Why Ukraine’s Sudakov is one of the most sought-after players

Ukraine manager Serhiy Rebrov doesn’t like talking about individuals.

Asked why he picked 22-year-old goalkeeper Anatoliy Trubin over Andriy Lunin for their second match of Euro 2024, he deflects and talks up the ability of all three of his goalkeepers (the other being Georgiy Bushchan) instead. Another question after Ukraine’s 2-1 comeback win over Slovakia about the exciting young core of his team gets the same treatment.

But he does, briefly, break protocol when it comes to midfielder Heorhiy Sudakov.

“It was the youngest team we have picked,” Rebrov told ESPN. “These young players have a bright future, I think what Heorhiy is doing is giving lots of energy on the pitch, he understands football very well, he has a spirit. He can play in several positions, which is very important.”

Sudakov is one of the most sought-after players in Europe. The 21-year-old has keen transfer interest from Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea, while his club Shakhtar Donetsk turned down bids in January from Juventus and Napoli in the region of €40 million. Shakhtar are expecting more offers, and CEO Serhii Palkin said in April: “He will definitely move to a top European club this summer.”

But why is there so much hype around such a young player with little experience of top-class football? Talking to those who have coached Sudakov, it all comes back to one word Rebrov briefly touched on: understanding.

“He’s a clever guy and he’ll adapt to any environment, and to any style of football,” Shakhtar’s head of development, Oskar Ratulutra, told ESPN. “He’s ready to make another step and to reach his dream.”

The impact of war

There are reminders of the war everywhere at Euro 2024: the 1.1 million refugees who fled Ukraine for Germany after the invasion, the Ukrainian-language books in local libraries. Then there are the visceral sights of war: the flags and banners in the crowd honouring soldiers, and a set of seats from the Sonyachny Stadium in Kharkiv which are being transported around the country to wherever Ukraine are playing. The 21 mangled blue and yellow seats are shredded; shrapnel has ripped apart the plastic. “A Kharkiv Stadium, built for Euro 2012, destroyed by Russian shells in 2022,” reads a banner above them.

This generation of young players in Ukraine have to grow up fast. Sudakov has been at Shakhtar Donetsk since 2017, but he has never played in their home ground in the east of the country. “I’ve never been there, only heard about it and seen it on TV,” Sudakov told told The Associated Press. “And I understand how important it is for our country, for our team, for our club and for its president.”

The team had to move away from the Donbas Arena in 2014 due to the conflict that preceded Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Sudakov’s hometown of Bryanka, in between Luhansk and Donetsk, was taken over by Russian separatists and the region has now been annexed by Russia.

Shakhtar won their 15th Ukrainian title last season, alongside the Ukrainian Cup, gaining automatic entry into the UEFA Champions League group stage, but the first team play their home matches 1,200km away in Lviv and their European matches will be hosted in Germany’s Hamburg next season. The club’s academy is just outside Kyiv in a suburb called Sviatoshyn. There, the best talent that can get to the academy are taught the Shakhtar way.

“We have been away from our home since 2014, and I know that it’s not easy to play away always, but we prepare players who will be ready for everything,” said Ratulutra, who has been with the club in various roles since 2006. “And because football and life are not always fair, we must focus on the most important things in that time. So we just explain to our players to control what we can control and focus on our work. Elite players must progress in a good environment, and that’s what we do.”

Stepping up from the academy

It was Shakhtar’s impressive reputation which saw Sudakov join them aged 14. “I think all top clubs in Ukraine wanted to take him, but our academy made it,” Ratulutra says. “And we are very happy that we did.”

Fernando Valente was manager of the Shakhtar under-21 side and sports director of their academy from 2019 to 2021. The first team back then, under the ownership of Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, had 11 Brazilians in the squad — the owner saw future transfer value in signing talents like Fred, Fernando and Bernard, and turned to that market to fulfil his dream of Shakhtar playing samba-influenced entertaining football.

Though impressive talents like Mykola Matviyenko (2018-19) occasionally broke into the first team, the academy wasn’t necessarily aligned with the senior side; they both played different football and players came and went. But Sudakov crossed the divide: he had the skillset which could adapt to different tactical systems and a brain that could process it.

“I realized that Sudakov and the other guys, they feel comfortable,” Valente tells ESPN. “Why? Because of course they have talent, they are with the technique also. But the most important, they understand what we want. They understand the game.

