By Manuel Veth –
It is now official—Stanislav Cherchesov is the man appointed to guide Russia’s Sbornaya toward a successful World Cup on home soil. The 52-year-old former goalkeeper, who had outstanding years at Spartak Moscow, Dynamo Dresden, and Tirol Innsbruck, has signed a two year contract that is understood to be worth €2.8 million.
The Sbornaya had a miserable performance at the recent European Championships in France, where the national team finished last in a group that included England, Slovakia, and Wales—with just one point, after a fortunate 1:1 tie against England.
As a result, Leonid Slutsky, who many had hoped would guide Russia to the 2018 World Cup, stepped down as manager of the Sbornaya. Slutsky, who had replaced the Italian, Fabio Capello, had managed both the national team and CSKA Moscow since the summer of 2015, and had successfully guided the Russian Sbornaya to the European Championships in France.
France 2016 Was Supposed to be a Stepping Stone for Russia 2018
The tournament in France, in particular, was seen as a stepping-stone for the national team in preparation for a successful tournament on home soil in 2018. Yet, Slutsky struggled to compensate for the loss of key players such as Alan Dzagoev and Igor Denisov, and also could not find a solution to the difficulty of bringing more speed to Russia’s aging defence.
Cherchesov will now inherit from Slutsky the thankless task of reforming the national team and, with the 2017 Confederations Cup scheduled to take place in Russia in in eleven months, Cherchesov will have less than a year to hammer out a squad that will be competitive on the world stage.
Traditionally, the Confederations Cup, which will take place in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan, and Sochi, has been used by FIFA as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. The 2017 edition will be no different but, this time around, the Sbornaya will also undergo a dress rehearsal, as the Russian public will expect a better performance from the national team than was delivered at Euro 2016.
No one expects the Sbornaya to win the event, but an early exit in the group stage could seriously jeopardize the squad’s preparation for the World Cup one year later. With the likes of Germany, Portugal, Chile, and Mexico, as well as the African Cup champions participating at the tournament, Russia can certainly expect to be drawn into a tough group.
Cherchesov is Inheriting a Troubled Squad
An aging defence, lack of creativity in midfield, and forwards that seem to lack a goal-scoring proclivity when playing for the national team—Cherchesov has plenty of work laid out for him. His first task will most certainly be to find defensive alternatives to the 37-year-old Sergei Ignashevich and the 34-year-old Berezutsky twins Aleksei and Vasily.
Slutsky trusted the three above-mentioned defenders in particular, as they are also part of his club side, CSKA Moscow. It can be expected that Cherchesov will not provide Ignashevich and the twins with a starting eleven guarantee, as the manager will have to attempt to rebuild the back four. There are a few alternatives—one is the 28-year-old Roman Neustädter, who has recently moved from Schalke 04 to Turkey to play for the Istanbul based club Fenerbahçe. Neustädter can expect to have his numbers dramatically increased whilst playing for Fenerbahçe in the Süper Lig and the Europa League.
Yet, Neustädter aside, there are additional alternatives on the centre back position, and Cherchesov will have to coordinate with the club teams of the Russian Football Premier League to find these options for the back four. Whether these alternatives will be available for the World Cup, let alone for the Confederations Cup, remains to be seen.
In midfield, Cherchesov will have to try to find replacements for players such as the aging Igor Denisov and the now retired Roman Shirokov. Dzagoev has the potential to become a world-class player on his position, but his development has stalled in Russia, and his reluctance to move to a European top league means that it is unlikely that Dzagoev will take the next step in his development.
Can Cheryshev Make the Next Step?
Meanwhile, Denis Cheryshev, who missed the European Championships due to an injury, has the potential to become a leader for the Sbornaya. The 25-year-old midfielder, who spent most of his life in Spain, has also stalled in his development—in his case, he wasn’t given the time to develop into a first team player at Real Madrid.
He spent the spring on loan at Valencia, but injuries meant that he failed to make a major impact, and was returned to Real Madrid at the end of the season. Cheryshev has now moved permanently to Villarreal CF where he previously had a successful 2014-15 season whilst playing there on loan from Real Madrid.
Villarreal are currently in turmoil, however, as the successful manager, Macelino has been fired after a disagreement with the club’s board over the Villarreal CF’s transfer policy. Both Cheryshev, and Sbornaya manager Cherchesov, will hope that this does not have a negative impact on Cheryshev’s future at Villarreal, as the midfielder will need to play regularly in order to finally be able to make an impact on the Sbornaya.
Finally, there is the issue about Russia’s strikers, in particular Artem Dzyuba. Dzyuba certainly has the potential to be a top-class striker, but his work rate and his inability to track back, has meant that the striker has been ineffective when it mattered for Russia.
Dzyuba in Particular has Benefitted From the 6+5 Rule
Dzyuba has benefitted from the fact that Russian clubs have to field five Russian players at all times, which has pretty much given the lanky striker a monopoly in the starting eleven of his club team Zenit Saint Petersburg—of course Dzyuba is not the only beneficiary of this ridiculous rule. Like Dzagoev, Dzyuba would benefit from playing abroad, but with an almost tax free salary and a guarantee in the starting eleven, the striker is unlikely to move abroad where he would have to work harder on his game to guarantee first team football.
The main alternative to Dzyuba would be to move Fedor Smolov from his position as a winger, to the centre, to play as the lone striker. This worked well at FC Krasnodar last season, where the striker was the RFPL’s top goal scorer. Slutsky has been reluctant to test Smolov as a central striker but, by playing Smolov at centre, Dzyuba would finally face stiffer competition in the national team, which, at long last, could force the Zenit striker to improve his work ethic.
For Cherchesov, however, the above-mentioned problems are just the tip of the iceberg. The new manager will also have to deal with poor infrastructure, clubs that are reluctant to improve youth development, and a Russian Football Union that seems to be unwilling to introduce true reform in Russian football.
Cherchesov is not Afraid to Speak his Mind
Cherchesov’s track record as a crisis manager, however, is mixed. At Dinamo Moscow, he managed a fantastic fourth place in the 2014-15 season. But financial problems and disagreements between Cherchesov and the club’s management (more on this here) meant that Cherchesov was fired before the 2015-16 season kicked off. Then, banned by UEFA from the Europa League, and in deep financial turmoil, Dinamo Moscow was relegated at the end of the 2015-16 season.
Cherchesov then moved on to Poland to coach the country’s biggest club, Legia Warsaw. Cherchesov guided Legia to an Ekstraklasa title and a Polish Cup victory. Cherchesov then, however, refused to sign a new contract at Legia, after a disagreement over the future direction of the club.
The episodes at both Dinamo and Legia highlight that, while Cherchesov is a successful coach, he also is no stranger to actively confronting those above him about strategic developments. This latter tendency, in particular, could be helpful in finally forcing the RFU into making the necessary changes to update football in Russia. On the other hand, it remains to be seen how the politicians at the RFU will react to Cherchesov’s confrontational style.
One thing is certain, for Russia, Cherchesov is their last chance of creating a World Cup where Russia is not only a successful host, but also a strong competitor…
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist and a writer for Bundesliga.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 @homosovieticus.