Ilya Zabarnyi


Thomas Pearce

June 9, 2021

Who is Ilya Zabarnyi?

He doesn’t turn 19 years old until September, but Ilya Zabarnyi is already a first-team regular for Ukrainian champions Dynamo Kyiv. Now, he heads to Euro 2020 with Ukraine’s senior squad, and is expected to be a starter. 

After the tournament, he has the minute task of handling interest from the Champions of Europe, Chelsea. Andriy Shevchenko, head coach of the national team head coach, knows the player well. There’s no doubt the former Chelsea striker, who was at the recent Champions League final as a friend of owner Roman Abramovich, has had a significant part to play in these rumours materialising – whether accurate or not.

Ilya Zabarnyi's Style of Play



For an 18-year-old defender, Zabarnyi is very tall – and still has room to grow. He could reach upwards of 6’4”, and this will only benefit his metaphorical growth as a footballer. As a 6’2” centre-back, Zabarnyi has broad shoulders, a well-built upper body to match his long limbs, and retains good balance in most scenarios; it would be harsh to call him a lanky player.

The young defender acts as the stopper in the Dynamo and Ukraine backlines, operating as the right centre-back in a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 respectively. This analysis will predominantly focus on his defensive duties at club level, but there are certainly overlaps across both teams. In either team, he is usually the centre-back to step out of the line and press his opponent, highlighted by his 6.4 defensive duels per 90 compared to his Dynamo partner Denys Popov’s 5.5, according to Wyscout data.

He is fairly vocal calling for the ball in the defensive line, and likes to direct things physically by pointing his arms. When defending set-pieces he is seen organising some of the team’s midfielders and attackers into position. Although not the leader of his defence yet, there are promising fundamentals in this regard – he certainly isn’t shy.

In the initial phases of build-up for Dynamo, Zabarnyi positions himself into plenty of space and sets up his body in such a manner where he can collect the ball and swiftly pass to a team-mate. 

He has great positional sense in this regard when the team shifts from left to right, both when defending out of possession and playing in possession. Rarely is he caught off-guard by an opponent pressing him; when they do, he has nimble feet for a tall defender, moving the ball out from one side of his body to another, maintaining a calming presence when he passes it to a team-mate.

His short-to-medium range passing is generally very reliable and there is a confident aura around him on the ball. He is trusted by his team-mates in possession, which is very encouraging to see in someone who is still rapidly developing as a player.

Occasionally, however, there is a cause for concern that his weight of passing can be too soft. Although he has rarely thus been caught out by it, there is potential that in a more intense, higher-pressing league – namely the Bundesliga and Premier League – opponents could intercept attempted passes and spark counter-attacks.

For Dynamo, Zabarnyi hasn’t been the centre-back to play the line-breaking passes with frequency, and he is rarely relied upon for ball progression out of the back-line. His long-range passing lacks incisiveness and often floats far beyond its intended target when airborne, but the right intentions are there. 

Usually, his progressive passes are played down the flanks to either the winger or advanced full-back, and less so through the centre of the park to a central midfielder. His eight progressive passes per 90 compared with his defensive compatriot Popov’s 10 is indicative of the slightly different roles they play in possession.

It seems that Zabarnyi has a very good understanding of the pace of the game, and rarely tries to force an opportunity when there is no need to. Although this is with the reassurance that he has top-quality players around him, at least within the context of the Ukraine’s Premier League, so there is little need to force a passage of play – his talented team-mates can do that for him.

The teenager’s reassuring presence at the back in possession is enhanced when out of possession. He reads an opponent’s next move excellently, and for him, this all seems like a game of chess or boxing. 

He regularly makes the first move, stepping to one side in a one-on-one scenario, before pre-emptively baiting his opponent to be shut off by his body position. This is how he most frequently recovers possession; he almost doesn’t tackle the ball at all, he just levers himself between the opponent and the ball.

When an attacker dribbles at him one-on-one, Zabarnyi postures his frame sideways, allowing him to backpedal with enough pace to keep up, but this positioning also allows him to step in sharply and engage the ball too. His upper body is slanted somewhat in these moments where he is side-stepping backwards, and then straightening his body when performing the tackle; acting like a brick wall for his opponent.

As mentioned earlier though, Zabarnyi’s preference is to not let the attacker run towards him: he steps out of the defensive line and pressures them instead. 

Most of these pressures, however, are not lapses of rash decision-making, they are well-timed pieces of defending that typically result in him either winning the ball back or forcing the opponent to pass make a regressive pass. It’s very effective, and arguably his greatest asset as a defender at this stage of his development. His 68.1% defensive duels success rate is a testament to that.

From a defensive perspective, his aerial abilities do need improving before stepping up to a stronger division. He has the height as well as the leap to become a dominant aerial presence, but he mistimes the flight of the ball too frequently to win headers at a sufficient rate at present. 

This is particularly the case when the opponent – be it a goalkeeper or defender – has launched a long ball towards his zone, situations where the ball has a lot of height on it. Balls played with shallower height, however, are usually dealt with capably. Nevertheless, his aerial duels success rate of 54.7% is an area for improvement, but he has plenty of time to do just that.

That said, attacking from set-pieces is a different story. Zabarnyi times his movements inside the penalty area wisely, and typically gets a good connection with the ball when aiming for the goal. His goal against Ingulets in April was a good example of his: nice movement towards the far post followed up by solid strength to hold off his marker and whack the ball off the frame of the goal into the net. 

For Ukraine at the Euros, this could be an extremely useful weapon to have against sides you are expecting to struggle against, especially with Ruslan Malinovskiy and Dynamo team-mate Viktor Tsyganko on corners. It’s something to keep an eye out for.

Forecasting Ilya Zabarnyi's Future Prospects

His rise to the top of Ukrainian football has been nothing short of astonishing, and most impressive were his strong outings in the Champions League against Ferencváros, as well as some valuable game time against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. Further impressive performances in the Europa League too will place him favourably in the shop window for western clubs.

Making the move from Kyiv to Cobham would not be the traditional route, and it is unclear how his time at the Bridge would fare. Would it be a career similar to now-Bristol City captain Tomáš Kalas or Champions League winner Andreas Christensen.

He would almost certainly be loaned out if he were to sign for Chelsea, perhaps back to Dynamo, but does he stand a chance in the longer term? Maybe. A return to Chelsea after a couple of productive seasons in Ukraine, and perhaps a spell in a top-five league on loan, may well happen. He could be a high-potential candidate to replace Chelsea’s older centre-backs. But, if this deal were to happen, ensuring that Zabarnyi has a well-planned pathway is absolutely paramount.

Ilya Zabarnyi possesses a strong physical build which allows him to efficiently tower over and domineer his opponents. He is a front-footed defender, which is aided by his good tackling technique, making him a tough defender to get past on the ground. If he is dribbled past or passed around, he owns a quick recovery pace preventing any potential mishaps from being punished.

Ilya Zabarnyi can lose track of the ball in the air, mistiming his leap on a fairly regular basis, with the ball bouncing onto the green space behind him, or potentially an opposition attacker. His passing game also needs work, as his passes can occasionally lack sufficient pace to find its intended target, making it easy for an attacker to intercept the pass and spark a dangerous counterattack.