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Is Russian football’s “Grand Old Club” descending towards relegation and could another name be scratched off the un-relegated clubs list at the end of the season? Richard Pike has a look at Dynamo Moscow’s precarious situation.
In every country’s national sports leagues, there is at least one club described as a “sporting institution”. A club which became famous and put its country and sport on the map both nationally and globally due to its history and achievements. Clubs so famous they are the first name rolled off the tongue of people who don’t even like sports in their country when asked to name one of their country’s teams. Think the New York Yankees in baseball and the Montreal Canadiens in ice hockey as two such examples. In football, such clubs include Real Madrid in Spain, Juventus in Italy and both Boca Juniors and River Plate in Argentina. Russian football’s “sporting institution” is Dynamo Moscow.
Love them or loathe them, Dynamo Moscow are deserving of this tag. They brought Soviet football to the attention of a world audience with a variety of firsts. In 1945, after the conclusion of the Second World War, Dynamo were the first ever Soviet club to tour Western Europe when they embarked on an undefeated tour of the UK. In 1963, Dynamo’s famous goalkeeper Lev Yashin became the first Soviet footballer to win the coveted Ballon D’Or award as best footballer in Europe. Yashin’s triumph represented the first time that a goalkeeper won the award and none have won it since. Finally in 1972, Dynamo became the first Soviet club to reach the final of a European football competition when they lost 2-1 to Glasgow Rangers in the European Cup Winners Cup Final.
Secondly, they were one of the most successful Soviet football clubs. Dynamo managed to win 11 Soviet championship titles in the Soviet era, the last of which being won in 1976, placing them joint second with rivals Spartak Moscow and only trailing Ukrainian club Dynamo Kiev who won 13 Soviet titles. Finally, Dynamo’s status as a sporting institution is confirmed by the fact that they are the only Russian club to have never been relegated throughout their history in both the Soviet era and the modern Russian era. Only Dynamo Kiev who have never been relegated during both the Soviet era and modern Ukrainian era stand alongside them. Based on the aforementioned history and achievements, Dynamo Moscow are Russian football’s “Grand Old Club”.
However, there is a growing belief that this proud un-relegated record could finally cease to exist come the end of the season. Following their last 2 matches, a 1-0 defeat against fellow strugglers Krylia Sovetov on Matchday 24 courtesy of a 94th minute goal by Krylia attacker Gianni Bruno and another 1-0 defeat to CSKA Moscow on Matchday 25 last Sunday, Dynamo now stand in 12th position out of 16 in the Russian Premier League. This leaves them just one point above 13th placed FC Ufa who occupy one of two relegation/promotion playoff places in 13th and 14th position. The occupants of these positions come the end of the season will have to face a two-legged play-off with the teams ranked 3rd and 4th in the Russian First Division. So just how have Dynamo got themselves into such a precarious position and just how likely is this previously unthinkable relegation?
The summer prior to the start of the 2014-15 season gave Dynamo’s fans cautious optimism that their Championship drought dating back to 1976 could finally be ended. Strong foundations were already in place as the side had finished 4th in the 2013-14 season, then French international attacking midfielder Mathieu Valbuena was signed from Olympique Marseille. Many believed that Valbuena could prove to be the final piece in the jigsaw that would deliver Dynamo a long-awaited Championship. Alas, it was not to be as Dynamo finished the season in 4th place, once more qualifying for the 2015-16 Europa League. Nonetheless, everything remained in place for another Championship challenge this season. Suddenly, however, Dynamo’s world turned upside down on 19th June 2015.
On this day, UEFA expelled the club from playing in the 2015-16 Europa League due to a breach of Financial Fair Play regulations. The breach stemmed from Dynamo’s then owners VTB Bank, one of Russia’s biggest banks who acquired a majority 74 per cent stake in Dynamo in the summer of 2009. Following a detailed investigation into VTB Bank’s sponsorship of Dynamo, UEFA ruled that the sponsorship broke UEFA’s FFP rules. Merely a week later on 26th June 2015, VTB then transferred its 74 per cent stake in Dynamo to the Dynamo Sports Society.
