By Saul Pope –
In any other league it would seem absurd: the manager of the team finishing bottom of the table leaving his club to take the reins at the country’s most popular side. But we are talking about Spartak Moscow, where unusual things tend to happen, and about Dmitriy Alenichev, a club legend who this week took over from the fired Murat Yakin.
Alenichev is steeped in the “Spartak spirit”, something that holds primacy at the club in a way untypical of football in Russia. The club’s fan movement has asked members to unite behind him. Though Alenichev left Spartak for Roma in 1998 whilst playing his best football, he is held with the same reverence as Yegor Titov and Andrey Tikhonov, who spent most of their careers at Spartak during the post-Soviet golden years. Perhaps one reason for this is that Alenichev was a successful export – he peaked at Porto, where he scored in both the UEFA Cup and Champions League finals.
Alenichev: An Unknown Quantity
As a manager, though, he is unproven at the highest level. He guided his previous club, Arsenal Tula, through three consecutive promotions and into the Russian Premier League, but in 2014-15 his side barely left the relegation spots. Journalists labeled Arsenal an attractive, attacking team, however they scored fewer goals than any other top-flight side. Alenichev was also remembered for a petulant incident: when a home fixture against CSKA Moscow was moved to Moscow because of the poor state of Arsenal’s pitch, he sent a reserve team to play. The ensuing defeat helped to ensure their relegation, and also gave CSKA a leg-up as they beat FC Krasnodar to the final Champions League spot.
Due to the importance of the Spartak spirit this situation has been overlooked – as have more experienced candidates. Kurban Berdyev, an astute tactician who helped his Rubin Kazan side beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou during the 2009-10 Champions League campaign, was available, as was up-and-coming Viktor Goncharenko, who at only 31 years old led BATE Borisov into the group stage of the same tournament. Instead Alenichev’s coaching team contains Titov – who has no experience – and another former Spartak player from the nineties, Dmitriy Ananko. Ananko at least previously had a coaching role, having worked with Alenichev at Arsenal and in Spartak’s youth set-up.
Spartak had success with appointing former players in the past; Oleg Romantsev, for example was a former club captain and legend, and as a coach also guided the club to eight of their nine post-Soviet titles. Such is his status that some believe he should return now to take a key role in Spartak’s front office, though this seems far-fetched; another legendary former Spartak player and manager, Georgiy Yartsev, is a more likely candidate. The last time Spartak recruited their manager from their own ranks was in 2009. Whilst Valeriy Karpin was able to lead a well-funded side to second place during his time as the manager, he ultimately failed to end Spartak’s championship drought.
Having tried and failed with several foreign managers in recent seasons, Alenichev represents a change in direction, as he is probably a good deal cheaper than another big European name. The coming season is likely to see more of the top flight belt-tightening that started last season – two sides, Lokomotiv Moscow and Mordovia, have already announced considerable budget cuts. The hope is that by hiring Alenichev, Spartak will also be able to introduce budget cuts.
There is probably not a better time for Alenichev to take on the role. Even without further transfers he has a decent side to pick from. Last season winger Quincy Promes caught the attention of many, including teams in Europe’s biggest leagues, and in goalkeeper Artem Rebrov it seems the club has finally found a decent number one. Roman Shirokov, returning from a loan spell after falling out with former Spartak coach Murat Yakin, may also be a player that Alenichev gets the best out of.
A Carte Blanche for Alenichev?
Spartak also has an excellent infrastructure in place as the club moved into the brand new Otkrytie Arena last summer. The arena is considered the best in Moscow, if not in Russia, and has already become a popular choice for Russia’s international matches. The club’s academy is also bearing fruit. Spartak-2, made up mainly of young academy products, won the Third Division West in 2014-15 with beautiful attacking football. Furthermore, impressive youngsters such as Vyacheslav Krotov and Denis Davydov also have been able to break into the first team.
One question that remains, however, is what role will club owner Leonid Fedun play next season? He has said that although he stepped down from chairing Spartak’s board of directors, he will continue to finance the club.
Unless things go wrong, for example if the club slips into the relegation battle, it should be expected that Alenichev would survive even a mid-table finish without being fired by the club next season. With a reduced budget to work with and a genuine love of the club (he was a Spartak fan before he played for them), it should also be expected that many up-and-coming Russian youngsters in the Spartak youth academy will get a chance to test themselves in the RPL.
In many ways the experiment at Spartak is reminiscent of the changes that their long term Soviet Vysshaia Liga rival Dynamo Kyiv brought in one season ago. Dynamo appointed a former player, Serhiy Rebrov, as manager in 2014 following a good spell as caretaker. Previously he’d only worked as an assistant in Dinamo’s structure, but in his first full season he won the Ukrainian league and cup double.
Even a third-place finish would be outstanding for Spartak in 2015-16, and will take a great deal of work. Dynamo’s return to the top of Ukrainian football could indeed serve as a great example for Spartak Moscow next season, and as a contemporary of his, perhaps Alenichev has Rebrov’s number.
Saul Pope has been following Russian football for twenty years. Since 2004 he has been a regular contributor to When Saturday Comes magazine, mainly on the economic, political and social aspects of Russian football. He is a fluent Russian speaker who lived and worked in St. Petersburg for several years.A Zenit St. Petersburg fan who first saw them live in 1998, his all-time favourite Zenit players are Aleksandr Panov and Aleksandr Spivak. He once saw Andrey Arshavin in a supermarket, but was too embarrassed to go and ask for an autograph. Follow Saul on Twitter @SaulPope.