Mircea Lucescu – Failure to Adapt Could Cost Zenit the Champions League

Mircea Lucescu – Failure to Adapt Could Cost Zenit the Champions League

Manuel Veth –

Spartak’s title was the major news story on Sunday and Monday. The Myaso finally sealed their first title when Zenit lost 1-0 to Terek Grozny on Sunday. But amidst the Spartak jubilations news, however, broke that Zenit head coach Mircea Lucescu could be on his way out this summer.

Brought in from Shakhtar Donetsk to replace André Villas-Boas last summer Mircea Lucescu was hailed as the exact coach Zenit needed to dethrone CSKA Moscow from the top of the table. Almost 12 months later Zenit not only have failed to win the Russian championship but are also in danger of missing out on the UEFA Champions League for the second season in a row.

Not reaching the Champions League last season was considered a major debacle by the Gazprom-owned club. Zenit needed the income generated by the Champions League to justify significant spending on the squad to the UEFA Financial Fair Play watchdogs.

Zenit need UEFA Champions League football

Selling Hulk last summer, and Axel Witsel, this winter to China, will appease UEFA to some extent when it comes to justifying Zenit’s wage bill. But in the long term, Zenit need to play in the Champions League on a regular basis. But this weekend’s defeat to Terek Grozny have left Zenit one point behind CSKA Moscow in third place of the Russian Football Premier League.

FC Zenit St. Petersburg head coach Mircea Lucescu looks on during the Russian Football League match between FC Zenit St. Petersburg and FC Rostov Rostov-on-Don at Petrovsky stadium on August 12, 2016 in St. Peterburg, Russia. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)

Zenit Saint Petersburg head coach Mircea Lucescu may have underestimated the RFPL. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)

With only the champion guaranteed a spot in the group stage, and the second placed team is having to go through two rounds of qualification finishing second would have already been seen as a disappointment among Zenit’s management. But now the reality could be a third place finish and another season in the UEFA Europa League.

It would be the worst-case scenario for Zenit, and would most certainly spell the end for Lucescu at the club. But in reality, Mircea Lucescu could be gone no matter what.

As discussed on a recent World Football Index – Futbolgrad Podcast Lucescu seems to have completely underestimated the strength of the Russian Football Premier League. Coming to the league from neighbouring Ukraine Lucescu must have believed that he could win an easy title with Zenit’s squad.

But the reality is that the RFPL has long surpassed the Ukrainian Premier League regarding quality—despite the fact that Russian football has undergone a severe financial crisis. Unlike Ukraine, Russia’s top flight is not a two horse race. Last season CSKA, Rostov, Zenit, Krasnodar, and Lokomotiv were all title contenders at one point or another.

Previously clubs like Rubin Kazan were also able to break into the very top of the league, and win titles. Then this season saw the resurgence of Spartak Moscow, who finally justified the wages spent by the club by winning the title.

Lucescu may have underestimated Russian Football

With this in mind, Mircea Lucescu should have come into his new job knowing that the Russian Football Premier League would provide a more complicated challenge than the Ukrainian Premier League. Lucescu perhaps realized this when he failed to get a win in the first two games of the season.

The image of Lucescu at the sidelines following the 0-0 draw against Ufa on matchday one is one of surprise. Could it be that Lucescu under appreciated this league? Perhaps he did, but he did very little to adjust to the new environment.

Lucescu, in fact, simply took the tactics he always used at Shakhtar, and attempted to have Zenit play in the same style. But except Giuliano, who did magnificently as a converted false nine, Zenit lacked the players to play Shakhtar’s high tempo style.

Shakhtar was always defined by the speed of the likes of Douglas Costa, Taison, Marlos, Bernard or Alex Teixeira. Zenit, however, does not possess players that allow for high tempo football on the wings. Lucescu converted Aleksandr Kokorin from a centre forward to a winger, and while the Russian made a big step in his development, he was not able to give Zenit the sort of speed needed for Lucescu’s system to succeed.

It has not been all fun and laughter for Mircea Lucescu at Zenit Saint Petersburg. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)

It has not been all fun and laughter for Mircea Lucescu at Zenit Saint Petersburg. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)

Another big story was the return of Danny. The club announced earlier in the spring that Artem Dzyuba would become the new captain because there was uncertainty over Danny’s fitness. Danny, however, managed to return to the squad and even played a significant role in playing regular minutes on the left-wing.

Danny’s performance was certainly important for morale, but his lack of speed makes him ill-suited to play Lucescu’s type of football. Lucescu, however, was adamant with his selection using the same 4-2-3-1 formation he always played with Shakhtar. Furthermore, the Romanian coach was quoted that he was strictly against the use of modern technology in football and that he was unwilling to adjust his tactical philosophy.

At this point, a change was needed, however. Zenit have by far the strongest, and deepest squad, in the league. But they were playing a tactical style that did not fit them. An experienced coach like Lucescu should be aware of this. But up to this point, he has refused to show tactical flexibility by having Zenit play a type of football that is based more on dominance rather than quick counter attack football.

Lucescu is now 71-years old, and with Zenit needing to redevelop their squad for next season it is perhaps time to bring in a younger more flexible coach.


Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, social media junior editor at Bundesliga.com, and podcaster for WorldFootballIndex.com. He is also a holder of 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 will be available in print 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 @ManuelVeth.