Mark Temnycky and Vadim Furmanov –
Following a 3-1 victory on aggregate over Slovenia during the second qualification round for the Euro 2016 competition, Ukraine secured its place as one of 24 teams to compete in France this summer. During the buildup to Euro 2016, it was predicted that Ukraine would fare reasonably well during the competitions in France. And following the announcement of the 23-man squad for the competition, it seemed that Ukraine’s manager Mykhaylo Fomenko had reconfirmed these predictions.
Yet, in a surprising fashion, the Ukrainian national team shocked its supporters and many football news pundits throughout the world by being the first team eliminated from this year’s competition. Futbolgrad’s Vadim Furmanov and Mark Temnycky analyze what might have gone wrong for the national team.
What sort of preparation did the Ukrainian national team conduct prior to Euro 2016?
Mark: For several weeks in May 2016, the Ukrainian national team held its training camp in Italy. This is perhaps where the first issues may have occurred. During the first few days of training camp the national team players were joined by their families, and it seemed as if the gathering was a tanning session at the beach and at an amusement park rather than a serious preparation for a major competition.
In fact, some players were even pictured go-karting during this period. Similar events also appeared to be evident during the preparation of Ukraine’s final match against Poland during the Group Stage of the competition.
Despite these odd events, the Ukrainian national team delivered in its friendly matches, where it faced Romania and Albania in preparation for Euro 2016 (both teams also competed in this year’s Euro 2016 competition). Following a shaky victory against Romania and a convincing display over Albania, in addition to earlier victories over Cyprus and Wales this year, it seemed as if Ukraine had adequately prepared itself against the opponents that it would face in Group C. Then, during its final preparations, Ukraine held its training camp in Aix-en-Provence. Unfortunately, despite the friendly victories, future events would prove that these preparations were inadequate for the Euros.
Vadim: The only thing I can add is that the brawl between Andriy Yarmolenko and Taras Stepanenko, which Mark discusses in greater detail below, may have adversely affected the preparations.
What was surprising in Ukraine’s performance in the opening match against Germany?
M: The drive and energy that the Ukrainian national team had against Die Mannschaft. It was not expected that the Ukrainians would be able to defeat the current world champions, but the national team displayed its talents and were able to provide an entertaining performance during the 90 minutes.
On two occasions during the first half, the Ukrainian national team also came close to levelling the score. But alas, the Ukrainians were unable to deliver a final end product and were hit by Germany on the counter attack, where German substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger found the back of the end at the end of extra time to effectively kill off the match, securing Germany a 2-0 victory.
Despite the loss, it appeared that the Ukrainians would prove to be a stubborn opposition for its opponents. In addition, there was the belief in Kyiv that the Ukrainians would be able to pick up points against Northern Ireland and Poland.
V: The drive and energy were really only present for a fifteen minute spell in the first half. Other than that, Ukraine did not look particularly strong or capable of getting a goal. A defensive mishap by the Germans in the second half nearly put Yevhen Seleznyov clear on goal, and that was arguably the closest thing to a chance that Ukraine created following that period of sustained pressure in the first half. One fifteen minute spell—even if it did come against the defending champions—should not have gotten anyone excited. The surprising optimism that many had following the Germany match was misguided,
What are positive and negative traits from the Northern Ireland and Poland matches?
M: In my opinion there are very few positives that may be taken from these matches, especially during the dreadful performance against Northern Ireland. Credit must be given to the Nords, who were able to break down Mykhaylo Fomenko’s predictable tactics.
In addition, the Northern Irish were able to affectively contain the threats created by Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko, Ukraine’s two main players. Without their deliveries and their involvement in the match, it was easily understood that the Ukrainian national team would be unable to deliver from any other position on the pitch. And since the match versus Poland was effectively a friendly, as Ukraine had nothing to play for, despite the excitement that might have been entailed in the match, there were fewer positives that could be taken from the game.
The fact that the transfer value of several Ukrainian players dropped by several million euros, further confirmed the reality that the national team had played poorly overall, mathematically finishing in last place out of all 24 teams in the competition with zero points earned and zero goals scored, and finishing towards the bottom overall (Ukraine was also the only team of the 24 to have competed in France this summer without earning a point or scoring a goal).
