Two sides that use a 4-2-3-1 variation but interpret the system in different ways. Shakhtar Donetsk will build attacks centrally through their trio of advanced midfielders while visitors Borussia Dortmund operate with greater width. Both sides enjoy possession but are extremely effective at transitions, so this is likely to be a game decided by which team counter attacks more efficiently.
Mircea Lucescu’s Shakhtar are playing their first competitive game in 2013 following their winter break, in which they lost forward Willian to Anzhi Makhachkala. He will be replaced by either Ilsinho or Douglas Costa. Jurgen Klopp has no great selection problems with Neven Subotic expected to come back in for Felipe Santana in defence.
Attacking Full Backs
Both teams’ full backs are extremely attacking, meaning the use of them going forward, and the exploitation of space left behind, will be a key feature for both sides.
Shakhtar’s natural width comes from full backs Razvan Rat and Darijo Srna, with their midfielders preferring to find space in central areas rather than remaining out wide. Nevertheless both Rat and Srna are both effective attackers, with Srna in particular a key weapon going forward. When they attack, Thomas Hubschman will play a holding role in midfield. Both he and his full backs will need to be careful to watch Dortmund countering down the flanks.
Dortmund are not as reliant as Shakhtar for their full backs support, with both Marco Reus and Jacob Blaszczykowski comfortable attacking down the flanks. Nevertheless Marcel Schmelzer and and Lucasz Piszczek are eager to make forward runs and overlap the players ahead of them. Unlike Shakhtar Dortmund have two midfielders prepared to hold their position, with both Sebastian Kehl and Ilkay Gundogan offering cover for opposition’s counter attacks.
It is interesting to note that both team’s favour their right side. Both Srna and Piszczek are their side’s stronger full back in attack. For Shakhtar, Alex Teixeira on the right is the more senior player than either Ilsinho or Douglas Costa on the left, so would natural expect more of the ball. For Dortmund Blaszczykowski is a more natural wide player than Reus, who prefers to drift inside. This may result in an unbalanced game with both teams’ looking to focus their attacks down opposite flanks.
Central Advanced Midfielders
The central advanced midfielder is key to any successful 4-2-3-1 variation as they often provide the link between the attacking and defensive elements of the side. In 4-4-2 variations it is the wide midfielders that move the ball forward from midfield, but in systems in which they begin further forward, their role often involves attacking opposing full backs as much as collecting the ball from deep. Therefore both Mkhitaryan and Gotze will have a key role to play in the fluency of their team’s system.
Both players have developed into two of the finest attacking prospects in Europe, so the battle should be fascinating. They will both find themselves faced with two deep midfielders occupying the space in front of the defence, so will need to use intelligent movement to find the necessary space and time to create opportunities for teammates. Generally these options are a question of depth – whether to stay high up the pitch, forcing the opponent’s midfield deep but relying on long passes from teammates, or drop deeper into midfield in an attempt to lose the opposing markers and then look for forward passes to teammates further forward. Both players are capable of doing either, equally adept at creating and converting goalscoring opportunities. Whatever positions they choose to take up will greatly influence their teams’ style of play – drop deeper will allow shorter passing whereas remaining close to the forwards will necessitate more direct balls from deep.
Gotze may have the edge in that he is comfortable drifting into wide areas, often featuring for Dortmund and Germany as a wide forward. With attacking full backs so prevalent in this game, his lateral movement across the pitch may be more effective than standard vertical movement.
Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan
Mkhitaryan and Gotze are actually supported in linking midfield and attack by Fernandinho and Gundogan, who perform shuttling roles from a deep midfield position. Shakhtar and Dortmund both broadly have 4 attacking players and 4 defensive players, with full backs moving between the two when in and out of possession. However each team have a midfielder capable of breaking forward from deep to add an extra body in attack. Fernandinho and Gundogan’s ambition will be key in determining the balance of the game. Going forward naturally removes a covering player, and considering the effectiveness of both sides on the break both players will need to carefull balance risk and reward.
Two fine footballing sides looking to play a similar style. Both teams are highly technical and enjoy keeping possession, are capable of effective pressing to win the ball back, but also extremely dangerous in transitions. Home and away will undoubtedly be a factor, meaning Dortmund may be happy to sit back and counter in the first leg with Shakhtar as the aggressor. Ultimately games between strong counter attacking sides can go either way – either both teams focus on preventing the opponent breaking, resulting in a stalemate, or an early goal or an injection of ambition can lead to an open game of intermittent attacking. Unlike the Real Madrid/Manchester United fixture, Shakhtar and Dortmund, and their managers Lucescu and Klopp, arguably have greater freedom and naïve exuberance to play a natural attacking game rather than erring on the side of caution.