“Normally there are a lot of influences during your youth, and I think his father played football, so he always had this understanding. But what set him apart was his professionalism too. He knew he had to build muscle, so he prioritised the gym. Then he wanted to be two-footed, so he worked on his weaker foot. When he began to break through, I talked with some Brazilian guys — we talk in Portuguese — and they were surprised with his quality because he felt so comfortable playing with them.”

Shakhtar’s academy and first team are now much closer aligned and have a united playing style. Ratulutra remembers one match against Dynamo Kyiv where Sudakov showed he was ready to make the step up to the senior team.

“When he was maybe 17 years old, he was playing in the U19s,” Ratulutra says. “He was the youngest player who took part and scored twice in that game. I think we lost, but he made the difference, and we knew he was ready.”

Modelled on De Bruyne

Sudakov is an attacking midfielder, but can play in the No. 6, No. 8 and No. 10 roles. “He is a very skilful, intelligent player,” Ratulutra says. “He makes very good decisions in attack and defence. He was always the best player in each age group.”

Sudakov admires Tottenham’s James Maddison and Phil Foden; he used to wear a Cristiano Ronaldo shirt, and is a huge fan of Luka Modric. But when Ratulutra is asked which player the midfielder is most like, he turns to a Belgian star: “I’d say maybe like Kevin De Bruyne. He can play box-to-box and he can do everything. He is always in the game.”

Valente also highlights Sudakov’s incredible footballing brain. “His most important quality is his decision-making, that makes the difference,” he says. “And his personality: he’s not afraid to have the ball; he always wants the ball. We tried to play a positional game, and the rest of the team followed him in this as he had the initiative to make a difference.

“The way he attacks is brilliant, but he makes the difference for the team because he knows the importance of balancing that. You need to sometimes to defend with your teammates, and then when you get the ball, you can look up again.”

Sudakov has sometimes found himself up front for Ukraine in Euro 2024 — alongside Artem Dovbyk or Roman Yaremchuk — but when Valente took over the U21 side he challenged Sudakov to play off the left wing.

“When he was 17 or so, we put him in the U21 side and he made the difference, and understood more about the game,” Valente says. “Normally he plays in the middle like a midfielder, but in that moment we had more players and good players in the middle. And I moved him to the side because he could cut inside and still play through the gaps. So he can play anywhere really.”

Inspired by Mudryk

That experiment didn’t last long — primarily due to Sudakov’s best friend Mykhailo Mudryk taking that spot. “The two always stayed late at training,” Valente says. “They wanted to stay on the pitch practising shooting, their technique and set pieces. They are very focused, and they wanted to improve and learn.”

Sudakov and Mudryk talk every day. Mudryk tells him about life in the Premier League and how he’s adjusting after his €100m move (€70m, with €30m in add-ons) to Chelsea in January 2023. Sudakov keeps him up to date with life in Ukraine, where he lives in Kyiv with his wife Yelyzaveta and young daughter Milana. But it is not easy. “There is no safe place in Ukraine today,” Sudakov said in an interview with iNews in May. “Everyone is afraid. Mentally it is difficult. Every time my daughter hears the [air raid] sirens she runs to hide under the blanket. It is difficult to accept this. I have the opportunity to move my family outside of Ukraine.”

One of Sudakov’s most memorable performances for Shakhtar was against Barcelona in the Champions League in November where he ran the show and helped his side to a 1-0 win. He was named the team’s Player of 2023-24 by almost 80% of supporters, finished the season with six goals and four assists, and was also named by the clubs as the Player of the Year.

“You have to manage so many moving pieces and to still perform so well and to grow into such a brilliant footballer is incredible,” Ratulutra says.

As Shakhtar have intimated, they expect Sudakov to head to one of Europe’s top clubs this summer. But, as his friend Mudryk has found, adjusting to life in the Premier League is not straightforward.

“I was telling Misha [Mudryk] about how much I want to play in the Premier League and how it would be great to play in the same team,” Sudakov told iNews. “Misha told me that I was not ready for the kind of pressure that happens in England and if I do come I need to be ready for that. But I am. My attitude is like this — I have reached as far as I can go at Shakhtar, I have developed as much as I can as a player and I am ready to move forward.”

Valente is adamant Sudakov is ready to take the next step.

“Because of his quality, his understanding of the game, the style that he promotes, he will be great,” he says. “He understands everything, and I think that he can make the difference. They [Shakhtar] will demand a lot of money [for his transfer], but that only shows his quality.”