Group B was one of the strangest last week. Shakhtar Donetsk won 2-3 at Madrid after a tremendous first-half while Inter drew 2-2 against Borussia Mönchengladbach. Not a good start for the two favourite teams.

The Nerazzurri did not launch their season well. Two wins in Serie A but also one draw and one loss, in the derby against Milan. The Ukrainian team is third in the table after three wins and four draws but a loss in the “Superkubok” against the eternal rivals of Dynamo Kyiv.

In this tactical analysis, in the form of a preview, we will analyse the two teams’ leitmotif regarding both the defensive approach and the attacking sources and settings.

Lineups

Luis Castro will probably choose a 4-2-3-1 formation. Trubin will start in goal. Victor Korniienko as left-back and Dodo on the other side. Davit Khocolava with Valeriy Bondar as centre-backs. Marlos will start along with Stepanenko as the double pivot. Former Estoril midfielder Marcos Antonio will play as offensive playmaker. While Tete and Manor Solomon will start on the right and left flanks, respectively. Dentinho will lead the front line as a lone centre-forward.

Antonio Conte will keep his usual 3-5-2 formation. Captain Samir Handanović will start in between the posts. Former Juventus manager will choose Milan Škriniar, Stefan De Vrij and Alexsander Kolarov in the centre line. Achraf Hakimi as a right-back while Ivan Perišić on the other side. In midfield, Arturo Vidal and Nicolo Barella will play as central midfielders, with Christian Eriksen as the “No.10”. And Romelu Lukaku will lead the line alongside Lautaro Martinez.

Inter’s attacking highlights

UEFA Champions League 2020-21: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Inter - tactical preview tactics

The map above shows the average positions of Inter players in the last UEFA Champions League match. From this map, you can see how Inter, when in possession, can transition themselves from a 3-4-1-2 to a 3-2-3-2. The wing-backs are higher on the pitch, nearer to the attacking midfielder and one of the forwards.

Conte wants to exploit as better as he can the dynamism of the former Real Madrid player. In the image below we can see recurring tactics: Kolarov is known for his great tactical vision and his capacity of shooting and throwing. In this case, when the midfielders are marked, the Serbian tries a long throw to Hakimi behind the opposite full-back. The goal is to isolate him in a 1 vs 1 situation and fleshes out the forwards.

In the derby against Milan, the former Roma player completed 6/8 long passes (75% of pass accuracy) and 8/11 passes to the final third (73%). The connection was successful three times, which is an enormous number considering their positions on the pitch. Furthermore, the Hakimi-Lukaku understanding was successful 13 times, the most frequent pass combinations of the game.

UEFA Champions League 2020-21: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Inter - tactical preview tactics

The consequence of this play is the use of half-spaces. No team makes more passes than Inter in the half-spaces close to the opponent’s penalty area. A record built above all in the right lane and Lukaku is first in this particular rank with 38 passes. Also, Barella and Hakimi are among the top 5. Ronaldo stands at 21, Gomez at 20, and Calhanoglu at 28.

Antonio Conte’s teams are known for the exploitation of the width, maybe in an excessive manner. With the return of Ivan Perišić, Inter want to take advantage of his abilities in dribbling and crossing. The Nerazzurri often try this attacking feature, as we can see in the following image. In this UCL match, Inter crossed 16 times, eight of them were successful. And for now, the Croatian has a good cross average (6.3 per game).

UEFA Champions League 2020-21: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Inter - tactical preview tactics

Inter’s defensive structure

When out of possession, Conte’s team maintain one of their main features: the high-intensity pressing starting from the first touches of the opposition’s defensive line. The incredible work of Inter’s first line of pressure is proved by their extraordinary PPDA, 7.3 against Borussia, even better in the first half (6.7).

UEFA Champions League 2020-21: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Inter - tactical preview tactics

In the image above we can see this approach. Fiorentina’s wing-backs were constantly followed by Inter’s players, never letting them any space for a build-up from the sides. This kind of “five-man pressing” was obviously supported also by the two other midfielders going man on man on Fiorentina’s midfielders. And a super-high defensive line forced Fiorentina to play long passes almost all the time during the match.

As Kouamé was not a real tower upfront, every action that started like that was kind of a gamble for Fiorentina. Inter suffered against Milan because of the presence of Zlatan Ibrahimović. Shakhtar doesn’t have a so physical forward.

This situation could be counterproductive. If the double pivot does not filter, the opponents can find a man between the lines in order to create dangerous situations. In the image below we can see how Inter conceded the penalty to Milan. Vidal and Brozović were surprised by the laser pass of Calabria and Hakan Çalhanoğlu put Ibrahimović in a perfect situation with a great pass.

UEFA Champions League 2020-21: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Inter - tactical preview tactics

The three-man defence has good advantages but also some disadvantages. One of them is the risk of 1 vs 1 against the opposition attack. In the second Milan goal, Rafael Leão dribbled D’Ambrosio easily and Kolarov demonstrated his defensive limits in the man-marking. And Shakhtar have got baller players who can cause problems for Inter.

UEFA Champions League 2020-21: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Inter - tactical preview tactics

The Brazilian Shakhtar

Shakhtar did not change a lot compared to last year. However, some interesting talents grew up such as Marcos Antonio, Tete and Solomon. We have also to consider the comeback of important players for the Luis Castro’s theatre: Alan Patrick, Taison and Stepanenko who are vital for this team. But “the baby” Shakhtar surprised Real Madrid with a precise football idea and approach.

UEFA Champions League 2020-21: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Inter - tactical preview tactics

Marcos Antonio plays as an offensive playmaker in order to not give a reference point while Solomon always manages to create positional superiority on the left side. In the third goal, as we can see in the image above, he activated the action dribbling Mendy and cutting inside. Dentinho moved to the left letting Solomon overlapping. Militao did not follow him and Shakhtar found the net.

The position of Marcos Antonio could be the biggest problem for Inter. His uninterrupted movement between the lines should be contained. Also, Inter has to be careful in the 1 vs 1 situations: Solomon, Taison and Alan Patrick are players that have got those typical features.

Shakhtar problems

Inter faced the Donetsk side in the semi-finals of the last Europa League. The Nerazzurri teared them up 5-0. A game dominated by Conte’s boys, who showed the limitations of Shakhtar. The first one is the building-up phase. Barella pressed systematically Matvlenko while Brozovic stayed on Stepanenko, the source of play of the team.

UEFA Champions League 2020-21: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Inter - tactical preview tactics

Another consistent win-to-win situations are the freekicks. Inter have an important average height. As a matter of fact, the second goal was on a corner kick, as we can see in the image below.

UEFA Champions League 2020-21: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Inter - tactical preview tactics

The last note is the duel between Lukaku-Kocholava. The Ukrainian has never stopped the Belgian, neither physically nor in terms of speed. This is something that Castro must figure out in order to limit the former Manchester United player, who scored 10 goals in the first nine games.

UEFA Champions League 2020-21: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Inter - tactical preview tactics

Conclusion

It will be already a decisive game for Inter. As we saw in this analysis, the Nerazzurri have incredible tools to hurt Castro’s team; The connection between Kolarov and Hakimi, the key role of Lukaku and the possibility of exploitation of the freekicks. Furthermore, Inter have to react after the draw against Borussia in order to put pressure on Real Madrid.

However, Shakhtar can also surprise the Italian team as they did one week ago in Madrid. Castro knows how Inter could be dangerous and it will be necessary to find alternative solutions. The goal will be to block the main play sources and try exploiting the counterattacks.