Saul Pope –
A few months ago we were wondering whether Anton Zabolotny was going to the World Cup with Russia, saying manager Stanislav Cherchesov needed to go and crossing our fingers that the team would get out of the group.Since then – and following just a few football matches – things have moved on for the Sbornaya.
The prospects of Russia’s national team look brighter than for a decade, and the coming year promises intrigue rather than the usual combination of annoyance followed by disappointment.
There are some reasons why you should stay tuned if the World Cup has got you interested in Russia’s national team:
Футбол возвращался домой
If you don’t read Cyrillic, the title it means ‘football’s come home’ (if your home is Russia, that is). For years Russians have been joking about their national team on social media, amongst friends and on mainstream television – the general assumption was that they just weren’t very good at football. A good showing at Euro 2008 lanced this pessimism for a time, but it quickly crept back.
The decent performance at the World Cup has shifted the mentality – the tournament win over the Netherlands a decade ago was not a blip after all. The optimism of memory is walking alongside Russian fans in the present; hopefully, the national team will benefit from having a public that is right there with it.
There is genuine competition for places in this Sbornaya side
It might not seem like it if you focus on defender Sergey Ignashevich’s recent and sudden return to the fold at the age of 38, but please hear me out.
Imagine that for the recent quarterfinal game against Croatia, all the starting eleven had been injured, but all the other players eligible for Russia has been fit. That would mean that instead of:
The side that started (using the same formation) could have looked like this:
In some areas yes, it’s a weaker team – but in other aspects, it is equal or arguably stronger. Would Ignashevich have returned to the national team had either of Dzhikiya or Vasin been fit? Probably not. Is Kokorin more dynamic up front than Dzyuba? He has less of a personality, but at his best, he offers more to the game. Is a fit and in-form Dzagoev a better option than the mercurial Cheryshev, who has scored some wonderful goals but also spent periods at the World Cup being very quiet? It’s difficult to complain about either starting the game.
We haven’t even got into whether the gritty and reliable Lunyov should replace Akinfeev in goal, why Konstantin Rausch – even with a niggling injury – should have made the squad, or the recent form of CSKA Moscow forward Fedor Chalov (who should have been there in my opinion). There is a sense that there are 25 or so current players who could do a good job for the national team – and it doesn’t usually feel like that.
It’s been a few years since Andrey Arshavin started well then put himself out to pasture at Arsenal; Yuriy Zhirkov and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov soon followed him to England and kind of did a good job, but since then it’s been fairly quiet regarding top Russian players going abroad to ‘big’ leagues.
Denis Cheryshev has been in Spain for his entire career – hopefully, a spell of injury-free football in 2018-19 will see him move to another level. Now, though, there is the talk of several other World Cup squad members moving abroad.
Artem Dzyuba has been linked with Cardiff City – he’ll suit the English Premier League game well, as long as he learns when not to wear his heart on his sleeve for daws to peck at (the full Shakespeare phrase seems very apt to modern football, and to Dzyuba’s personality).
Aleksandr Golovin has been linked with so many English and Italian clubs that fans in Russia are growing impatient – most want him to make a move and do well. As well as the football talent, Golovin seems to have the focus on not falling foul of stardom or getting distracted by media attention – if the decision to quit a live television interview he didn’t seem to like much is a useful yardstick.
For a long time forward Fedor Smolov has also been the subject of transfer rumours, with England the most likely destination. His stock has likely declined with an indifferent World Cup and a patchy Russian Premier League season, but if things start well in 2018/19, he could still leave in the winter.
From reading comments on sports’ websites, it seems that for many Russian fans a player moving abroad and making an impact would be the cherry on the cake of a successful World Cup. And, if this happens, it will increase fans’ pride at home as well as have a knock-on effect on the national team.
Cherchesov – will he last?
In the build-up to the tournament, there was little doubt amongst fans that the main problem with Russia’s national team was its manager. A dismal build-up in which Russia won only one of their last ten warm-up games exacerbated things.
I tried to tell people that these were only friendly matches, but only about 10% listened to me. Most still felt he had to go. Then came commanding World Cup wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt for the Sbornaya and the well-thought-through tactics against Spain, which could have worked out even better had Ignashevich not made a silly and uncharacteristic positioning error early on.
Cherchesov, therefore, got three crucial games tactically spot on, made some errors in an Uruguay game that was pretty much a dead rubber, then was unlucky against Croatia (but made intelligent substitutions). He has turned from a scapegoat into someone that people will make street art from – and repaint it when the original is covered over.
But was it down to him? His club managerial record is OK but not proof of great pedigree: a Polish league and cup double, and reasonable Russian league finishes with Dynamo and Spartak Moscow. A moment ago I said that Cherchesov was tactically spot on, but actually how much of the good and great performances were down to his work? Were the players galvanised by the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in a World Cup at home, and spurred on by the motivational interventions of Artem Dzyuba rather than the manager?
Maybe nobody knows the answer to that question right now – but the next six months or so will make for interesting viewing as we make up our minds.
Saul Pope has been following Russian football since the mid-nineties, and first saw a live game in 1998 (Zenit St. Petersburg vs Shinnik Yaroslavl’). He has been contributing to When Saturday Comes magazine for over a decade, with a particular focus on social, economic and political issues surrounding the game in Russia and, to a lesser extent, Ukraine. He has a particular passion for teams in and around St. Petersburg. A fluent Russian speaker, he graduated from the University of Surrey with a Master’s degree in the language. He lives in the UK, but travels back to Russia on a regular basis. You can follow Saul on Twitter @SaulPope.