Manuel Veth –
Last week’s topic on the Futbolgrad Podcast was the impact of chess on the creation of the magical number 10 in Soviet and post-Soviet game. As pointed out in the podcast there seems to be indeed a link between chess and the invention of post-Soviet and Soviet playmakers like Fedor Cherenkov, David Kipiani, Leonid Buryak, Khoren Oganesian, Igor Dobrovolskiy, Yuri Gavrilov, Oleksandr Zavarov, Aleksandr Mostovoi, Andrei Kanchelskis, Andrey Arshavin and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The above-mentioned players would often be the centre-point of exciting Soviet and post-Soviet club sides. Some of them would even play an essential role for the Soviet national team and later Russia. Now with the World Cup approaching and Russia struggling to put together a team that could be competitive when the country welcomes the world to football’s biggest stage I have been wondering what do Russia truly lack?
That thought had me go back to 2008 where the Sbornaya was the best team to watch at the UEFA Euro 2008 hosted by Austria and Switzerland. Coached by the brilliant Guus Hiddink, Russia reached the semifinal against Spain after two group stage victories against Greece and Sweden and a brilliant extra time effort against the Netherlands.
Remembering 2008 and Andrey Arshavin as the Magical Number 10
The side included several excellent players that were previously unheard off by anyone who did not seriously follow the Russian game. The likes of Roman Pavlyuchenko, Yuri Zhirkov, Dmitri Torbinski, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, and Konstantin Zyryanov all became household names overnight. A playmaker inspired the fast tactical disciplined and athletically strong side by the name of Andrey Arshavin, who used this tournament to emerge as one of the biggest stars on the continent.
Together they played like the Dutch team off old breathless end-to-end football with players interchanging positions at will. It was football from another century and Russia fueled by oil and gas seemed to have entered the world stage of football. With the failure to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, as well as shameful group stage at the 2012 Euros, 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euros all of this seems a long time ago. In truth, the Sbornaya from 2008 never indeed fulfilled its promise—although they came close when they dominated Germany at the home game during the 2010 World Cup qualification stage, but ultimately failed to beat goalkeeper René Adler succumbing to a 1-0 defeat at the Luzhniki.
When looking at the side nowadays one almost hopes to find the sort of inspiration that a relative unknown Andrey Arshavin provided the Sbornaya in 2008. In fact, a magical number 10 might be precisely the sort of thing this team needs in order to avoid disaster at the World Cup next summer. The question, however, is does Russia possess that kind of player—a star unknown to the world, who could come out of nowhere to use this stage to make a name for himself not unlike the legendary Roger Milla.
Some of course might point out that Arshavin never completely fulfilled his promise when signing for Arsenal in 2009. Playing in North London from 2009 to 2013 the attacking midfielder managed 105 games and 23 goals and on ocassion showed fans at the Emirates the skills that made him such a hot prospect after the 2008 Euros. Never completely fulfilling your promise though is almost part of the requirement when it comes to a magical number 10. Players like Arshavin produce a moment of genious that leaves onlookers wanting for more on a consistent basis without ever being satisfied.
Dzagoev and Miranchuk are Obvious Candidates
At a short tournament, those magical moments can be enough, however, making the difference between silverware and tears. The question is, do Russia have a magical number 10 for those moments at the moment?
There are some obvious candidates of course for the job. Alan Dzagoev, the enigmatic CSKA Moscow playmaker, is perhaps the most obvious one. The boy from Beslan is maybe the most talented Russian player in the current squad. Originally from the Caucasus Dzagoev possesses the sort of skills that one can often find in players from that region. In some ways, he is a bit like Henrikh Mkhitaryan or to go further back David Kipiani and Khoren Oganesian. Teams and players are often associated with South American flair, and during the time of the Soviet Union, Dinamo Tbilisi was even called the Uruguayans, because of their blue shirts and their South American playing style.
Dzagoev has certainly the skillset to dazzle the world during the World Cup. Unfortunately, he is also enigmatic and prone to injuries. Should he be fit, however, he can certainly become that magical number 10 for Russia.
Dzagoev, however, is not the only candidate to become Russia’s magical number 10. Lokomotiv Moscow’s Aleksey Miranchuk is another good candidate. In fact, he might be an even better candidate than Dzagoev. The 22-year-old Lokomotiv Moscow playmaker has a wide array of talents and can be used as a false-nine as well.
In the middle of a fantastic season, where he scored seven goals and three assists for Loko, Aleksey Miranchuk has seen his transfer value explode from €6.5 million to €10 million. A championship with Lokomotiv followed by a successful World Cup will certainly see him become a hot prospect for any club looking for an attacking midfielder next summer.
It is perhaps no surprise that like Dzagoev Miranchuk comes from Southern Russia. Born in Slavyansk-na-Kubani in the Krasnodar Region Miranchuk has the Southern Russian flair that sets players from that part of the country apart from those born and raised in Moscow or Saint Petersburg.
Head coach Stanislav Cherchesov has recently attempted to play Miranchuk and Dzagoev together. Both are brilliant and intelligent players and together they could perhaps become the solution to Russia’s creative problems in midfield. Should both be fit and hit the tournament at peak condition than Russia might not have one, but two magical number 10s to fall back on. Given that the country has one of the most exciting forwards in Fedor Smolov up front the link up play could be key and could mean that Russia might be able to turn some heads after all.
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.