Following Zenit St Petersburg’s exit from the Champions League, Andre Villas Boas’ time at Zenit cannot really be viewed as progress from his predecessor Luciano Spaletti. However the outcome of the next 10 league matches and potentially 2 cup matches could give him a chance to match Spaletti’s achievements and leave having saved face, says Richard Pike.
Andre Villas-Boas’ return to management on 20/03/14 following his dismissal by Tottenham Hotspur merely a few months earlier was not a surprise. After all, he still holds the record for the youngest manager to win a European trophy (33 years and 213 days old) when his then FC Porto side won an all-Portuguese Europa League final against SC Braga in 2011. However, it came as a surprise when it was revealed that Zenit Saint Petersburg was to be his destination following a disappointing spell in English football with first Chelsea (arguably a big job too soon) and then Spurs (initial promise followed by the departure of the club’s best player in Gareth Bale and mostly bad use of the Bale transfer money by the club’s then Sporting Director Franco Baldini).
The cry from Russia’s second city came calling and so far, AVB has made some promising steps. Since his appointment, his spell reads 35 wins from 57 league matches, a win ratio of 61.40 per cent and 1 league championship in 2014-15, won by a comfortable margin of 7 points from CSKA Moscow. So far this season, Zenit sit 5th in the Russian Premier League standings with 34 points after 20 games, just 6 points behind surprise leaders FK Rostov, and their European record this season reads 5 wins from 6 Champions League group games, a first ever top place finish in the Champions League group stage. The club’s recent defeat against Benfica in the Champions League Last 16 was a disappointment, but nonetheless, all in all reputation restored for AVB?
No, before we classify AVB’s time at Zenit as redemption, one must realise that Zenit are not like any other Russian club. Back in the summer of 2008, just months before Man City’s Middle Eastern lottery win, Zenit were celebrating a UEFA Cup final victory against Rangers on the very turf the blue half of Manchester calls home. Zenit had their Manchester City moment two and a half years earlier when natural gas giant Gazprom purchased a controlling stake in the club in 2005 and the Petersburgers’ subsequent significant investment that followed was rewarded with their first Russian title win in 2007 and a first European title on that May evening in Manchester. One objective achieved, but not mission complete, merely an appetizer to the main course of becoming the dominant force domestically in Russian football and becoming a frequent challenger to win the Champions League. Since that UEFA Cup triumph, Zenit have splashed out huge sums of money, including a reported 64 million pounds on Hulk and Axel Witsel in the summer of 2012 in an attempt to challenge Western Europe’s elite clubs. Both Witsel and Hulk remain at the club, alongside Portuguese international Danny, Argentine centre-back Ezequiel Garay, Spanish defensive midfielder Javi Garcia, Italian left-back Domenico Criscito and Russian internationals Igor Shatov, Yuri Lodygin and Artyom Dzyuba.
Quite simply, AVB cannot complain about the quality of squad at his disposal, on paper, it is the strongest in Russian football by a distance and the minimum requirement every year is not to simply challenge for the league title, but to win it. One might argue this was also the case for Zenit when they were managed by AVB’s predecessor, Italian manager Luciano Spaletti, who spent 3 and a half seasons at the club between January 2010 and March 2014. However, under Spaletti, the ability of Zenit’s major rivals for the championship to challenge them was a different story to the situation nowadays.
Cast your mind back to the summer of 2012 at the heights of Spaletti’s spell at Zenit. Rivals like CSKA had 15 million pound Ivorian striker Seydou Doumbia in their ranks and had splashed out on promising Brazilian right back Mario Fernandes, Spartak had spent heavily on the likes of promising Brazilian Romulo and Swedish international Kim Kallstrom from Lyon. Rubin Kazan had spent EUR 10 million on current West Brom star Jose Salomon Rondon and back then, the biggest threat to Zenit, Anzhi, were slashing the cash on the likes of Samuel Eto’o and Roberto Carlos not to mention 6 months later GBP 30 million for current Chelsea star Willian. Zenit still had the biggest budget back then, however, they were not alone in having deep pockets and as a result, always had a fight right till the end of the season to win a championship.
