Manuel Veth –
Lokomotiv Moscow have finally done it and wrapped up their first Russian championship since 2004. With the Russian championship settled it is time to take a look back on Lokomotiv’s season and recapitulate in what is, after all, an unlikely championship year for the Railwaymen.
Lokomotiv’s championship highlights the unpredictable nature of Russian football
Lokomotiv’s championship means that for the fourth year in a row Russia will see a different champion with Zenit having won it in 2015, CSKA Moscow in 2016 and Spartak Moscow in 2017. Unlike most leagues in Europe Russian football, therefore, remains a competition in which it is difficult to pick the champion ahead of the season.
Going back ten years five different clubs have won the competition – Rubin Kazan, Zenit, CSKA Moscow and Lokomotiv. Furthermore, the title race has always been a close affair with Zenit being the most dominant club in the extended 2011-12 season winning the championship with a 13-point gap over second-placed Spartak Moscow.
Lokomotiv Moscow championship are not a flashy champion
While the likes of Zenit St. Petersburg have spent big to challenge for the title Lokomotiv have been conservative on the transfer market. Managed by Yuri Semin the club has spent just €4.25 million on new signings this season.
The likes of Solomon Kvirkvelia, Jefferson Farfan, Manuel Fernandes and Éder, who scored the championship-winning goal against Zenit on Saturday, were all signed for relatively little money after their previous clubs discarded them.
Semin then forged those players into a unit combining them with local talents like the Miranchuk brothers Anton and Aleksey as well as controversial Russians Igor Denisov and Dmitri Tarasov.
Lokomotiv are the biggest Cinderella story since FC Rostov
In some ways, this Lokomotiv side was a more talented version of FC Rostov, who came within a few minutes to win the title two seasons ago. In constant conflict with the club’s leadership, in particular president Ilya Gerkus, Semin managed to unify the team behind him and head from positive result to positive result until finally wrapping up the title.
That sort of spirit was also evident with FC Rostov where Kurban Berdyev unified the team behind himself after the squad was not paid wages for months. The situation is, of course, a bit different at Lokomotiv – where the friction is a result of philosophical differences – but the result has been the same, or better, with Lokomotiv storming all the way to the title.
Semin highlights that “old manager” methods still work
Jupp Heynckes with Bayern, Kurban Berdyev with Rostov two years ago and now Yuri Semin with Lokomotiv this season. Much like the 72-year-old Heynckes at Bayern the 70-year-old Semin at Lokomotiv has highlighted that experience in football matters and that despite the hype of the laptop coaches there is still room for experienced managers.
Much like Heynckes at Bayern Semin has focused on the fundamental aspects of the game. The 70-year-old was flexible in his tactical approach varying between 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1 while at the same time focusing on the basics when it comes to playing football.
His experience on and off the pitch also allowed him to build a special bond with his players and to guide Lokomotiv to the unlikeliest of all titles during a season where most observers expected the flashy Roberto Mancini to win it with Zenit, or Spartak to defend it with tactical astute Massimo Carrera at its helm.
Lokomotiv Moscow like Spartak Moscow end the championship drought
Last season Spartak Moscow ended their 16-year championship drought by winning the title. Spartak had previously dominated Russian football winning the title nine times in the first ten seasons since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ironically, it was Lokomotiv Moscow, who ended Spartak’s dominance by winning the title in 2002. It was Lokomotiv’s first national championship, and the club would add another title in 2004.
How did Loko do it? The club was aided by the significant investment by the Russian Railways (RŽD), which was the first Russian state organisation to invest money into football significantly. But by the time Lokomotiv had won their second title in 2004 other organisations also started to spend making it harder for the club to compete despite significant investments by RŽD.
The financial downturn of the country, however, meant that in recent years most clubs had to cut costs, including Lokomotiv – as UEFA investigated RŽD’s investments. Ironically, the downturn has created an environment in which all clubs in the country, with the exception of Zenit, had to cut costs opening the door for a more competitive league and for Lokomotiv to win a title again finally.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.