Andrew Flint –
After three years without Champions League football, Zenit St. Petersburg have returned to the top table with a bang with the record-equalling transfer of Brazilian winger Malcom. A €40 million deal has been signed with Barcelona, propelling the Brazilian to prominence once again.
The pressures on achieving success in Russia’s second city are immense, but as the 22-year-old winger strolled down by the Neva River on Thursday evening ahead of his announcement, a sense of redemption seeped through his demeanour. A tumultuous year has completely changed his perspective. For all the myriad of factors, simply feeling wanted again is a huge boost.
Malcom in the Middle
The transfer has taken Russian football by surprise for a number of reasons. The price tag equals the fee paid for Hulk and Axel Witsel a few years ago and signals a change in policy from the board of directors. Twelve months ago, Gazprom CEO and Zenit’s chairman of the board of directors Aleksei Miller had intimated that the football club had to start becoming more self-sufficient.
Now it seems the upcoming influx of TV and prize money that the Champions League group stages offer has emboldened the transfer policy to spread its wings once more. One key difference between this transfer and the previous record signings is that they were at least to some degree already proven over a few seasons as regular Champions League competitors. Malcom has endured a ghost season that has stalled his explosive progress somewhat, and yet Zenit have committed a relatively hug outlay to secure his services.
On a purely footballing front, there is also some confusion about Malcom’s arrival. As a wide attacker, his position is already very well-stocked at Zenit. Sebastian Driussi had a fruitful season scoring 11 goals, the highest tally as a Zenit player. Miller himself intervened to ensure Zenit would muscle Rubin Kazan off the capture of eight-goal Aleksei Sutormin. Add in the returning Emiliano Rigoni, Robert Mak and Oleg Shatov, and you find five players already competing for two places.
Malcom finds himself at the centre of a storm that could explode in either direction. Purported changes to the foreigner’s rule means clubs must soon have no more than eight foreigners on their books; Zenit now have 14. His arrival alone will spark considerable upheaval in the Zenit squad.
The prestige, reputation and expectation already on his shoulders are enough to burden a lesser man. At a relatively tender age, though, he has already taken in two continents, four countries and over €80 million in transfer fees.
Last summer he was one of Europe’s most in-demand talents after a stunning season at Bordeaux, leading to a bid from AS Roma. Agreements were made between the two clubs, a medical was arranged, and yet hours before Malcom was due to be presented he was unveiled as a Barcelona player.
“Of course the manner in which he was acquired was a little messed up, and it made Barcelona’s interest a bit questionable,” explained Total Football Analysis’ leading FC Barcelona analyst Domagoj Kostanjšak. “ If we add the inclusion of [Ousmane] Dembélé just before Malcom – they both play in the same position of course…”
The scarce minutes given by head coach Ernesto Valverde suggests that the signing was driven by the board. Lionel Messi and Luís Suárez picked themselves when fit, leaving Dembélé and Phillipe Coutinho to contest the left-wing position. Even when the latter two were unfit or out of form, Malcom was left out in the cold. “Valverde would rather shift the whole formation – for example from the 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 – and then shift Carles Aleñá or Sergi Roberto to the wing.
“The problem runs deeper than that, though. The coach never actually wanted this transfer to happen, or at least that’s the narrative we’re being fed. It was all the board: they saw something in Malcom, but Valverde didn’t believe he fit the system.”
It wasn’t only the Catalan giant’s executive branch who perhaps didn’t quite have the player’s best interests at heart. His agent Leonardo Cornacini was quoted by Tuttomercatoweb as saying the U-turn was an act of “revenge” for Roma dealing with another agent to sign Cornacini’s client Daniel Fuzato. Given that the agent’s cut for the Fuzato transfer was less than 2% of the cut he negotiated with Barcelona, the petty priorities become clear.
I would like to think that Barcelona saw a very talented player who was very young. They saw time; they saw perspective, they saw determination. He was a truly beautiful player back in France, so I think the interest stemmed from there.”
