Saul Pope –
With the Russian Premier Liga heading into the winter break, it is time to assess Zenit St. Petersburg first few months under head coach Sergey Semak in our end of term report.
Overall league/European performance by Zenit – grade B+:
Semak started his tenure very well indeed; Zenit quickly sailed to the top of the league and looked like they would have an unassailable lead by the winter break. However, since the end of September, they have hit the rocks: five defeats in nine matches, including losses to struggling Anzhi Makhachkala and Dinamo Moscow, and conceding four in a defeat at mid-table Arsenal Tula.
Ultimately, though, Zenit go into the break top of the domestic league and performing as expected the Europa League – this is as good as could have been wished for. As a Zenit fan, perhaps for the first time I’m grateful for a long in-season break: an opportunity for Semak to ruminate over what’s gone wrong. Had the season continued for three or four weeks, it’s likely that Zenit would have lost top spot.
New signings – grade B-:
Financial Fair Play has meant that Zenit have had to be (and will continue to be) relatively prudent when it comes to new signings. Although it was refreshing to see a new Zenit manager not splurging on players, the one big signing Semak made has been disappointing. It may be that Claudio Marchisio needs more time to adapt; however, it may also be that numerous injuries have taken their toll on him. Whatever the case, lacklustre performances have seen him quickly move from being a certain starter to benchwarmer – not something many in football would have predicted.
Zenit have already started to be linked to new winter signings, though this side of the New Year is not the time be taking these seriously – the long break is only beginning, and football news sites are desperate to fill their timelines. However, someone who is likely to be more purposeful is Zenit Sporting Director Javier Ribalta; he has six weeks or so to find the right new faces. If things flop, the decision to employ him last summer will look like a foolhardy one that was based on his time spent at big clubs rather than anything more rational (such as knowing anything about the Russian league).
Squad – grade B:
For a side pushing for the title and expected to go some way in the Europa League, the squad does look a little threadbare.
The paucity of choice in attack has been made particularly stark by Aleksandr Kokorin’s imprisonment (see the aforementioned timelines for daily micro-updates on his incarceration and pictures of him looking moody in court). Virtually the only available change up-front is replacing the jaded Artem Dzyuba with the budget version of Dzyuba, Anton Zabolotniy. Zabolotniy is up there with Lucas Hartig as one of Zenit’s most questionable ever signings in attack. Argentine Sebastiàn Driussi is Dzyuba’s regular strike partner and is playing reasonably well, but only has four goals this season.
In defence and midfield, Semak has successfully reintegrated players previously frozen out, such as Hernani, Robert Mak and Luis Neto. Both Hernani and Mak have looked useful on their day, though cynics have suggested this is more about the current low level of the team rather than any real progress. Neto, like defensive partner Miha Mevlja, has remained error-prone; issues in defence have seen 36-year-old Aleksandr Anyukov, who spent a portion of last season at Zenit-2, starting games recently. Oleg Shatov is another underperforming player who has not improved under Semak.
Youth development – grade C-:
Although Zenit may not be able to spend heavily on transfers, it is not a club without resources – including a reserve team one division lower. It is many, many years since a Zenit academy graduate cemented a place in the first team, but it doesn’t have to be that way. A little more creative thinking might see the club use its wealth to install a strong coaching and management team at Zenit 2, which in time would boost the first team without needing to worry about Financial Fair Play.
Good and great players sometimes need patience: the story of recent club legends shows the path is not always a straightforward one. Aleksandr Kerzhakov didn’t score for his first twelve Zenit games, Andrey Arshavin was a late developer and Aleksandr Panov had drug and alcohol issues – all, after some nurturing, went on to play important roles in Zenit’s recent history.
As if to hammer home Zenit’s lack of focus on their youth, both goals in the recent 2-1 home defeat to Rubin Kazan were scored by Egor Sorokin, once part of Zenit’s youth set-up. Making his debut in goal for Rubin that day was Egor Baburin – currently on loan at Rubin from Zenit.
Tactics – grade B-:
A recent graphic in the Sports Daily newspaper showed the number of impactful substitutions various Russian league managers have made over the season. Top of the list were Krasnodar’s Murad Musaev and CSKA’s Victor Goncharenko. With just two impactful substitutions, Semak was some way behind. In time he will surely develop this skill, but currently, the managers at Zenit’s nearest title rivals are more adept at this crucial skill.
Fans have also called into question an odd formation switch that has seen players pushed out of position. A four-man defence worked well earlier in the year, but Semak has switched to a 3-5-2 which sees veteran right back Aleksandr Anyukov playing as a centre back. At the same time, Robert Mak and Daler Kuzayev have been deployed as wide midfielders with a defensive role, stifling their more obvious ability to get forward and support the attack.
Overall grade – B:
Ultimately, this wobble may be forgotten if Zenit have a decent Europa League run and remain where they are in the league. Fans are fickle – including me (and probably you).
We should perhaps be grateful that the brakes going on at Zenit means there is some league intrigue left. However, it is far from a vintage year in terms of football standard; Semak may find it very difficult in 2019/20 if both CSKA and Krasnodar continue in the same vein, and Spartak Moscow regenerate under their new manager Oleg Kononov.
One thing is for sure, though – Zenit must stick with Semak whatever happens. For too long the club has been over-focused on the here and now, and to little avail – surely its leaders will be too embarrassed to fire a third manager in three seasons. Instead, I hope they focus on a medium-term strategy that includes boosting the effectiveness of Zenit-2; this may pay better dividends than the carousel approach to hiring managers and buying off-the-shelf players who may or may not adapt to Russia.
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.