On the other hand, given the fact that this was Viktor Kovalenko’s, Oleksandr Zinchenko’s, and Bohdan Butko’s first debuts in a competitive match, the trio performed rather well. In fact, their performances showed that there is hope for Ukraine’s national team in the future. These facts have been reinforced by recent reports that Kovalenko is being sought by several top tier clubs in Europe while it has also already been confirmed that Zinchenko will join Pep Guardiola at Manchester City next season.
V: As Mark said, it is exceedingly difficult to locate even a single positive in Ukraine’s performances in France. While the Germany defeat was not surprising, against Northern Ireland Ukraine were expected to pick up all three points. Not only did they, once again, lose 2-0, they looked like a side that had absolutely no business being at the European Championships. The defeat to Poland confirmed this even further.
As for the youngsters, Kovalenko was actually included in the WhoScored worst XI of the group stages. He did not look particularly impressive when given the opportunity and looked overwhelmed by the occasion. Perhaps it was too early to rely on the Shakhtar midfielder to be Ukraine’s sole creative midfield presence in matches of this caliber.
Zinchenko appeared more confident on the ball during the match against Poland and asserted himself and in general looked to be more comfortable than did Kovalenko. However, these matches should not be the basis for forming any kind of conclusion about their respective qualities – both have bright futures ahead of them.
Is Mykhaylo Fomenko’s resignation surprising? How might his tactics be assessed throughout the tournament?
M: No. For several years many Ukrainian national team supporters have been displeased with Fomenko’s tactics and managerial style. Too often Fomenko has had his players play defensively, thus inviting Ukraine’s opponents to strike at the heart of the Ukrainian goal. Moreover, while Fomenko has the highest winning percentage of any Ukrainian national team manager, somehow Fomenko is best known for not delivering in big matches.
For example, France’s 3-0 victory over Ukraine in November 2013, which prevented Ukraine from competing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup; Ukraine’s 0-1 loss against Spain, where a victory would have seen Ukraine automatically qualify for Euro 2016 as the qualifying stage’s best third placed team (instead they were bound for the second round of qualification); and most recently the shocking 0-2 loss against Northern Ireland, which effectively saw Ukraine dumped out of the Euro competition (or perhaps all of Ukraine’s performances in the Euros for that matter).
Based on Fomenko’s failure of being able to deliver in big matches it is not surprising that Fomenko resigned thus effectively ending his tenure as the manager of the Ukrainian national team.
V: Even if Ukraine had performed well in France and had made it out of the group stage, as many predicted, Fomenko would still have resigned after the tournament. It had been widely reported in the Ukrainian media that leading Ukraine at the Euros would be his last task as manager, regardless of the results. Unfortunately his legacy will now be inextricably linked to Ukraine’s complete and utter failure at Euro 2016.
The only surprise in the tactics was the selection of Kovalenko in the starting lineup against Germany and Northern Ireland and then Zinchenko against Poland. Fomenko is well-known and occasionally mocked for his preference for defensive midfielders, so placing his faith in these young attacking midfielders was an unexpected decision.
Fomenko’s substitutions were, as usual, entirely predictable. Despite their ineffectiveness, Ukraine did not change tactics at any point during the tournament, and the only substitutions made by Fomenko were like-for-like switches. For example, in the second half of the match against Northern Ireland, Roman Zozulya was sent on to replace Yevhen Seleznyov. Toward the end of the match, Ukraine’s only recourse was long balls into the box, as it often happens. So why take off a striker who is far superior in the air to the one replacing him? Only Fomenko knows the answer.
But the biggest spit in the face of the Ukrainian supporters was the decision to bring on the 37 year old defensive midfielder Anatoliy Tymshchuk in stoppage time against Poland. The result of that match had no bearing on Ukraine’s tournament hopes, as by that match they had already been eliminated. Pride was at stake, however, and Ukraine were seeking their first points and goals. Instead of desperately going for victory – or at least an equalizer—Fomenko brought on a player from the Kazakh league who had no business being in the squad. Yes, Tymoshchuk is a legend. But a match at the Euros in which you are playing for pride is not the proper venue for a sendoff. It gave the impression that Fomenko did not care, which may be an accurate assessment.
