Russia After Euro 2016 – The Way Forward

Russia After Euro 2016 – The Way Forward

Manuel Veth –

It has now been four days since Russia was officially eliminated from Euro 2016 after a 3:0 defeat to Wales. Right after the final whistle, Russia’s manager, Leonid Slutsky, announced that he would no longer lead the Sbornaya (as Russia’s national team is often called).

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).”

Yet, Russia’s Sport Minister and President of the Russian Football Union, Vitaly Mutko, has since been adamant that Slutsky remains the right person to guide Russia to the 2018 World Cup, and has given Slutsky, who also coaches CSKA Moscow, time to reconsider his decision.

It is, however, likely that Slutsky will be steadfast in his decision to leave his position as coach of the national team. This has already led to speculation as to who could coach the Sbornaya for the World Cup.

Harry Redknapp: “Nobody Could Help the Sbornaya, not even Mourinho or Guardiola”

One thing is for certain, Mister X will have a mountain to climb, as the expectations for 2018 are enormous, and the country currently does not have a large enough talent pool to put together a team that could play a major role in two years time, let alone win the tournament.

Now, to add insult to injury, the former England manager hopeful, Harry Redknapp, has stated in an interview with Russia’s sports paper, Sport-Express, “Nobody could help the Sbornaya, not even [José] Mourinho or [Pep] Guardiola.” Upon seeing the tweet of the Sport-Express headline, Russia Today journalist and Futbolgrad writer Alexey Yaroshevsky then responded half jokingly on Twitter: “He probably added, ‘Only I can’”.

Harry Redknapp's interview with Sport-Express

Harry Redknapp’s interview with Sport-Express

Well Alexey, he pretty much did, as, when asked whether he would coach Russia, Redknapp answered, although admittedly with laughter: “Yes, tomorrow! No problem!” Now Russia fans, don’t hold your breath, as there is actually very little chance that Redknapp will be seen falling asleep on the Sbornaya’s bench anytime soon—although that sight would be a refreshing change from the close ups of the hyper nervous Leonid Slutsky.

Yet, in spite of the hollow statements, Redknapp did have some important points to make. For one, he believes that Russia doesn’t have enough time to build a team for 2018: “Oh, it is very difficult. Two years is too short a time. I’m afraid you will not have time to nurture a talented generation.”

When asked whether Russia could win the World Cup, an achievement that has often been demanded by the country’s sport officials, Redknapp responded, “Absolutely no chance.  Your team failed to come out of a group with Slovakia and Wales. So how can one talk about a victory at the World Cup? I’m afraid that it will be hard to survive the group stage if Russia plays the same way as in France. You need a lot of change. You are in big trouble.”

Redknapp might not always get his transfers right, but his statements about the Sbornaya are bang on. In fact, finding a new coach is just one of many problems the country will have to solve before the 2018 World Cup.

Germany in 2004 Could Serve as a Positive Example

Yet, there is a sliver of hope. In 2004, Germany had one of their poorest European Championship results of all time. The country—placed in a group with the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Latvia—managed just two points, a 0-0 draw against Lativa and a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands, and finished the group stage in third place.

Following the disaster at the 2004 Euros in Portugal, Germany’s manager, Rudi Völler, resigned, and was eventually replaced by Jürgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann started a rollercoaster of experiments and he bloodied several young German players on the path to the tournament.

Jürgen Klinsmann's Germany could serve as an example - Image by Steindy

Jürgen Klinsmann’s Germany could serve as an example – Image by Steindy

One year later, the country managed a third place finish at the 2005 Confederations Cup. In the one year after their failure at the Euros, Klinsmann tested several younger players and gave them valuable experience at the Confederations Cup. The Confederations Cup was especially important because it provided Germany with their last chance at competitive football before the 2006 World Cup, as the country did not have to play qualification games.

Now the major question is, whether Russia can take something from Germany’s recovery story. Indeed, there are some parallels between the German and the Russian experiences, but there are also some major differences.

Sbornaya – Lack of Talents is a Myth

Those who suggest that there are absolutely no talents currently in the Russian game, should be reminded that Russia’s U-17 won the 2013 European Youth Championships, and in 2015 the core of the U-17, which now played at the U-19 level, finished second at the 2015 U-19 European Championships.

The problem has been that many of the players of that squad have had difficulty finding regular football in the Russian Football Premier League. The highly talented keeper, Anton Mitryushkin, for example, had to go abroad to Switzerland, in order to establish himself as a regular number one—he now plays for FC Sion in the Swiss Super League.

Others, however, have not been so fortunate. The talented Zenit Saint Petersburg striker Ramil Sheydayev, for example, has had a hard time breaking into Zenit Saint Petersburg’s first team squad. He briefly went out on loan to Rubin Kazan in the first half of the 2015-16 season, but was returned to Zenit after he failed to gain valuable first team minutes. Sheydayev played the second half of the 2015-16 season with Zenit-2 in the Football National League (second division) where he recorded ten goals in 13 matches. But Sheydayev needs to play first team football, and he might have to leave Zenit to do so.

It also has to be noted that the above is not even Russia’s biggest problem. Both Artem Dzyuba, and Fedor Smolov play regularly for their clubs in the league and in Europe. Smolov also won the top scoring title last season.

The Biggest Problem is in Defence

In fact, Russia’s biggest problems were in defence, which brings us back to Redknapp’s comments. He stated, “The Russian team is a very old team, in particular in defence. There the players move slowly. Against Wales it was particularly noticeable.” Once again, Redknapp has a point, for Russia’s combined defense by the 36-year-old Sergei Ignashevich and the 33-year-old Vasili Berezutski have a combined age of almost 70 years.

Indeed, Russia’s central defence could be their biggest problem going forward, as there aren’t many talents available. Russia’s best defender at the U-19 tournament was Denis Yakuba from Kuban Krasnodar, who was voted into the team of the tournament at the U-19 European Championships. The problem, however, is that Yakuba mostly plays as a midfielder for his club.

The talented defender Nikita Chernov, who was called up by former Russian national team coach, Fabio Capello, without ever having played in the Russian Football Premier League, plays for Slutsky’s club team CSKA Moscow and, after not receiving playing time at the club, was loaned out to the FNL team Baltika Kaliningrad.

Russia's defender Sergey Ignashevich lacked the necessary speed for a top class defender - Image Manfred Werner - Tsui cc-by-sa3.0

Russia’s defender Sergey Ignashevich lacked the necessary speed for a top class defender – Image Manfred Werner – Tsui cc-by-sa3.0

The Chernov story, in particular, highlights a major problem—Slutsky relied on the above-mentioned Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski, or his twin brother Aleksei, in CSKA Moscow’s defense. In other words, not even the national team coach would give youth players at the club level a chance to play.

From this point forward, there needs to be a cultural change in Russian football, not just at the national team level, to give young players an opportunity to play for the first team. This is exactly what happened in Germany following the disastrous 2000 and 2004 European Championships. In Germany, clubs made use of the excellent work done at the academy level, to field a new generation of young and gifted players.

Russian clubs already have these academies in place, as recent articles on Futbolgrad highlight (more on that here and here), the goal now has to be to give the products of these academies time to play regularly.

Foreign Limitation Rule Doesn’t Solve the Problem

Those who believe that this can be achieved by tightening the foreign limitation rule, however, might be on the wrong path. In the case of Germany, such a rule didn’t exist. Instead, clubs realized that they were sitting on a money making machine—that the highly talented players who were produced all over the country could be turned into financial profit. The Bundesliga now has the highest financial profit margins in European football, something the Russian Football Premier League could copy, especially at a time when Russia’s economy is questionable at best.

Finally, Russia will need a new coach who can work to mobilize Russia’s football in a similar way that Jürgen Klinsmann did for German football after 2004. Ultimately, Klinsmann introduced many structures at the German Football Federation (DFB) that, in the long run, helped the country to identify talented players throughout the nation.

Gazzaev - The Great Reformer

Gazzaev – The Great Reformer

Klinsmann is currently doing something similar in the United States, and will therefore be unavailable for such a project. Some in Russia’s media have suggested bringing back Guus Hiddink, but is doubtful whether the 69-year-old possesses the long term vision for such a project. Other names suggested are Kurban Berdyev, Stanislav Cherchesov, and Valery Gazzaev.

Of the above three names, only Gazzaev has been an outspoken reformer. But his recent reform ideas have ranged from bringing back the Soviet Vysshaya Liga to completely restructuring the Russian league structure. Both ideas are superficial at best, and it remains to be seen whether Gazzaev really has the vision and political backing from the league and the Russian Football Union, to bring in the necessary changes to Russian football.

Indeed, a better solution would be to appoint someone who is young, but who also carries the necessary pedigree of having played international football successfully. It is difficult to say who this person could be, or if the RFU even wants to appoint such a person, but one thing is certain—Harry Redknapp can’t be that man.

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