Dynamo’s transformation into an essentially member-owned club who can no longer rely on significant support from its big financial backer in the space of one week and the cost-cutting remit that was introduced as a result of this was to have a catastrophic effect on the club’s ability to keep their best players. Sure enough, a fire-sale followed, crucial players like Valbuena, Brazilian-born Dutch central defender Douglas, Hungarian international midfielder Balázs Dzsudzsák, Russian international midfielder Artur Yusupov and veteran German international striker Kevin Kuranyi all departed the club before the end of the summer transfer window. The cost-cutting continued into the winter window with Dutch left back Alexander Buttner and Russian internationals Yuri Zhirkov and Alexandr Kokorin all departing the club. To fill the gaps left by the departure of these key players, Dynamo have drafted in numerous players from their youth and reserve teams combined with a few young signings from overseas like 23 year old Swedish central defender Sebastien Holmen. In a nutshell, Dynamo’s chances of being contenders for the Russian Premier League title any time soon were diminished in one fell swoop.
The major factor behind Dynamo’s current plummet down the Russian standings is the alarming amount of goals the club has conceded in recent weeks. Since the Russian Premier League resumed after its winter break in the first week of March, Dynamo have played 7 matches, winning only once, drawing once and losing five times. In these 7 matches, Dynamo have conceded 12 goals which included two 4-1 defeats in consecutive weeks. Conceding four goals in any match is never ideal, but if those two 4-1 defeats had come against the likes of Zenit Saint Petersburg or CSKA Moscow, one could put it down to facing good opponents who could have had one of those games where every shot at goal goes in. However, more worryingly, the two 4-1 drubbings were dished out by FK Krasnodar and Rubin Kazan who are 4th and 9th in the current standings respectively. FK Krasnodar are an up-and-coming club who have improved recently, but they are not yet a Zenit or CSKA, furthermore, Rubin Kazan are not the force of 5/6 seasons ago and are currently in transition. Even if Dynamo are not the force of old, it is very concerning they are losing by a 3 goal margin against opponents of this stature.
The majority of the problems have come in the centre of defence and often it has been poor defensive errors from their central defensive pairing of Holmen and Slovakian Tomas Hubocan. Two in particular stand out, firstly in Dynamo’s 1-0 defeat at home to Terek Grozny, Holmen failed to clear his defensive lines and failed to communicate with his team mate, Roman Zobnin who was rushing back to help clear the ball which resulted in Terek scoring their winning goal. The second was arguably even poorer a defensive error, a hopeful long range shot from Krylia’s French winger Yohan Mollo looped towards goal and required a good save from Dynamo keeper Anton Shunin who managed to palm the ball to the side of the net before falling over. The ball then was headed back across goal by a Krylia player to find Krylia’s unmarked attacker Gianni Bruno, left completely free by Hubocan as he left marking Bruno to charge out towards the Krylia player who headed the ball back across goal when he could never affect the header. Bruno needed no invitation and headed the ball into an empty net to seal the win for Krylia.
In a situation with many inexperienced youngsters drafted into the first-team squad, it would be easy to blame recent poor performances on the understandable inexperience of young players. However, in Dynamo’s case, some of the young players are performing very well given their lack of experience. Dynamo’s 21-year-old winger Alexandr Tashayev and 21-year-old central midfielder Roman Zobnin have been two of the better performers with 21-year-old fullback Dmitri Zhivoglyadov also a solid performer. Furthermore, despite his costly mistake against Terek, Holmen barely put a foot wrong in the centre of defence in the defeat against Krylia. It is some of the club’s experienced players who have underwhelmed with some of their performances. Hubocan, who was signed from Zenit this summer after 7 years at the Saint Petersburg-based club is 30-years-old and vastly experienced. Yet his displays have not been superior to his team-mate Holmen considering his 7 years playing in Russian football and being more acclimatised to life in the country in comparison to Holmen who only arrived at Dynamo from Swedish club Elfsborg in the winter transfer window. Another experienced summer signing by the club, a name familiar to many English football fans, former Fulham and Reading Russian international striker Pavel Pogrebnyak has also underwhelmed with his recent performances.
With “underwhelmed”, I do not mean drastically poor performances, but considerably below what would be expected from experienced players who know the league well due to many years playing in it compared to both their Russian and non-Russian young team-mates. Some of the experienced players have performed well with 26-year-old attacking midfielder Alexsei Ionov being a consistent and dependable performer for the club. However, I believe more is needed performance-wise from some more of Dynamo’s experienced players to help out some of the younger players who are showing impressive maturity beyond their years in these challenging circumstances and are shouldering a lot of the burden.
