Manuel Veth –
The race to the winter break in the Russian Football Premier League is over. Due to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, the majority of the season was played before the winter break with every club playing 20 out of the 30 games from July to December. Many expected that Zenit, coached by Roberto Mancini would walk away with the title, but going into the break Zenit are eight points behind leaders Lokomotiv Moscow, and it is therefore not surprising that the club already reacted on the transfer market signing forward Anton Zabolotnyi.
Официально: Антон Заболотный продолжит карьеру в «Зените»!
— ФК «Зенит» (@zenit_spb) December 12, 2017
It is a consequential transfer for Zenit, who as a club have embarked on a strategy to combine the best local players with stars signed from abroad. Zenit rebuild the squad during the summer signing five Argentines, Emanuel Mammana, Leandro Paredes, Matías Kranevitter, Emiliano Rigoni as well as Sebastían Driussi and Russian national team stars Aleksandr Erokhin and Dmitri Poloz.
The signings also came with a restructuring of Zenit’s tactics. Roberto Mancini prefers a more cultivated style of play in a dynamic 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation with a mobile forward line. Aleksandr Kokorin was therefore moved from the wing to the centre, and the national team forward responded scoring ten goals in the first 20 games.
Anton Zabolotnyi’s Arrival Could Spell the End for Dzyuba
Changing the tactical foundation of the team means that Kokorin and Driussi are now the preferred forwards in Mancini’s system. Both can play on the wing and in the centre and are more dynamic than hulking forward Artem Dzyuba. Dzyuba, for a long time the number one choice up front for Russia, struggled to gain playing time under Mancini.
With the likes of Lokomotiv Moscow, CSKA Moscow and several clubs from abroad—mainly Turkey—interested in Dzyuba it now appears that the striker is on his way out at Zenit. The signing of Zabolotnyi, in fact, indicates that Mancini seems more than happy to let Dzyuba depart for greener pastures.
Zabolotnyi in the meantime has impressed playing for promoted Tosno this season. Playing for the club that currently is playing its home games at Zenit’s old home ground the Petrovsky Stadium Zabolotnyi managed four goals and two assists. It is a decent turn out for a striker playing for a side currently struggling against relegation in a league known to produce low scoring rates by strikers in the first place.
Anton Zabolotnyi and the World Cup Dream
The 26-year-old forward from Lipetsk even earned a call-up to the Sbornaya in October. After playing ten minutes against South Korea on October 10, two more games against Iran and Argentina followed in October and November. The striker is undoubtedly among the candidates that could make the World Cup squad next summer, but whether a move to Zenit will hurt or help him remains to be seen.
Moving from Tosno to Zenit indeed constitutes a big payday for a journeyman striker, who played for the likes of Ural, Volgar-Gazprom Ufa, Fakel Voronezh, Dynamo Bryansk before finally gaining promotion with Tosno to the Russian Football Premier League. A product of the CSKA Moscow youth academy there were always signs of talent, but as it is often the case with young talent in Russia, many coaches in the top flight are somewhat reluctant to give playing time to prospects.
Playing time will now be the big issue for Zabolotnyi. Although Dzyuba can be expected to leave the club, to find more playing time and nail down the spot in the World Cup squad, Zabolotnyi will still compete with Kokorin, Poloz and Driussi for the central role up front. Signed for €1.5 million Zabolotnyi is a bargain for Zenit and a gamble that in the worst case will provide Mancini with another backup up front. As for Zabolotnyi not playing significant minutes could also mean an end to his World Cup dream.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and social media editor at Bundesliga.com. He holds 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.