Manuel Veth –
There was still hope that Russia could avoid a disappointing result in the European Championships. Before the final Group B game versus Wales, Leonid Slutsky believed that his squad were the favourites, that they could defeat Wales and move on from the group stage.
Slutsky was also optimistic that his squad could stop Welsh superstar Gareth Bale. Speaking before the match Slutsky stated “Bale does like to roam into different areas of the pitch, so we’ll try to neutralise his threat zonally.”
Russia against Wales – Collective Failure
But 24 hours after his statement the only thing that Russia collectively accomplished was failure. The Sbornaya was weak in every aspect, and the defensive line, which was already identified as the weakest link in the squad before the match by Futbolgrad, was repeatedly overrun.
Before the match we believed that the Real Madrid winger could very well have a field day with Russia’s slow defenders, the 36-year-old Sergei Ignashevich and the 33-year-old Vasili Berezutski. But in fact it wasn’t just Bale who had a field day, but the entire Welsh attacking formation.
Welsh manager Chris Coleman had easily identified Russia’s sluggish defence as the biggest weakness of the Sbornaya. Hence, his decision to use a 5-4-1 formation, which turned into a 3-4-3 formation when going on the attack, and placed great emphasize on speed. Within eleven minutes Wales was up 1-0 when Joe Allen found the speedy Aaron Ramsey, who was able to score on a breakaway.
Nine minutes later and it was all over for Russia, as this time left-back Neil Taylor broke free on the left side and after failing with his first shot against Russia’s keeper Igor Akinfeev was able to score on his own rebound.
Russia Was Eliminated After 20 Minutes
The game was just 20 minutes old at this point, and Russia had effectively been eliminated from the tournament. Any attempt for the Sbornaya to get back into the match was easily brushed aside by the Dragons (as the Welsh national team is often called), who were fully in control of the match.
The stats underline that the Welsh were the better team, as the Dragons won 73% of the tackles, had 51% possession, and also had more shots on goal (19 to Russia’s twelve). The fact that the Welsh were dominant in the tackling department showed that Russia not only lacked speed, but also the determination to get something out of this match.
Following the defeat Slutsky announced that he would step down from his role as the manager of the national team. In a statement released by the Russian news agency TASS Slutsky said “I believe I failed to fulfil my duties, I believe that someone else should be training us [Russia] for the more important tournament (the 2018 World Cup).”
In fairness Slutsky did not have the necessary tools to build a squad that could be competitive enough to truly play a major role at the European Championships in France. At the same time one point—achieved in a 1-1 tie against England, which was a result that flattered the Sbornaya—out of three group stage matches is simply not enough.
Slutsky Has to Take Blame for Russia’s Euro 2016 Failure
Slutsky can, however, be blamed for two things. First, he showed very little appetite change his initial choice of defensive back four. The 28-year-old Roman Neustädter has plenty of Champions League and Europa League experience as a central defender. Instead Slutsky played him as a central midfielder against England and Slovakia, and Neustädter disappointed both times. Neustädter then wasn’t brought on in the last match. Hindsight is of course twenty-twenty, but Neustädter is far more mobile then either Berezutski or Ignashevich, a trait that could have helped against Wales.
Second: Slutsky failed to inspire his players to play their best game at the Euros. Russia needed four wins out of the last four matches to go to France, after Slutsky took over from former manager Fabio Capello in July 2015. He then surprised many by achieving just that as the Sbornaya won its last four qualification matches, and qualified directly for the tournament in France. Slutsky was praised for his pragmatic result oriented approach. Yet at the Euros this approach failed him, or perhaps he lacked the necessary creative spark.
Yet despite the failed result Slutsky may have been Russia’s best bet going forward to the 2018 World Cup on home soil. Slutsky had to decide between coaching CSKA Moscow or Russia after the tournament, and must have felt that Russia in its current state would not be competitive when the country hosts the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Hence, with just one year to go until the country hosts the Confederation Cup the Russian Football Union will have to find a new coach, who then has the near impossible task of putting together a team that can be competitive enough to play at least some role in both the Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup.
Who is to Blame For Russia’s Euro 2016 Failure
Meanwhile when asked who was to blame for the dire state of Russia’s football, only 6.3% of Sport-Express readers believed that Slutsky was to blame for the bad result at the Euros. Instead 39% of readers believed that the Russian football system was to blame for the poor result. Meanwhile 26.1% of readers believed that there were a variety of reasons for Russia’s group stage exit.
Vitaly Mutko, the president of the Russian Football Union, meanwhile stated that he hoped to convince Slutsky to remain the manager of the Sbornaya. Yet Mutko himself might soon come under pressure, as there have also been questions about the Sport Minister’s role in the doping scandal that has led to Russian athletes being banned from the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
On top of the doping scandal there have also been questions about Mutko’s handling the country’s hooligan problem, and while Mutko can’t be directly blamed for what happened in Marseille, his statements certainly haven’t helped the situation. Now the poor results of the Sbornaya are added to the lists of failings—his feeble attempts at reforms, and the introduction of stricter foreign limitation have done little to improve Russian football.
Russia will have to be careful when choosing the next manager for the Sbornaya, and in the current political climate it would not be surprising if Russia’s political elite decides that Mutko is not the man for that decision. Either way the Euros might be over for the Sbornaya, but the circus has just begun.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus