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Being a football hipster is serious business with knowledge about the young starlet making waves for a non-mainstream mid table side often a prerequisite rather than a feather in the cap. To further enhance your, perhaps, burgeoning reputation as a true hipster, Outside of the Boot is on hand to provide an in-depth guide to some of the less celebrated teams around Europe. In this edition of the series, Richard Pike has a look at Russia’s Spartak Moscow.
As you can see from a number of my past articles, I am a follower of mid-ranking European leagues like Portugal, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Netherlands and Greece. Speaking from a Russian Premier League perspective, you may think that the team which first evoked my curiosity to explore Russian football was the Zenit Saint Petersburg team who won the UEFA Cup in 2007/08 playing attractive, attacking football under Dutchman Dick Advocaat which included a 5-1 demolition of Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. However, you would be wrong, the match that first sparked my interest in Russian football involved Spartak Moscow. The match in question occurred way back in the 2000-01 season in the Second group stage of the Champions League in November 2000. Spartak were at home playing English heavyweights Arsenal in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. That Arsenal side included the likes of Sylvinho, Adams, Ljungberg, Pires, Kanu and Henry in their starting eleven and they were brushed aside 4-1 by Spartak on a cold and snowy Muscovite night.
There are different games cited as the first signals that Russian and other Eastern European clubs would begin to emerge as a challenge to Western European dominance in European football competitions, the Zenit side described above, CSKA Moscow winning the UEFA Cup in 2005 and Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk winning the 2009 UEFA Cup. However, this demolition of Arsenal in one of the most famous nights in Spartak’s history occurred before of all of the examples above and was the first indication of what the likes of CSKA, Zenit and Shakhtar could all achieve in future seasons.
Champions League nights like that above used to be a regular occurrence for Spartak, in the first decade of the post-Soviet era of Russian football, Spartak were the dominant force, winning nine out of ten Russian titles between 1992 and 2001. If there is an English team you can compare them to, it would be Manchester United, the fact they play in red shirts and that they achieve the highest attendances in their domestic league are two reasons for this comparison, however, their domination of Russian football throughout the 1990’s mirrored that of the Red Devils dominating in England. However, unlike Manchester United who managed to maintain their successes into the 2000’s and 2010’s, Spartak have fallen on hard times. The club’s last Russian league title win was in 2001, they have failed to win a major trophy of any description since 2003 when they won the Russian Cup. City rivals CSKA and Lokomotiv alongside cash-rich Zenit have jumped ahead of Spartak in the last decade. Many varying strategies have been tried by the club over the last 15 years in terms of player recruitment to return the club to the top of Russian football. Experienced Russian players, experienced foreign players, young Russian players developed through the club’s academy, young foreign players bought from overseas, even a combination of two or more of the four strategies above, yet so far, all have failed to end the title drought. Different managerial appointments have been tried as well, Russian managers like former Spartak players Valery Karpin and Stantislav Cherchesov, talented young foreign managers like Michael Laudrup, Unai Emery and Murat Yakin, yet all failed to revive the glory days of the 1990’s.
The beginning of the 2015-16 season saw Spartak coming off the back of a disappointing 6th placed finish in the 2014-15 season which failed to qualify them for European competition for 2015-16. The Spartak hierarchy decided that for 2015-16 that a new manager would be needed at the helm of the club and replaced Swiss coach Murat Yakin with former Spartak and Russian international winger Dimitri Alenichev.
