Euro 2012 preview: Russia
There are many lessons to take from Spain’s dominance of international football over the past few years, and an important one has been the importance of bringing a solid club connection to international level.
Spain’s World Cup-winning side had a core of Barcelona players, played roughly the same style of football, and therefore benefited from long-standing relationships that couldn’t have been built in the minimal time international sides enjoy together.
Russia coach Dick Advocaat is well aware of this, and has been keen to follow a similar principle as Russia coach. “I just built upon a group of CSKA and Zenit players,” he says. “Both teams are doing well, and it has proved to be the right view.”
Zenit midfield connection
Zenit are the main team represented. That’s obvious off the pitch (Surgey Fursenko, the President of the Russian Football Union, used to be at Zenit, as did Advocaat) but more importantly, on it. “It’s a fixed system, always 4-3-3, the same one I played with at Zenit,” says Advocaat.
Most obviously, the midfield three all play for Luciano Spalletti’s side. Zenit are a wonderful, free-flowing side who rotate their midfield triangle well and play predominantly on the counter-attack. Few other countries will have such a good understanding in the centre of their side. Furthermore, Andrei Arshavin has returned to Zenit, while right-back Aleksandr Anyukov is another. If Aleksandr Kerzhakov starts upfront, which seems likely, that’s six of the ten outfield players provided by Zenit.
CSKA provide the defensive base of the team. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev has returned from injury and will start if 100% fit (though there are big doubts about this – inevitably, his back-up is Zenit’s keeper, Vyacheslav Malafeev), and plays behind the centre-back pairing of Aleksei Berezutski (in for his injured brother) and Sergei Ignashevich, a trio that has played together at club level for years.
Further forward, Alan Dzagoev is another CSKA player, so the only odd man out in the probable starting XI is Anzhi’s Yuri Zhirkov – although he played for CSKA for five years until 2009, so there’s an understanding with the centre-backs there, too.
The real debate in this side is upfront, where Advocaat has a choice between two different styles of player. He could go for the simple, target man option – either Pavel Pogrebnyak or Roman Pavlyuchenko, who are strong, good in the air and hold the ball up and wait for midfield runners. The more likely option is Kerzhakov, who plays a very different role – he drifts to the flanks, particularly the left, dragging defenders away and creating space for the midfielders to exploit. He’s smaller, trickier and better technically.
Despite the difference in style, there’s a clear consistency – the striker is not in this side predominantly to score goals (though that would be nice) but to spearhead the attack and create opportunities for the other players. Kerzhakov understands that better than anyone else, but the false nine has rarely worked successfully at international level, with coaches generally preferring a traditional number nine and a more basic style of football. But with the club connection, Advocaat can afford to go with a false nine and the most sophisticated of the three strikers.
Goalscoring could be problematic – with a large part of the striker’s job about bringing others into play, Russia rely upon those attacking midfielders having the confidence in front of goal. With Arshavin, for example, that’s a risky strategy. They may look to set-pieces for goals – in the pre-tournament friendly against Italy, they twice threatened with very long corners towards a runner coming in at the far post.
Formation and fluidity
Although this is a 4-3-3, it’s a very different type of 4-3-3 from the way Barcelona, for example, play a 4-3-3, because it features two wide players who both come inside into the centre of the pitch. Arshavin essentially becomes a playmaker, a number ten, while the highly-promising Dzagoev plays in a similar position but looks to get in advance of the striker more frequently, and was Russia’s top goalscorer in qualifying, with four goals.
But the real dark horse, in terms of goalscoring, is Roman Shirokov. He breaks forward from midfield to the edge of the penalty box with very well-timed runs. That was particularly obvious during Zenit’s match against Benfica in the Champions League this season, and also in Russia’s warm-up match against Italy – in both games, he scored twice.
Without the ball, Shirokov and Konstantin Zyryanov work as a duo, pressing more heavily than the equivalent players in similar systems will do at this tournament. They’re not scared to move across the halfway line to shut down their man, which can leave Igor Denisov a little stranded in front of the defence – although Denisov can also move forward to track an opposition number ten, often leading to rash tackles to win the ball, or cynical fouls to break up counter-attacks. With the ball, Russia can move the ball around excellently with quick, one-touch passing – though they can also hold onto the ball for too long, and dominate possession without creating chances.
Quick full-backs, slow centre-backs
With Arshavin and Dzagoev coming inside, the width comes from full-back. Zhirkov tends to become involved in attacking play frequently and is technically the better of the two, but Anyukov is a very powerful runner and arrives later on in attacking moves. These two must provide forward runs, in order to stretch the play, and a side that pins them back will make Russia very narrow.
Despite the good understanding at the back, there is a concern about the pace of the two centre-backs, and with both full-backs moving forward and the midfield pressing rather than sitting deep, Russia might be vulnerable to quick passes through the side. The centre-backs, like the midfielders, stick tight to their man, and can be dragged around by intelligent forwards. Another defensive concern is the work rate and positioning of the two wide forwards.
The physical condition of the side is also an issue. Almost the whole squad currently plays in Russia (a few having returned to secure their place in this side, after underwhelming spells in the Premier League), and have just finished a long ‘transition’ season from a summer to a winter calendar. They’ve effectively played one-and-a-half seasons, with the ‘half’ exclusively comprised of games against other big sides after a ’split’ in the table, meaning a very demanding run-in for all these players.
When combined with an old squad (and even the youngest player, Dzagoev, recently missed over a month with a toe injury) and a match every four days, it’s a genuine problem – which contributed to the arrival of the controversial, innovative fitness coach Raymond Verheijen, who has worked with Advocaat before. “Of all the sixteen Euro participants Russia is the only team which has consistently trained just once a day – it’s about freshness instead of fitness,” he says.
Russians don’t seem optimistic, but this is a relatively exciting team. “We’re not going to suddenly go defensive,” promises Advocaat. “In qualifying we were successful because we went out to win games. We have to be positive.” In a poor group that looks likely to be cagey, Russia will the most proactive side and will expect to qualify for the knockout stage.
Coach – Dick Advocaat
Formation – It will be termed 4-3-3 – although it’s 4-1-4-1 without the ball, and roughly 4-3-2-1 with it
Key player – Alan Dzagoev
Strength – the cohesion of the midfield
Weakness – the pace of the centre-backs
Key tactical question – which striker starts? This will determine Russia’s play in the final third
Key coach quote – “I don’t care about big names as long as they can play as a team. Everyone knows what their position is.”
Betfair odds: 23.0 (22/1)
Recommended bet: Russia to be eliminated in the quarter-finals at 2.3