Fast-forward to 2015, things are rather different, the financial crisis which has severely affected the Russian rouble has meant significant cost-cutting for many teams and the adaptation of a new fixed-exchange rate to counter it. Many of Zenit’s rivals have been deeply affected by the crisis, Lokomotiv had to sell their star Senegalese forward Oumar Niasse to Everton, this season’s surprise package FK Rostov are precariously placed financially, Dinamo Moscow have gone from the likes of French international Mathieu Valbuena to composing the majority of their squad from academy and reserve graduates and of course, Anzhi’s cash-rich backer, Suleyman Kerimov has long since withdrawn much of his considerable financial backing.
Based on the above therefore, could it be argued that AVB has had it easier at Zenit in comparison to when Spaletti was at the club? Zenit are still able to maintain a good squad of players and do not need to sell to balance the books unlike their rivals due to Gazprom’s support. We can further analyse AVB’s spell in comparison to Spaletti’s regarding performances in European competitions. In terms of the furthest rounds reached with Zenit by both managers in both the Champions League and Europa League, AVB has one Europa League quarter final in 2014/15 and one CL last 16 qualification in 2015/16 compared with Spaletti’s two CL last 16 qualifications in 2011-12 and 2013/14 (AVB cannot claim credit for the latter as Spaletti was manager when they progressed from the group stage) and a few Last 16 Europa League exits. One can argue therefore that it is pretty even in this regard, however, does one further round in the Europa League really represent sufficient progress from Spaletti by AVB? The common explanation for AVB replacing Spaletti was an upcoming second straight year without a Russian league title, on top of this, surely Zenit also had objectives on performing better in European competitions? The feeling amongst Zenit’s hierarchy would be been the same when they hired Spaletti to replace Dick Advocaat in 2010.
Let us also not forget that UEFA have certainly helped AVB and Zenit’s cause via their changing of the Champions League group stage seeding system which was announced as a new feature for 2015-16 and onwards. Zenit, as the Russian league was ranked 7th in UEFA’s coefficient rankings took advantage of this and pulled an excellent Champions League group draw, an in-transition Lyon, who are not the force of 6/7 seasons ago, a Valencia in turmoil both on and off the pitch and Gent, who with all due respect should be a side Zenit are beating. Spaletti probably is cursing this change coming in after he departed the club, instead of landing a draw as nice as that, he got Porto, Shakhtar and that season’s surprise package APOEL Nicosia in his group in 2011-12, Malaga (coached by Manuel Pellegrini at the time) and AC Milan in 2012-13 and Atletico Madrid and Porto in 2013-14. One glance at this shows you that Spaletti certainly had much more arduous tasks with the draws he got. Spare a thought also for Advocaat who after winning the UEFA Cup, sees Zenit undone by the bad luck of the draw pitching his side in with two giants of European football, Real Madrid and Juventus in the 2008-09 group stage.
Seeing this group presented to Zenit who then promptly took advantage of the changes to the seeding by winning it, one feels that their disappointing 2-1 home defeat to Benfica in the CL last 16 (3-1 aggregate loss) is an opportunity missed. Benfica, whilst never the easiest opponents at any stage in European competition are arguably not as strong as last season when they were under the command of former manager Jorge Jesus who departed for rivals Sporting CP in the summer. Furthermore, Benfica were riddled with defensive injuries prior to the second leg and had to play Greek international, Andreas Samaris, normally a midfielder at centre back alongside young 21-year old Swede Victor Lindelhof. Whilst some may point to Zenit being unlucky with Benfica’s first goal coming out of nothing with one of their first attacks of the match, I still think AVB got his tactics wrong in the game. Veteran right-back Alexandr Anyukov has been a great servant for the club, but his legs have faded and even I was surprised to see him start over the younger and more attack-minded Igor Smolnikov. The decision to keep attacking midfielder Oleg Shatov on the bench until the hour mark was another peculiar move as winter transfer Aleksandr Kokorin looked uncomfortable playing in the attacking midfield role behind Dzyuba. Upon the replacement of Kokorin with Shatov and Anyukov with Smolnikov, it was no surprise that Zenit began to dominate proceedings and create more chances, with the two subs in question being key to Zenit’s sudden upturn in performance. My question to AVB though is not just why were both Smolnikov and Shatov not on from the start, but also, why did it take until the hour mark before Zenit in a must win game began to create frequent chances and to attack with the intent of scoring a goal? He may point to the danger of conceding an away goal as reason for his cautious approach, however Benfica were playing with a patched-up defence, you have an expensively assembled attack at your disposal and crucially, if you grab an early goal, it would give your players a boost, not to mention demotivating an already decimated with injuries opposition.