The first major club in Alenichev’s career was Spartak’s rivals Lokomotiv Moscow where he spent three seasons between 1991 and 1993. After that Alenichev joined Spartak for the 1994 season at the beginning of their domestic dominance of Russian football for 4 seasons where he won 3 Russian titles. Like many Russian footballers in the 1990’s, Alenichev took his talent abroad and signed for Italian giants AS Roma in 1998. However, Alenichev’s two year spell in Rome was not a success and even a loan spell to fellow Italian club Perugia did not revive his fortunes in Italy. However, in 2000, Alenichev made the move that fully revived his career, moving to FC Porto. During his time in Portugal, he played under the stewardship of a certain Jose Mourinho and whilst he did not start every week, he became a useful substitute who was summoned from the bench frequently in games to act in a decisive fashion. Perhaps the most notable example of his tag as Porto’s super-sub came in the 2004 Champions League final where Alenichev came off the bench on the hour mark with Porto one goal up against opponents AS Monaco. Just eleven minutes later, Porto’s attacking midfielder Deco broke through Monaco’s midfield and found Alenichev on the left flank just outside of the box, Alenichev then laid it back to Deco to stroke home Porto’s second goal of the game. Just 4 minutes later, Porto then counter-attacked a Monaco side throwing everything forward with Alenichev winning a header and knocking the ball down to Brazilian forward Derlei, Alenichev continued his run through the centre of midfield and Derlei found him with a pass that gave him a one-on-one chance which he took to make it 3-0 and win Porto European football’s elite trophy.
This goal also meant that Alenichev became only the 3rd player in history to score a goal in two consecutive European cup competition finals alongside Ronald Koeman for Barcelona and Ronaldo for Barcelona and Inter Milan as he also scored in Porto’s victory over Celtic in the 2003 UEFA Cup final. Alenichev left Porto in the summer of 2004 to return to Spartak Moscow where he spent two seasons before retiring in 2006 at the age of 34. On top of his club career, Alenichev also won 55 caps for the Russian national team playing in two major tournaments, the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004.
Alenichev began his coaching career in 2010 spending two seasons coaching Russia’s Under 18’s national team until 2012. In 2011, whilst still coaching the Russian Under 18’s, came Alenichev’s first club managerial position as he took charge of then third tier Russian side Arsenal Tula. In just 3 seasons, Arsenal Tula went from a modest third tier side to winning promotion to the Russian Premier League for the first time in their history at the end of the 2013-14 season. Their first season at the highest level of football in Russia in 2014-15 failed to see them escape relegation, however, it did not damage Alenichev’s reputation and following the dismissal of Swiss coach Murat Yakin by Spartak in the summer of 2015, Spartak offered Alenichev the vacant job which the former Spartak winger who was a fan of the club as a child accepted. The 2015-16 season was a very mixed one for the club under their new manager, there were some good performances and results, but ultimately, Spartak proved too inconsistent to challenge for the title and eventually finished in 5th place, which was an improvement on 2014-15, but 15 points behind eventual champions CSKA.
Having watched a lot of Spartak’s matches last season, there are shades of his old boss Mourinho that are utilised by Alenichev tactically. Throughout 2015-16, Alenichev in his first season at Spartak, utilised a formation which like Mourinho in his first few seasons at Chelsea between 2004-06 saw them in a 4-3-3 formation when attacking in possession, which upon losing possession and having to defend became a 4-5-1 formation with both wide players expected to contribute defensively. The midfield three tend to be a balanced trio, one purely defensive midfielder, which last season was often Brazilian Romulo, a box-to-box midfield player, often Russian international Denis Glushakov and then a more attack minded midfielder who weighs in with goals and assists, this role was filled by Bulgarian international Ivelin Popov. Both the fullbacks in Alenichev’s system have to get forward to support the two wingers/wide forwards in attack.
These two wide forwards last season were Paraguayan international Lorenzo Melgarejo on the left side and Spartak’s best player, Dutchman Quincy Promes on the right side. Both Promes and Melgarejo are capable of staying wide and floating crosses from the byline and cutting inside and drilling low crosses into the box. Both are also capable of weighing in with goals too, Melgarejo scored 8 goals last season, 6 of which being for Kuban Krasnodar from whom he joined Spartak in the January transfer window whereas Promes finished as the second highest goalscorer in the league season with 17 goals, only 2 of which being penalties. The final part of the attacking three is 25 year old Cape Verdean central striker Ze Luis who was signed last summer from Portuguese club SC Braga. The presence of a 6 foot, strong and quick forward like Ze Luis in the starting eleven is another example of Mourinho’s tactics influencing Alenichev. At his two spells at Chelsea and his spell at Inter Milan, Mourinho always deployed a tall and strong striker capable of shrugging off defenders using their strength when running through on goal, holding the ball up when more direct offensive passes are played and capable of chipping in with headed goals as a result of their aerial ability. Three such examples of players are Didier Drogba in Mourinho’s first stint at Chelsea, Diego Milito at his spell at Inter Milan and Diego Costa in his second spell at Chelsea. Ze Luis contributed 8 goals for Spartak in his debut season in Russian football and despite not always being consistent, on his day, he is a difficult threat for defenders and his aerial ability gives the likes of Promes, Melgarejo and the two attacking fullbacks a good target to hit with crosses.
