Manuel Veth and Saul Pope –
The 2018/19 Russian Football Premier League season kicks off in less than a week. Following a dramatic World Cup, Russia is back to the day-to-day business of club football, and the Futbolgrad Network once again will be on the pulse of everything that is going on in what is one of the most open leagues in Europe.
Part I of our preview series introduced the three newly promoted sides and took a look ahead to Anzhi Makhachkala’s season. In our second part of the series, we previewed Akhmat Grozny, Rubin Kazan, Rostov, and Ural. Now in part three, we take a look at Dinamo Moscow, Arsenal Tula, Ufa and Zenit.
Russian Football Premier League – Team by team breakdown – Part III
The fifth-place finish under Roberto Mancini in 2017/18 was Zenit’s first time outside the top three for a decade. A promising start evaporated, and by the winter break Mancini seemed to be sat in his suitcase already. Few of his numerous signings did well, with the exception of Daler Kuzyayev; he’s left behind a bloated, expensive squad. His failure has led to a change of thinking at the very top, as Zenit now has its first permanent Russian manager since 2002.
As soon as it became clear Mancini was on his way out, Sergey Semak’s name appeared in the frame. Semak is relatively inexperienced as a manager (one season at Ufa) and so is a bold appointment, but has a CV to suggest he’ll make things happen: Russian title winner as a player, Russian international and former assistant coach, former Zenit assistant, experience playing in a bigger European league (for Paris St. Germain). In terms of his personality, he had the discipline to keep playing at a high level until his late thirties, and is held in high esteem by Zenit fans. If he’s given the time to develop then he could be the first Russian coach to win the Premier League with Zenit.
Assuming he doesn’t move on, forward Artem Dzyuba will be important. His strength and finishing make him a handful for any Russian defence when he’s playing well, and in the last few years he’s looked less ponderous when setting up others. Dzyuba likes to wear his heart on his sleeve, and in an era of mostly quiet players he’s someone who can lead on the pitch. That said, he’s argued with a few managers – including Mancini last season. Zenit’s success could depend on him not falling out with Semak if things don’t go to plan right away.
The tumbleweed is rolling around the the St. Petersburg Stadium – Zenit’s only ‘signing’ so far has been 35-year-old Aleksandr Anyukov moving from Zenit-2 back to the first team. He’s started the last couple of pre-season friendlies as captain, so Semak looks intent on using him.
Fringe players such as Hernani, Dmitry Poloz, Artur Yusupov and Ibragim Tsallagov look likely to go out on loan. Defender Ivan Novoseltsev, not so long ago a national team prospect, may also move on. Zenit are in the market for new defenders – their weakest, and oldest, line – and have been linked to seemingly everyone, most notably Barcelona’s Yerry Mina and Dinamo Kyiv’s Tamas Kadar.
With a signing or two in the back line, Zenit’s large, expensive squad will be good enough to compete. Like a child who’s got too many toys, Semak’s job is not buying more but rather deciding what to get rid of and what to start using properly.
Second or third, and the title in 2019-20
Ufa were the Cinderella story of Russian football last season. Hailing from Bashkortostan FC Ufa are a relatively small club with a small budget. Hovering in mid-table for most of the year Ufa, however, were given a boost towards the end of the season when it appeared that neither Cup finalist, now-dissolved, FC Tosno nor the second division side Avangard Kursk would receive a license to play in the Europa League. As a result, a sixth-place finish in the Russian Football Premier League was enough to qualify for the Europa League last season. Ufa secured that spot on the last matchday finishing one point ahead of Arsenal Tula. As a result, Ufa will now embark on their first ever Europa League campaign, which will kick off this Thursday against Domzale.
Relative unknown manager Sergei Tomarov will guide Ufa this season. The 36-year-old will now have the difficult task of replacing Sergei Semak, who oversaw Ufa’s most successful club season in history. As discussed above Semak’s success meant he has now been given the reins at Zenit leaving Tomarov, who has worked at the club in one capacity or another since 2011, with the task of building on last year’s success.
Goalkeeper Aleksandr Belenov is among the most experienced players in this Ufa side. The 31-year-old has at times been called up to the Russian national team and is considered a leader in the dressing room. Nigerian winger Sly led the side in goals scored last season (seven goals and four assists in 26 games).
Ufa’s only true signing has been Daniil Krugovoy from Zenit. The 20-year-old left-back is considered a talent and at Ufa is playing at a club known for developing talented players. Ufa lost star midfielder Dmitri Stotskiy to Krasnodar. Do not be surprised if Ufa re-invest the €2 million received from Krasnodar to further strengthen the side after the Europa League qualifiers have concluded.
It all will depend on new manager Tomarov. But consistency in the squad should allow for another mid-table finish.
In the end, just one point was missing from Arsenal Tula’s first ever Europa League qualification. The club from the home of Russia’s most famous gingerbreads signed Artem Dzyuba on loan from Zenit in January 2018. Dzyuba would score six goals in ten games securing himself a spot in Russia’s World Cup squad and helping Arsenal to one of the most successful seasons in club history. Furthermore, managed by Miodrag Brožović Arsenal played some of the most attractive football in the league and have become an example of how small clubs in Russia should be run.
Unfortunately, for Arsenal Tula, however, Miodrag Brožović is no more. The Montenegrin did not renew his contract with Arsenal at the end of the season and was replaced with Oleg Kononov. Kononov has managed Krasnodar and Akhmat Grozny in the past. At Krasnodar, Kononov oversaw some of the most critical developments of a club that was only founded ten years ago. Now at Tula, he will once again be asked to act as a builder to work on the foundation laid down by Brožović last season.
With both top scorers, Luka Djordjević and Artem Dzyuba having returned to Zenit much of the attacking responsibility will fall to midfielder Sergey Tkachev. Tkachev was once considered one of the most creative players in the Russian Football Premier League but failed to show his full potential at CSKA Moscow. On loan, until next season Tkachev will now once again be in charge when it comes to Tula’s creative elements.
Most Russian clubs conduct their business towards the tail end of August. Tula are no different and, as a result, there have been no signings yet attempting to compensate for the departure of the Dzyuba and Djordjević. Instead, the club’s most prominent arrival has been goalkeeper Artur Nigmatullin, who signed from Amkar Perm.
It all will depend on the transfer window. But the departure of Brožović and Dzyuba could mean trouble with the club fighting against relegation.
After a year in the Football National League Dinamo Moscow returned to the top flight. Finishing eighth is a decent result for a newly promoted club. But at a second glance, Dinamo were among a pack of mid-table teams that were looking both down to the relegation zone and up towards qualification for the Europa League.
Dmitri Khokhlov took charge in October on an interims basis and has been in charge ever since. His appointment shows that the club still struggles financially as the ownership confusion at one of Russia’s biggest and most historical clubs remains confusing. Khokhlov has to now guide a club that seems without direction and money.
The Brazilian Joãozinho and striker Kirill Panchenko will be Dinamo’s key players. Joãozinho signed for Dinamo Moscow on Monday on a free transfer and is supposed to fill the creative vacuum left by Aleksandr Tashaev.
The departure of Aleksandr Tashaev has given Dinamo Moscow a much-needed cash injection. Sold for €1.5 million Tashaev, however, will leave behind a big gaping hole in Dinamo’s midfield. Thus far Dinamo have only signed Joãozinho, and it will be interesting to see whether the club’s financial situation will allow for any further transfers.
Dinamo Moscow will once again finish mid-table.
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.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. 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 is available HERE. 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.