Shakhtar Donetsk are an attack-minded team filled with twinkle-toed Brazilian creators, yet in recent Champions League fixtures their stand-out player has been a Ukrainian centre-back.
Yaroslav Rakitskiy, an experienced operator with the physical dimensions and steely stare of an old-fashioned clogger, is easily overlooked at first glance. However, it is impossible not to be taken with his displays on the continent this season.
The social media age has been unkind to central defenders. Where the nimble footwork, explosive dribbling and precise finishing of more advanced players is easily depicted via the short highlight reels that take over the internet on a match day, the astute positioning, anticipation and decision-making that underpins quality defending isn’t quite as grabby. In the struggle for attention, attackers often win.
So, in order for a centre-back to be the subject of social media celebration, they must be able to demonstrate some of those GIF-friendly offensive attributes. Rakitskiy showcased several of them in Shakhtar’s latest European outing, a 2-1 home win over Roma in the Champions League second round, earning the adulation of Football Twitter in the process.
Some of the finest ball-playing centre-backs in the modern game are essentially cultured hoofers. They are simply more refined than their straightforward peers in the way they get the ball from back to front, doing so with unerring accuracy. Rakitskiy evidenced this trait against Roma, with one particularly pin-point long ball setting up his side’s equaliser. But he also showed so much more.
At various junctures he used his body positioning to deceive the opposition Sergio-Busquets-style; shaping up to pass wide, he’d then break the lines with a pass through the centre. And, when Roma stood off him, he happily carried the ball into their territory. One of his forward surges saw him play a one-two, almost hit the byline with an underlapping run, then flash a tantalising cross through the opposition’s six-yard box.
If scouts had flocked to the Metalist Stadium that evening to focus on Fred, or Bernard, or Taison, they must have found it hard to concentrate on their targets. Rakitskiy, from his central defensive position, effectively orchestrated Shakhtar’s attacking play. He proved himself to be a centre-back for the social media age, but, in truth, the roots of his game go back decades.
While Total Football came from the Netherlands, a similarly universal approach emerged in Ukraine in the 1970s. During Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s first spell in charge, Dynamo Kiev dominated football in the Soviet Union and won regularly on the continent with a style in which defenders helped to construct attacks and attackers defended from the front. In ‘The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models’, a book he co-authored with Anatoliy Zelentsov, Lobanovskyi wrote that, “When we possess the ball, we are attacking; when our opponents possess the ball, we are defending.”
This philosophy led to the development of central defenders such as Oleh Kuznetsov, who were able to move and pass with the sort of intricacy and intelligence usually expected of an attacking midfielder. Rakitskiy is, therefore, the latest in a long line of Ukrainian defensive technicians. And, at 28 years of age and with over 250 appearances under his belt, he’s been around for a while.
Paulo Fonseca’s coaching has undoubtedly influenced Rakitskiy’s late blooming. The Portuguese tactician is regarded as one of the most promising minds in football today, and his guiding Shakhtar to the verge of the Champions League quarter-finals – a run that has included wins over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli – has encouraged a new audience to follow the Ukrainian champions. According to Futbolgrad editor Manuel Veth, Fonseca’s tactics have enabled Rakitskiy to shine.
“Rakitskiy has always been a great ball playing defender,” Veth told Tifo. “I think we only notice it more now because Fonseca allows for more long balls than was the case under (Fonseca’s predecessor) Mircea Lucescu. Perhaps the main difference is that Fonseca isn’t as tactically rigid, which is why all of a sudden you see Rakitskiy play a monster pass over 30 metres in the Champions League.”
Another reason why Rakitskiy is only now gaining widespread rave reviews is that he has spent his entire career with Shakhtar, limiting his reach. The centre-back’s loyalty to the club comes from the heart, as he confirmed in an interview with UEFA. “Shakhtar are my life,” he said. “I started my footballing life here. I can talk forever about this club and what it is like to play in this team. But for now I will simply say that I love Shakhtar.”
For various reasons his loyalty is unlikely to waver. “Every once in a while you see a rumour linking Rakitskiy to clubs from abroad. But Ukrainians, like Russians, don’t like to venture abroad”, Veth points out. “Also keep in mind that Shakhtar pay good wages, at a much lower tax rate, and it would take a significant offer for him to leave.”
In an era where central defenders are expected to do more than merely defend, Rakitskiy’s attacking qualities stand out. Among the South American dribbling wizards, playmakers and finishers, this Ukrainian finds himself at home.