‘He dribbles like Ronaldinho’: rise of Mudryk no surprise to old teammates
Chelsea’s £89m signing has made rapid progress on the pitch but those who trained with him always saw his raw talent
The conundrum facing Shakhtar Donetsk’s hierarchy was that Mykhailo Mudryk had, for a player of his age, barely been given any oxygen at the top level. It was the summer of 2021 and his previous two managers, Paulo Fonseca and Luís Castro, had not been convinced enough to give him a run. In the club’s boardroom Mudryk was seen as a player who could win the Ballon d’Or; on the training pitch he was routinely viewed as fast, immensely skilful but raw and unpredictable. His 20th birthday had long since passed but he had only made seven appearances for Shakhtar and a further 21 on loan. He was yet to score a senior goal.
In Roberto De Zerbi, who asks the bold to be even bolder, Shakhtar found the coach who could harness a talent that needed some love. It took only a few viewings for the Italian to be convinced, and to tell the player he had his trust. De Zerbi had already given Mudryk two starts in the league when, with Shakhtar on the point of losing their Champions League playoff against Monaco, he called him from the bench. Mudryk had eight minutes plus extra time to make a difference: he terrorised the Ligue 1 club from the left flank and it was his direct influence, another sparkling run bringing a cross that clipped Ruben Aguilar before looping in, that propelled his side back to the group stage.
Seventeen months on, Mudryk is an £89m player who will almost certainly make his Chelsea debut at Anfield on Saturday. It is one of the most stunning rises to prominence in memory. He took his chance from De Zerbi, whose reign was short-lived due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and never let up. After one of Shakhtar’s Champions League ties last autumn an opponent said in private that Mudryk was the best player he had ever faced.
It is a far cry from the 2020-21 season, when Mudryk was undergoing the second of those loan spells. He spent the first half of that campaign at Desna Chernihiv, another Ukrainian top-flight side; they only lost twice and it was clear to teammates that his talent was matched by an extraordinary drive.
“He was always so concentrated on football,” says Ihor Litovka, who was Desna’s goalkeeper. “When we had a day off, he’d be training; when we had one training session, he’d be doing two. He’d go out on to the pitch alone, taking balls with him, shooting and dribbling. Then he’d go and ask the coach to show him how he played in the last game, reviewing the statistics. That was very important to him.”
A year after Mudryk returned to Shakhtar, Desna were a casualty of Russia’s aggression. Their stadium was all but destroyed; Litovka, who is trying to rebuild his career in Croatia, is among the former teammates for whom multimillion-pound transfers were never on the table. Mudryk had the attributes for a different path. “His pace was unreal,” Litovka says. “Really, really high speed and very, very good dribbling that reminded me of Ronaldinho.”
Chelsea will hope for more of that, along with the end product that saw Mudryk score twice against Celtic and once against RB Leipzig in this season’s group stage. He also shone in both encounters with Real Madrid, repeating the verve that saw him applauded from the Bernabéu pitch the previous season. That was 10 weeks after the Monaco game and Mudryk had left little doubt that the Champions League was his theatre.
While Shakhtar coaches had been slow to appreciate him, those around Mudryk felt for some time that the same applied externally. Premier League clubs had long been made aware of him but Brentford were the only side from England to bite firmly before his eruption. They were happy to make him their record signing by some distance last summer but Shakhtar, who sought a fee north of £30m even six months ago, would not yield.
Their calculated gamble that Mudryk’s value would soar was borne out by his form, rising far above the mean in Ukraine’s resurrected top flight while announcing himself more widely in Europe. Arsenal had toyed with bidding in pre-season and found their task increasingly complicated when they eventually got involved. Shakhtar felt the prices for players such as Jack Grealish and Antony set precedent, even if a valid counterpoint was Mudryk’s lack of games. In the end Arsenal were on the verge of agreeing a deal but it was Chelsea, whose co-owner Behdad Eghbali and recruitment chief Paul Winstanley arrived at Shakhtar’s hotel reception in Antalya ready to complete an extraordinary heist last Saturday, who took him to London.
Mudryk had publicly courted Arsenal but knew this was business. There was an anxiousness, from his perspective, to complete a move upwards this month and a sense that, with Shakhtar out of the Champions League and no international stage to shine on this summer, there was little scope for his price to increase further. This was the sweet spot for all parties to come away with what they wanted; Mudryk now has the prize of a top Premier League club and the chance to work under Graham Potter, whose meticulousness and man-management skills look a promising fit for further improvement. One figure who has worked closely with Mudryk believes he has hit only 50% of his potential.
There will be pressure to deliver quickly, in an out of form side, but Mudryk has the chance to blaze a trail. Millions of futures have been compromised in Ukraine over the past 11 months. “The guy just worked, thought constantly about football and now signs a contract with Chelsea,” Litovka says. “It can be a motivation for all the youngsters who train in Ukraine now. It shows them anything is possible.”