Saul Pope –
During the Russian Premier League’s winter break, I wrote an end-of-term report on Zenit St. Petersburg’s performance. The main message was this – good term overall but must try harder during the spring. Here’s my end-of-year report:
Zenit – Overall league / European performance: A-
In my winter piece, I graded Zenit B+: a good European performance, but a healthy league lead had turned into a fragile one. Zenit didn’t look back after the winter break. Some great signings (see below) helped them take 30 points out of the remaining 39.
Having said that, the league competition was not great: CSKA and Spartak Moscow were rebuilding previously successful sides, and the current Lokomotiv Moscow perhaps reached a high water mark a year earlier. The Krasnodar project is moving along well but is yet to show it can compete with a super-rich side (sadly). It remains to be seen whether there is stiffer competition next season, but there is no immediate sense that much will change.
In Europe, Zenit fell when faced with their first genuinely tough opponent (Villarreal, 5-2 on aggregate). An ageing back line, in particular, will need to be revamped if they are to make a dent in the Champions League in 2019-20: optimistic fans will be hoping for a last eight appearance, which seems improbable with the current squad.
New signings: A+
Semak had little time last summer to improve his squad but used the winter break wisely. Rather than bring in a lot of players that added little to the squad – a pitfall his predecessors slipped down – Semak targeted signings carefully and focused carefully on quality. With nine goals in twelve league games, the signing of Sardar Azmoun was a master stroke – the player slotted in immediately. He not only filled the hole left by Aleksandr Kokorin’s imprisonment but complemented Zenit’s attacking game better than the sometimes pedestrian Kokorin did.
In defence, the signing of Ukrainian Yaroslav Rakitskiy proved controversial, though he has added plenty of mettle to a sometimes brittle defence. Rakitskiy also possesses a superb left foot – his stunning free kicks mean that the odd defensive error can be forgiven.
A final key signing has been midfielder Wilmar Barrios. Barrios looked a little shaky in his first few games but has since adapted well. He looks set to become the player that Semak’s other big signing – the injury-prone is Claudio Marchisio – will unlikely become.
There can be few quibbles with a squad that has more or less achieved what it set out to do. However, that doesn’t make it good enough to take things up to level in 2019-20 – Zenit would likely fall short of a good Champions League run (and possibly defending their title) with this current squad.
Defence is particularly worrying: veterans Branislav Ivanovic, Aleksandr Anyukov and Yuriy Zhirkov all continued to fade slowly (though Anyukov is, according to recent reports, set to get a new contract). Elsewhere in defence, Luis Neto – a player whose time at Zenit will be remembered mainly for his errors – got a considerable amount of playing time. There will be need to be another signing of the quality of Rakitskiy over the summer. Goalkeeper Andrei Lunyov, though competent, was not as commanding as in the past – perhaps some decent competition would spur him on.
Elsewhere, things do not look too bad – in midfield there is a plethora of good, if not great, players to choose from. In attack, the signing of Azmoun changed things for the better – though options are still fairly limited. The recent media story linking Artem Dzyuba to Wolverhampton Wanderers seems far-fetched (the last opportunity for his big move abroad was surely a year or so ago). Were he to move for a fairly modest transfer fee, Zenit would need a quality new signing for a similarly modest fee – Anton Zabolotniy is not an adequate understudy in the attack, and Aleksandr Kokorin, due for release from prison at the end of the year, will not be the player he was.
Youth development: C
Here I graded Zenit C- during the winter break: it has been many years since a Zenit youth graduate established himself in the first team, despite plentiful resources including reserve team Zenit-2. In recent seasons they have played in the competitive second tier Football National League.
Zenit-2 midfielder Leon Musayev got a small amount of time in the Zenit first team later in the season which may bode well for his future, but on the other hand there have been numerous youngsters who’ve done the same and got no further. Zenit-2 themselves had a poor season in the FNL – they were all but mathematically relegated by the winter break. An underused resource, they are now set to play in Russia’s third tier – meaning the route to the first team from Zenit-2 has got a little harder.
The new signings brought in by Semak – particularly Azmoun – allowed for a change in formation from the 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2 which had often seen players such as Anyukov or Robert Mak played out of position. Azmoun’s arrival made a 4-4-2 possible: Dzyuba was alongside a forward who complemented his playing style well, and there was no need to tinker with the defence and midfield to try and find him the right support.
However, against their toughest opponent of the season – Villarreal – Zenit were well beaten. They looked a little timid, even in the home leg, and as a result, were effectively out of the Europa League even before they travelled to Spain for the return. Of course, it would be wrong to over-focus on one tie – the stunning home wins against Dinamo Minsk, and Fenerbahce were tactically spot on – though fans will be looking for a side that can at least tactically match the European light-heavyweights in 2019/20.
Overall grade: A-
The Premier League was relatively weak in 2019/20, but you can only beat the opponents put in front of you – Zenit generally did this, especially once Semak had made his mark with some excellent signings. The season’s main disappointment was the Europa League – serious progress in Europe looks likely to be a significant challenge next year too.
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.