The return of the UEFA Champions League will see Real Madrid host Shakhtar Donetsk to kick off proceedings in group B.

Real Madrid will be desperate to reinstate their dominance in Europe after exiting in the round of 16 two years in a row. They currently sit top of La Liga but alarm bells will be ringing after losing to newly promoted Cádiz. They will therefore be hoping to make a statement of intent against the Ukrainians.

Shakhtar impressed in both European competitions last year. They earned a win against Atalanta and a draw against Manchester City, before dropping into the Europa League where they reached the semi-finals. However, they’ll need to find form after a shaky start to the season in Ukraine. 

This tactical analysis preview will seek to assess the strengths and weaknesses of both teams’ tactics ahead of Wednesday’s match.

Expected systems

Due to the squad strength and depth, Real Madrid have tried a number of different systems already this season. So far, they’ve been most successful in 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-3 formations.

Zinédine Zidane has also repeatedly attempted to utilise a 4-2-3-1 formation. However, when you add their loss to Cádiz to the fact that this system is yet to yield a single goal this season, it’s clear that it still needs work.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

Domestically, Shakhtar typically lineup in a 4-2-3-1 with Alan Patrick and Taras Stepanenko as a double pivot. However, the Ukrainians are also well-versed in the 4-1-4-1 formation and have successfully shaped up this way against tougher European opponents like Manchester City and Atalanta. It would therefore be unsurprising to see this system deployed once again at the Bernabéu.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

This formation makes it difficult for opponents to play through the lines as there are two lines of four to break down and they’re forced out wide. The addition of a defensive midfielder (Stepanenko) means the threat of wingers coming inside or a striker adopting a false 9 role between the lines is reduced.

Shakhtar will likely be without striker Júnior Moraes and defenders Mykola Matviyenko and Sergiy Kryvstov due to coronavirus and injuries. This means it is likely there will be a rotated side with a number of youngsters and backup players included in the squad.

It is therefore vital that Shakhtar are confident in their system. There will be a large number of qualitative disadvantages when it comes to 1v1s so they will have to show strength as a collective, as this analysis will show.

Madrid defending out wide

Despite having a squad full of world-class talent, the last couple of seasons have shown that Los Blancos do have weaknesses. One that’s particularly concerning this season is defending in wide areas.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

The above picture shows the secondary assist for Real Betis’ first goal against Real Madrid on matchday. Dani Carvajal is moving with his defensive unit; however, he’s positioned too far away from Nabil Fekir to be able to shut him down quickly. Due to the amount of space Fekir has to operate in he can control the ball, wait for support to arrive and then assist William Carvalho.

Another example is Cádiz’s winning goal against Real Madrid at the weekend, which came after build-up out wide. This one wasn’t down to individual error but lack of clarity in terms of defensive positioning and roles out wide.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

Cádiz have their winger (Salvi), full-back (Carlos Akapo) and right central midfielder (José Mari) in the right channel. This creates confusion on Real’s left side as it becomes unclear who is responsible for tracking which player.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

Sergio Ramos can either mark Anthony Lozano or try and overload the attackers 3v2 to prevent advancement or combinations. He elects to remain in a wider position meaning the long pass to Álvaro Negredo takes him out of the game.

Once we delve deeper into the statistics surrounding their performance in wide areas, it becomes clear that there is a problem that needs addressing.

According to WyScout data, Real Madrid are averaging 8.2 recoveries per 90 minutes on both the right and left sides of the defence. While these stats don’t take into account occasions where Real may have diverted defenders or forced them to concede a goal kick for example, a team with their resources shouldn’t be satisfied with being below average in any department.

In terms of individual recoveries per 90, Carvajal ranks the highest with an average of 7.4. He’s followed by left-backs Marcelo (6.7) and Ferland Mendy (5.9), these all being numbers that Zidane’s side should be aiming to increase imminently.

One potential approach to solving this problem would be the deployment of Eder Militão as a right-back. While it’s not the Brazilians’ natural position, he has occasionally taken up this role in the past. With 13 recoveries in 49 minutes against Cádiz, if expected to operate in a more defensive capacity he may be able to help reduce the severity of this issue. 

Shakhtar on the counter

It’s lucky for Shakhtar that Real Madrid have weaknesses in wide areas as the Ukrainians’ main threat lies with their inverted wingers’ ability to counter-attack. In a 4-1-4-1 shape, Luís Castro will typically start Taison (left) and Marlos (right) on the wings. They do have impressive depth in these positions though, so Tetê or Manor Solomon could also make an appearance.

There is a degree of flexibility with these wingers as they don’t simply rely on being able to play in one way. They are more than capable of beating players in 1v1 situations, cutting inside and using their speed to make the most of counter-attacking situations.