This is not the only time I have held question marks over AVB tactically having watched both Zenit’s first two competitive games since the re-start post-winter. The tight 1-0 AET win in the Russian Cup quarter final against relegation strugglers Kuban Krasnodar was only achieved via an excellent free kick from winter signing Mauricio. For large chunks of the match, attacks were solely focused on getting the ball to wide players Hulk and Danny to whip crosses in to Dyzuba. Not necessarily the worst tactic, but doing it continuously when he is up against a giant centre back in ex-Dortmund player Felipe Santana who subsequently cleared away every cross and marshalled Dzyuba out of the match makes you predictable. Furthermore, the 1-1 draw against FK Krasnodar saw further questionable decisions, a 4-2-3-1 formation with Witsel utilised as the attacking central midfielder in the attacking three for the second game in a row. In my time watching Zenit this season, Witsel has never looked an ideal fit for that role and would be better served in Artur Yusupov’s position as more of a box-to-box midfielder alongside Garcia in the deeper midfield two. Shatov, Zenit’s best player against Benfica was once again glued to the bench for this match. Yes, Stantislav Kritsyuk had a fine game in goal for Krasnodar, but two of the saves from the few shots on goal Zenit mustered were from free-kicks. For as expensively an assembled squad as Zenit, these two matches alongside the Benfica CL game have been well below-par in terms of both performances and results.
So is AVB’s time at the club going to be remembered in a progressive way? No, as he failed to progress them through to the QF’s of the Champions League, thus failing to better Spaletti’s performances in Europe. However, can he save face and match Spaletti’s performance at the club? Yes. How can he achieve this before he departs in the summer for pastures new? A league and cup double. Another Russian title win would equal the two titles won by the Italian during his stint in Saint Petersburg. Despite them standing 5th in the Russian Premier League with 10 games to go, the 6 point deficit to Rostov is not an insurmountable total. This season in Russia has mirrored the situation in the English Premier League with the mid-table and relegation-threatened teams being competitive in many fixtures against the proclaimed bigger clubs. One such example is CSKA, currently in second place coming unstuck against 11th and 12th placed Amkar Perm and Krylia Sovetov in two matches prior to Christmas and I believe that many more points will be dropped between now and the end of the season by the title chasing clubs. Zenit therefore are almost in a similar situation to what Man City are in regarding their title chances in the Premier League, whilst there is a bit of a deficit to make up, the quality and depth of their squad, which on paper is the best in the division means it would be foolish to write them off.
AVB’s closing stages as Zenit coach are crucial for restoring his reputation in management and the only way to do that is to match his predecessor’s two title wins. The recent home 4-2 win against Rubin Kazan in the league was a much improved performance from the Light-Blues whilst equally being a source of frustration that a performance like that could not have been replicated during their crunch match against Benfica. Nonetheless, now is not the time to reflect on what might have been for Zenit and AVB, these 10 remaining league matches and potentially 2 remaining cup matches are the most crucial of his managerial career so far. Succeed and win a second straight title at Zenit and he may yet see opportunities at the elite level European clubs in future years. Fail to win a second title with a squad as talented as this at his disposal and it could severely hinder future job opportunities at the elite level of European football.
Written by Richard Pike