Zenit’s new star
There was no question the potential was there. In his final season in Ligue 1, Malcom averaged 2.7 dribbles per game, 2.5 key passes per game and 82.4% pass accuracy, which Kostanjšak claims gives an idea of the type of player Zenit are getting. “He has this great passing range and a great tendency to set up his teammates with through-balls, long balls, over the top…
In theory, the raw mechanics of his style and ability seem ideally suited to Zenit. The midfield has lacked a little creative spark, so if he can produce moments that instigate momentum and create chances, he will feed what is already the most potent attack in Russia. The question is how his introduction will affect the system that Sergey Semak goes with.
“I definitely think he’s better suited to a more fluid 4-3-3 system because he likes to start deep and wide, and then cut inside into the half-spaces and then position himself almost as a no.10 or behind the striker. He likes to have freedom; that’s the thing about Malcom, he likes to be the one that sets up the play.”
Since Sardar Azmoun’s arrival in January Zenit have flitted between those two formations, but more often than not to accommodate both Azmoun and Artem Dzyuba. Dzyuba has made no secret of the fact that he wants to have a shot at playing in England where his playing style could certainly be accommodated by teams that value a strong target man. His agent Jorge Mendes is extremely active in the English Premier League – most notably at Wolves where he has ushered in a raft of thrilling signings in the Midlands – and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine such a move materialising at some point.
Zenit will be very reluctant to let one of their three strikers leave ahead of a return to Champions League football though, which leaves a quandary of how to juggle the burgeoning array of attacking talent. At his price tag is inconceivable that Malcom will be anything other than a guaranteed starter, so moulding the team around him could have a butterfly effect elsewhere with the system and players chosen within it.
“I don’t think a 4-4-2 suits him per se, but I don’t think it would limit him too much as you could still use Malcom as a wide midfielder as long as he has the freedom to roam. I think with the two Zenit strikers it could work well as with their finishing and his distribution.”
Surviving the pressure
The last big-name, big-money signing in St. Petersburg, Leandro Paredes, was not used in a way that allowed him to flourish. Roberto Mancini often set his Zenit side in 2017/18 with a strong emphasis on width, at times bypassing the exceptional vision and passing talent of Paredes. Thankfully for Malcom, Semak has shown enough humility and awareness to adapt his team to at least try to get the most out of his best players.
Even with the mental or tactical support of his manager, though, he will need a strong mind above all else if he is to step up and justify his fee. This is one area where he can confidently claim to be in control, according to Kostanjšak.
“I think he has quite a tough mentality and he worked tremendously hard to enter the [Barcelona] squad. If I had to emphasise one thing about Malcom other than his footballing ability, it would say that he has the right mentality. He always worked hard, always pushed, he was always selfless, always giving 100%.
“I don’t think he has changed as a player much, but I do think he has matured in a way. His Barcelona career – if you call it that at all – was knocked back from day one. He was playing catch-up ever since he joined. He learned a lot by never giving up and become mentally strong.”
It would have been all too easy to fade into the background at the Camp Nou and sulk until an escape came. On the rare moments he was given to shine, the fact he invariably took his chances speaks volumes. “He’s a clutch player; he doesn’t shy away from the big games like against Inter in the Champions League, against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey.
This trip to Russia could also be a springboard for him because he’s a talented player and I don’t see him ending his career in Russia. He has the potential to move to a top league and be a top player in the future. I also think Zenit could look to turn a nice profit, as young players just don’t come cheaply.”
It is highly unlikely that Zenit expect this to be a long-term investment. The only player of Latin American origin to thrive for more than three or four years in St. Petersburg was Danny, and with the ever-inflating transfer market, Malcom’s value could skyrocket if the right clubs become interested after a successful season or two. First, though, he has a huge job to do in St. Petersburg.
Many thanks to Domagoj Kostanjšak, a senior analyst at Total Football Analysis specialising in Barcelona, for his insight.
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.