Russia 4-1 Czech Republic: Russia’s Zenit-style counter-attacking exposes Czech weaknesses
Russia made a terrific start to their Euro 2012 campaign with a high quality counter-attacking performance.
Dick Advocaat named his expected side – a 4-3-3 system, with Vyacheslav Malafeev in goal.
Michel Bilek’s side featured one alteration from the expected XI – Michal Kadlec moved to the left, where he frequently played during qualification, which meant Roman Hubnik playing at centre-back, and no place for David Limbersky.
Russia were simply the better side throughout the game – more organised defensively, and showcasing much more penetration going forward.
The game started at a good tempo, with an obvious 4-3-3 v 4-2-3-1 battle. Each midfielder had an opponent close to him and was generally closed down quickly and tracked across the pitch, while the full-back v winger battles were also enjoyable: in particular, Andrei Arshavin’s drifts inside meant Theodor Gebre-Selassie had a few opportunities to bomb down the right.
But it was the midfield battle that truly decided the balance of the game. Igor Denisov played a very disciplined holding role, and his constant pressure on Tomas Rosicky forced the Czech captain deeper and deeper, to the point where Milan Baros became very isolated upfront. Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov worked as a duo against the Czech double pivot of Jaroslav Plasil and Petr Jiracek. Plasil generally stayed a little deeper to get time on the ball, while Jiracek made some good forward runs and closed down more energetically.
However, the key midfield was one who wasn’t playing, Thomas Hubschman. As explained in the Czech preview, “Hubschman…is the best true holding midfielder in the squad…and on paper should be sure starter. Yet when he was suspended for the away game against Lithuania and the play-offs against Montenegro, Bilek had to start with a double pivot of Petr Jiracek and Jaroslav Plasil. Suddenly, the side looked better – more fluid, more open, more energetic in the centre of midfield.”
It was widely expected that Jiracek and Plasil would begin the game in the centre of midfield, and that fluidity was important in giving the Czech Republic more variety in their attacking play. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it was the wrong decision to omit Hubschman. As Russia are so adept at counter-attacking, primarily thanks to the brilliant relationship of the Zenit trio in midfield, plus their natural understanding with Aleksandr Kerzahkov and his intelligent movement, the Czechs desperately needed a stationary defensive midfielder to break up the play when Russia won the ball and moved directly towards goal.
This was a particular problem because Russia had four players moving into the zone between the Czech defence and midfield – Kerzhakov, who dropped deep and created space for others, Andrei Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev, who both had excellent games drifting inside from the wings, plus Roman Shirokov, who scored a trademark goal with a break into the box.
Jiracek and Plasil were presumably selected as more energetic runners able to press high up the pitch, which is a partial explanation. But it was that closing which made the Czechs so vulnerable to quick, direct passing through the lines – those two often moved forward together and one pass cut them both out of the game, most obviously for Shirokov’s goal, when he was the one to initially receive a clever ball that bisected Jirasek and Plasil. The defence, which lacks pace, didn’t want to move too high up the pitch, and therefore Russia found room to work in.
There had been a danger that Russia were too narrow in their attacking play, because Arshavin and Dzagoev both came inside quickly into that space, and sometimes Russia lacked a player to stretch the game, with the full-backs more reserved than expected (possibly because they were scared of the pace the Czechs have in wide areas, although Zhirkov did increasingly get forward). This problem was solved for the first goal by a surprise overlapping run from Zyryanov, and thereafter Russia compensated for the lack of width by finding space between the lines and playing clever straight passes through the defence.
When the Czech Republic were trailing in the game, they tried to press even higher up the pitch to win the ball. Rosicky, for example, started to move forward close to Baros and closed down the centre-backs 2 v 2. But this then left Denisov free, and if Jiracek or Plasil moved onto him, it left Zyryanov or Shirokov free. Then there was the threat of Arshavin and Dzagoev sneaking in behind them. Russia simply found gaps between the Czech banks of players and their excellent one-touch passing meant they slipped through the lines quickly and efficiently. Against a counter-attacking side, the more you press, the more you’re vulnerable.
Bilek recognised his side’s weakness, and brought on Hubschman to sit in front of the defence. Rezek was removed, with Jiracek moving to the right. This stabilised the Czech side, giving them more protection in the zone ahead of their defence, while Jiracek (a midfielder) played a narrower role than Rezek (a winger/striker) had, coming inside and providing another simple passing option.
There was better balance about the Czechs after half-time, with a ball-playing wide man on one flank and a more direct player (Vaclav Pilar) on the other. Pilar’s run for his goal was very well-timed, though Aleksandr Anyukov went to sleep and played the offside trap awfully.
Ultimately, even with Hubschman on the pitch, the more the Czech Republic needed to attack, the more they pushed forward, the more Russia looked dangerous when the won the ball. Kerzhakov missed various good chances after getting the ball in the channels, although it must be emphasized that his all-round game and link-up play was very good, and a key factor in Russia’s slick play.
Russia became more clinical when Roman Pavlyuchenko replaced Kerzahkov. 4-1 didn’t flatter Advocaat’s side.
A key theme of the tournament is how many coaches have attempted to maintain good club connections throughout their side, and no coach is doing that more obviously than Advocaat. There was simply a wonderful cohesion about Russia tonight, especially in midfield, and it’s no coincidence that Kerzhakov, Arshavin, Zyryanov, Shirokov and Denisov all play together at club level. By recreating the style of football Zenit play, with the players Luciano Spalletti uses, Russia have a great advantage – although as it happens, the star player tonight was the one non-Zenit player in the attacking six, Dzagoev.
The Czech side seemed too open, almost naive, in their approach without the ball. Not only did this leave them open to direct breaks, it didn’t even suit their own approach – which was also expected to be about playing on the break. Had they soaked up pressure by defending deep, they might have been able to bring Russia up the pitch and then attacked the space in behind with the pace of their wide players. That’s eventually how they got their goal, but this approach might have been more consistently dangerous had they drawn Russia forward.