Who is to blame for Ukraine’s abysmal collapse at Euro 2016?
M: It is rather difficult to pinpoint an exact moment, as it is likely that the abysmal collapse and shocking performance was caused by several factors. First, as previously mentioned, the national team under Fomenko has played rather conservatively, and it failed to really impress in most of its Euro 2016 qualification matches. In addition, at this stage it is rather well known that Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko are Ukraine’s two star men. Thus the lack of desire and entertaining football most likely is one of the factors for the poor display in France.
Second, the infamous incident that occurred in May 2016 between Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv surely must have played a factor as well. During a match that effectively meant nothing other than bragging rights in the Ukrainian Premier Liha, as Dynamo had won the league the week before this match, various Shakhtar and Dynamo players engaged in a brawl, where Dynamo’s Yarmolenko and Shakhtar’s Taras Stepanenko and Oleksandr Kucher were the main culprits of the event.
This skirmish soon caused a rift among the Ukrainian national team’s players that were selected to feature in the Euros. While it was later reported that the players supposedly resolved the conflict, later reports stated that the Ukrainian national team’s locker room was divided throughout the duration of the tournament.
Third, according to manager Fomenko, several of the national team players were not psychologically prepared for what was to come, as most of the national team had not yet competed at an international tournament. While he is unsure what exactly the issue might have been, Fomenko suggested that the national team players may have not known the scope or the importance of the matches that were to be played in the competition.
In addition, according to former Ukrainian national team member Andriy Voronin, several of the national team players lacked the necessary mindsets to have competed in this year’s Euro competition. In an interview with the former Ukraine international, Voronin argued that several of the national team players had yet to prove themselves on an international level, yet these players carried with them a sense of entitlement and arrogance. It is very likely that these unfortunate characteristics also contributed to the national team’s embarrassing downfall during the tournament.
V: The blame lies with everyone, but Fomenko deserves the lion’s share of responsibility. Why were the squad not psychologically prepared? Was this because most of the national team had not competed in an international tournament before? Is that really a valid excuse? The performances of Iceland and Wales, and even the likes of Albania, Northern Ireland, and Hungary, all thoroughly debunk the idea that prior experience at a major tournament is required for psychological preparation.
The players looked disinterested, there was a complete lack of passion and drive, and the squad simply did not look up to the task of representing their country at Euro 2016. And this emanated directly from the attitude of their manager. While Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill was constantly pacing back and forth at the edge of the technical area and barking instructions at his players, Fomenko barely left his seat during the entire match. The apathy was palpable.
Who is to succeed Fomenko as the Manager of the Ukrainian National Team?
M: There are a few candidates. First, the most obvious and well known is former Ukrainian national team hero and legend Andriy Shevchenko, who is currently acting as an assistant national team coach. Shevchenko is currently Ukraine’s top goal scorer, most capped captain, and has won many awards while playing for the Italian Club AC Milan, including the Ballon d’Or.
A second option is Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk’s Myron Markevych, who led the Ukrainian Club to the Europa League Final in 2015, where they eventually lost 2-3 against Sevilla.
V: As much of a legendary player as Shevchenko is, I see nothing to indicate that he is capable or deserving of being named manager. Not only does he lack any experience as a manager, his role as an assistant coach at Euro 2016 means that he, too, must share some of the blame.
Markevych is the ideal choice, but he has already had one brief spell as manager of the national team which ended in his resignation in protest after his former side Metalist Kharkiv were found guilty of match-fixing. Whether he can be persuaded is another issue, but I fear that the higher-ups at the FFU have already made up their minds regarding Shevchenko.
Mark Temnycky is a Ukrainian-American pursuing a joint masters degree in Public Administration and International Relations at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. Mark currently resides in Kyiv, Ukraine. Follow Mark on Twitter @MTem33
Vadim Furmanov is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. Originally from Ukraine, Vadim has resided in Chicago since 1994 and is a passionate supporter of both Dynamo Kyiv and the Ukrainian national team. He is also a Chicago Fire season ticket holder and a member of the Fire’s Section 8 supporters group. He writes primarily about Ukrainian football, as well as the intersection between football, politics, and history. You can follow Vadim on Twitter @vfurmanov.