When news broke out about the FFP troubles this summer at the club, then-manager Stantislav Cherchesov was replaced by former Dynamo midfielder Andrey Kobelev. The 47-year-old was appointed for his second managerial spell at the club after a three year break from management. Whilst the cost-cutting imposed on the club meant a title challenge this season was unlikely, Dynamo, on paper, still possess a squad good enough to comfortably finish in mid-table. Anywhere between 7th-10th in the table at the end of the season given the financial situation and the inexperience of much of the first-team squad would be deemed acceptable. The pressure should have been off for Kobelev owing to the situation he inherited. However, the current position of 12th out of 16 and recent poor performances on top of this are below even the low expectations of fans and the club’s hierarchy. Dynamo’s budget, despite its trimming is still likely much higher than that of Rostov who are currently leading the standings. Even ignoring Rostov’s heroics this season, clubs like Terek Grozny and Ural Yekaterinburg currently occupying 6th and 8th in the standings are over-performing in comparison to their budgets and will both finish ahead of Dynamo this season.
What has plagued Kobelev recently, however, has been some questionable and indecisive decision-making tactically. When watching Dynamo this season, Kobelev has installed a short-medium range passing game focusing on ball-retention and keeping the ball grounded with passes to feet. It is admirable to have these philosophies and this style, however, he seems to have no plan B when this possession-style does not work and even when the personnel changes as a result of substitutions, the style remains by and large the same as before.
A perfect example of this came in the match against Krylia, when naming his starting line-up, Kobelev sprung a surprise by selecting young 18-year-old Anton Terekhov on the left wing who was making his club debut after being promoted from the youth team. Throughout the first half, Terekhov impressed both me and the Russian commentators on his debut combining well when attacking down the flank with Ionov and Zobnin. Come the 60th minute, Terekhov was withdrawn for the veteran striker Pogrebnyak. Understandable, given Dynamo wanted a second striker up front to support their Montenegrin international striker Fatos Beciraj and also because it was a must-win game at home against a fellow relegation rival. However, a short and patient passing game remained the tactic, which seemed completely ill-suited when you have a tall six-foot plus striker like Pogrebnyak who is strong and good at holding up more direct balls. Subsequently, during his 30 minute spell in the second half after he was subbed on, I don’t recall Pogrebnyak even having a touch of the ball, rendering a substitution which was a good idea in theory, ineffective in reality.
Last weekend’s match against CSKA saw another questionable decision. Dynamo were trailing 1-0 with 12 minutes left in the match and had one substitution left. Kobelev summoned from the bench the club’s veteran central defender Christopher Samba, once of Blackburn Rovers and QPR. Whilst eventually, Samba did go up front to add height to Dynamo’s attack and give their central defenders a target for direct passes, was this substitution really necessary when Dynamo had two strikers in Pobrebnyak and 19-year-old youngster Nikolay Obolskiy on the bench? Sam Allardyce when Blackburn Rovers manager once used Samba as a striker, however, that was due to an injury crisis when the club barely had any fit strikers available. Putting Samba on to go up front and hit long passes to was bizarre when you have two strikers on the bench, one of whom, as aforementioned, is a tall, strong striker who could hold up the ball well when you hit long passes to him.
Finally, one example of indecisiveness from Kobelev is the decision since the resumption of the league to continually rotate the first two choice goalkeepers in the starting line-up. Both 30-year-old Vladimir Gabulov who was the first choice for the first half of the season and 29-year-old Shunin have been rotated nearly each week. Gabulov has made 20 appearances out of 24 this season with Shunin making the other 4 appearances. If Kobelev had decided over the winter break that Gabulov’s performances were not up to it and had decided to replace him for a sustained period of time with Shunin, this is understandable. However, to bring in Shunin for one game and then drop him back to the bench for Gabulov the next is very indecisive. With just 6 games left in the regular season, indecision on the goalkeeping position is the last thing Dynamo need. Kobelev needs to back one of Gabulov or Shunin and stick with them until the end of the season. The business-end of a season is no time for indecision, even more so given Dynamo’s current position.
In short, yes, there are a variety of reasons why it could happen on top of the aforementioned ones above. Dynamo’s run-in being one, their remaining 5 games are the following: Amkar Perm (H), Spartak Moscow (A), Rostov (H), Kuban Krasnodar (A), Zenit (H). So Dynamo have still to face two of the top 5 sides in the division in Rostov and Zenit and also have a tricky assignment against arch-rivals Spartak. Even matches against Kuban and Amkar are not certain victories on paper, despite their results not showing it at times, Kuban have improved their performances since the winter break and some of their January signings have come in and made an immediate impact. Furthermore, Amkar are no easy-beats as they are ahead of Dynamo in the standings and beat them in the Russian Cup Quarter Finals in Feburary.
