’t compete in the highest levels of European football, they don’t have the opportunity to develop their talent by playing the biggest clubs on the biggest stages.
Before the 2014 invasion, the Ukrainian Premier League was ranked by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) as the seventh-best in Europe – giving them about five European slots for their teams. Now, the Ukrainian Premier League is barely holding onto 11th place and has lost several European slots including direct Champions League qualification for first place league winners in the coming season.
Ukrainian giants Dynamo and Shakhtar have taken other established clubs such as FC Mariupol and Chornomorets Odesa and stacked the team with loanees with Dynamo loaning up to 15 players to Od Chornomorets. This doesn’t allow the clubs to have stability and develop their own talent since these clubs are now farm clubs which further erodes the quality of the league.
The farm club system should not be allowed, every club should be required to invest into a young system. In addition, Ukraine’s top clubs should be incentivized to sell their top players to take the transfer fees received and reinvest in youth, building a talent pipeline, to strengthen domestic talent as clubs like Dynamo are notorious for not selling their top players and they ultimately end up stagnating their growth. The UPL should also make a requirement to match other top European leagues by ensuring that homegrown talent under 21 must be included in the match squad or even the starting 11.
To act for the benefit of the collective would ultimately help to improve the quality of the league and allow for Dynamo and Shakhtar to have greater competition. There is some hope that the return of Metalist Kharkiv might help add some excitement to the league, but one club won’t change everything.
The challenge is getting everyone to work for the benefit of the collective rather than the individual. If Ukraine wants to break the constant underwhelming performance from the national team, they will need to find innovative ways to rejuvenate the league.