Shakhtar’s 5-1 victory over Lviv at the weekend was a clear example of this ability to dominate using the counter, with two goals coming from these situations.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

The speed at which Shakhtar are able to attack means that, with the addition of Viktor Kovalenko, they’re able to overload the opposition defence (4v2). Once they reach the final third with an attacking overload it’s almost harder not to score.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

Again, for the second goal, Shakhtar managed to create an overload with 4 attackers when counter-attacking. The individual quality of their wingers is useful here though as it reduces the risk of the opposition being able to mark zonally and delay the attackers. Should they try and mark man to man, there will be a free man. If they try and mark zonally then there will be gaps for the player on the ball to exploit either themselves or with a pass.

Realistically even on their worst day, Real Madrid will pose a greater challenge to Shakhtar than most of the teams in the Ukrainian Premier League. Though the counter is a useful tactic to be able to deploy against qualitatively superior teams like Real Madrid, as there are always opportunities to exploit the opposition’s transition out of the attack. A side who can do this effectively suddenly become much more competitive even in the biggest mismatch.UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

The above example shows the build-up to Shakhtar’s first goal away to Manchester City in last season’s Champions League. Shakhtar won the ball in their defensive third where City were set up to attack. They then counter at speed where right-back Dodô joins Tetê to create an overload against the left-back (Angeliño).

The main reason they’re successful on the counter is the speed at which they’re able to reach the final third. This allows them to have the best chance of creating overloads against the opposition defenders.

Keeping this momentum also means defenders have less time to make decisions about positioning or when to delay and when to commit. Angeliño has to make a trade-off between committing too early and letting Tetê cut inside onto his stronger foot or hope to force a pass to Dodô in the effort that he can match the full-backs’ speed.

How can Shakhtar exploit Real Madrid’s weaknesses?

Despite their weaknesses in defence, it will still be difficult for Shakhtar to take 3 points away from the Bernabeu. It is far from impossible though and it should come as a surprise to no one to see the Ukrainians threatening the Real Madrid defence.

Castro may set up his team in an offensive manner, with wingers looking to play high up and receive passes through or over the defence from central midfielders.

What is more likely (and safer) would be to rely heavily on counter-attacks. Defending in a low block would make it difficult for a Real Madrid side who are already struggling to convert chances. Combine this with the speed of the full-backs and wingers to get forward and adopting a strategy like this could prove dangerous.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

This would be similar to the strategy Cádiz used when defending their lead against Real Madrid. They sat back in a low block seeking to absorb the pressure, with wingers dropping back to support in defence. If they won the ball the wingers would seek to move up the pitch at speed.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

Shakhtar aren’t used to having to defend in a deep line in the Ukrainian Premier League. What they do demonstrate plenty of is their teams’ ability to attack quickly and in numbers. If they’re brave enough to employ a similar counter-attacking strategy then it’s hard to see them not creating some good chances for themselves.

Shakhtar are much more dangerous in attack than Cádiz and so using this strategy should prove even more effective. Shakhtar will need to be efficient when they are presented with these opportunities as they won’t get many, but if they are willing to sit back and try to soak up pressure then this number may rise.

How can Real overcome Shakhtar?

There are already question marks over Shakhtar’s solidity in defence, so the absence of centre backs Kryvstov and Matviyenko means that Real Madrid have even more reason to attack aggressively in the centre.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

One reason for their leaky defence is down to the inability of support players to react quickly once a player is beaten. For example, Maycon is sitting deep in order to add defensive security. When Dodô is beaten at right-back, there is a big gap between Maycon and the ball. This means that the attacker has space and time to control the ball and think about their next decision which in this case ends up being an assist.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

Similarly, after the first man is beaten Matviyenko is slow to react. This results in him being beaten and leads to another assist.

There will be a big qualitative superiority for Real Madrid’s attackers against Shakhtar’s central defenders. This is something that they will be expected to exploit but may struggle to based on their attacking performance so far this season.

They’re creating an adequate number of chances but the lack of conversion is becoming concerning. Karim Benzema who is expected to be Real’s main attacking outlet has scored just once so far this season. He has been provided with adequate chances and although his xG of 2.95 still isn’t the most promising, it suggests he is underperforming.

While he’s yet to have enough chances to seem a genuine threat, Vinícius Júnior is currently performing slightly above his xG (2 goals from 1.66 xG). This suggests that he is a player who should definitely be utilised in attack.

UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Real Madrid vs Shakhtar Donetsk tactical preview tactics

If Real are able to build up on one side in a way that shifts the opposition to one side and frees up space on the other, then Vinícius may have the time and space to create chances for himself.

Shakhtar will most likely play a back four which means the defensive line will, at times, be compact enough for Real to try this. In a 4-1-4-1 though the role of Shakhtar’s defensive midfielder may counter this depending on if and how far he drops back into the defensive line.


Even considering their recent form Real Madrid will be expected to beat Shakhtar on Wednesday. However due to their areas of weakness falling in line with an area that Shakhtar show strength in, it certainly doesn’t look like it will be an easy game for Los Blancos.

Depending on how well they’re able to execute their game plan, Shakhtar can definitely compete with Real on the day. With 15 goals in 6 games this season it would be surprising to see them fail to get on the scoresheet. Fans can look forward to a highly competitive game and potentially lots of goals.