On top of being leaky in defence with 37 goals conceded in 25 league games, Dynamo are not scoring many goals themselves to compensate for this, they have scored just 24 league goals in 25 games this season. To further compund matters, one of their joint top scorers on 4 league goals, Alexandr Kokorin departed for Zenit in the winter transfer window and the other two on 4 goals, Alexsei Ionov and Alexsei Kozlov are a midfielder and a defender respectively. Beciraj, a winter window signing from Belarussian club Dinamo Minsk has scored just 1 goal in 7 matches and has not had the desired effect of being a goal scorer that fires the club up the table.
Furthermore, other teams around Dynamo in the standings have picked up in recent weeks, as aforementioned, Kuban, currently in 14th place out of 16th have looked a better side since the winter break, as have 13th placed FC Ufa, who since losing to Dynamo 1-0 in Matchday 21 have won 2 out of their next 4 matches to jump up the standings and now sit just one point behind Dynamo. Amkar and Krylia in 10th and 11th are also teams who tend to continually pick up points here and there.
Whenever one watches football, there is always a particular moment or incident during a game you see live involving a team and afterwards you either think or utter to yourself “That is X winning the league, it’s written in the stars”. Think Teddy Sheringham’s equaliser in the 1999 Champions League final for Manchester United and Clive Tyldesley’s famous “Name on the trophy!” commentary. It does not necessarily have to be a team winning the league or a trophy, one can also think or mutter to yourself “That is X going down, they simply have no luck at all” etc. That moment entered my thoughts upon Dynamo conceding that late goal against Krylia. Suddenly, my thoughts on a potential relegation for Dynamo went from “They’re struggling but they will eventually pull themselves together” to “Relegation really could be a possibility here”. Prior to their win against Dynamo, Krylia had only scored 14 goals in 23 league matches and their victory was not one of those “smash and grab wins” where their opponents dominated with lots of shots and were then undone by a sucker punch at the end of the match. The only time Dynamo really threatened Krylia during the whole game was a 20 minute spell in the first half when Krylia’s goalkeeper Giorgi Loria was forced into some smart saves. During the second-half, the only save Loria had to make was from an 83rd minute Dynamo free-kick. For large chunks of this half, Krylia were comfortable in defence and their attackers were creating chances against Dynamo’s defence.
If Dynamo’s fans did not need any more bad omens, look away now, before their loss against Krylia, Russian sports newspaper Sport-Express and their journalist Mikhail Goncharov published an article which calculated how the relegation race would look at the end of each Matchday and come the end of the season based on the remaining league fixtures. Dynamo, according to their predictions at the end of the season, ended up in 13th place, one of the relegation/promotion play-off positions and even more worryingly, Goncharov predicted that they would beat Krylia at home. Whilst they would be favourites to win a relegation-promotion play-off with a team coming either 3rd or 4th in the Russian First Division, you never know whether or not pressure would get to their young players in such a tense fixture, especially considering they are defending such a proud record of never having been relegated.
Dynamo’s motto is “Power in Motion” coined by Russian author Maxim Gorky. However, given the club’s plummet down the table recently, “Power without Motion” might be more suitable. Dynamo fans might want to avoid getting out atlases to look at what potential trips could await them next season in the Russian First Division. Trips to lower Siberian cities Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk, trips to Russia’s Far East to face Luch Energia Vladivostok where one can see the final stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway not to mention the Russo-Chinese border. Furthermore, one look at who could come up from Russia’s Second Division for next season, puts their possible relegation into even more of a staggering context. There could be a trip to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in the Russian Far-East where you can see Northern Japan across the sea to face their local team FC Sakhalin. Moscow derbies would still be there, but instead of Lokomotiv and CSKA, they could be against Solyaris Moscow, a club only formed in 2014 and coached by former Manchester United, Everton and Rangers winger Andrei Kanchelskis. The most damning reality however, would be that whilst Dynamo would still get to play Russian football’s “Oldest Derby” against Spartak Moscow next season, only it would be against Spartak’s reserve team who play in the second-tier of Russian football. Therefore, should Dynamo wish to avoid this prospective nightmare and endless taunting from Spartak fans, they need to urgently improve their performances in upcoming weeks and start putting some wins on the board. This is not an example of a team just having a bad spell or some bad luck, based on the matches I have seen so far this season, a once-unthinkable relegation is a very real possibility for Russia’s “Grand Old Club”.
Written by Richard Pike