However, an interesting recent development has taken place when it comes to Alenichev, this occurred during Spartak’s 4-0 victory against Alenichev’s old team Arsenal Tula on the opening day of the 2016-17 Russian Premier League season. Alenichev surprised everybody pre-game by changing from the 4-3-3 that he used for a large chunk of last season and opted for a rare and unusual 5-4-1 formation which saw three central defenders deployed alongside two wingbacks, Dimitri Kombarov on the left hand side and new signing Andrey Yeshchenko on the right. The midfield comprised of two deep central midfielders, the aforementioned deep playmaker Glushakov and another new summer signing, 22 year old Russian Roman Zobnin. The other two midfielders were two wingers, the aforementioned Promes on the right side and 23-year-old Georgian Jano Ananidze on the left side. The lone striker was Ze Luis. People may look at the result and think that an established name like Spartak beating a newly promoted minnow like Arsenal Tula is nothing that raises eyebrows, however, I was extremely impressed with Spartak, both in the sense of the performance and how well offensively the tactical change by Alenichev worked. Arsenal Tula simply came to Spartak’s home and flooded the midfield, sometimes having 6 men across the centre of their midfield, however, whenever Spartak got possession of the ball in Arsenal Tula’s half, the 5-4-1 formation rapidly transformed into a 5-2-3 formation as both Promes and Ananidze constantly cut inside from the wings with both occupying attacking positions just outside of the box. From here both could dribble to the wide edges of the penalty box and drill a cross low for the central striker, float around the central areas outside of the box, playing quick one-twos with either each other or the central striker or make dribbling runs right at the heart of Arsenal Tula’s defence.
Despite employing a packed midfield, Arsenal Tula simply could not deal with this tactical change by Alenichev and Spartak, their midfield could not mark both Promes and Ananidze, who both bagged two goals each in the match, either man-to-man or zonal. Both the wingbacks stayed wide and got to the byline to support both Promes and Ananidze, this also allowed for quick interchange and one-twos on the flanks alongside the possibility to float crosses into the penalty box for Ze Luis. All through last season some of Spartak’s results at home against smaller and mid-table sides who sat deep with a packed midfield saw them fail to pick up maximum points which ensured that the club could not stay in the title race until the end of the season and could not finish in the Champions League qualification spots. However, on the evidence of the match against Arsenal Tula, Alenichev has found a system, which could work perfectly against smaller sides who come to park the bus. The 5-4-1 or 5-2-3 formation is very much an open, attack-minded formation, however, as Spartak showed in the last 30 minutes of their game against Arsenal Tula via the use of substiutions, they can switch back to their tried-and-tested 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 formation to control both the midfield and possession battles which could prove useful in tight matches later on in the season. Finally, a great extra to top off a fine performance and start to the season by Alenichev and Spartak was all 3 substitutions that Spartak made during the match, Fernando, Alexander Zuyev and Lorenzo Melgarejo impressed in their limited time on the field. If one of your substitutions makes a positive impact, you will be happy as a manager, however, if two come on and play well whilst the third comes on, plays even better than the other two and bags an assist for the game’s fourth goal, it leaves a coach purring and grinning from ear to ear.
Spartak’s recruitment for their senior team in the summer has not been extensive, however, three players have arrived with all three set to become first team regulars for the club. The aforementioned fullback/wingback Yeshchenko has arrived from fellow Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala, 22-year-old central midfielder Roman Zobnin who was one of the best players at Spartak’s relegated rivals Dynamo Moscow last season and their big summer signing, 24-year-old Brazilian defensive midfielder Fernando from Italian side Sampdoria.
Salvatore Bocchetti – If Spartak are to be title contenders this season, good performances from the 29-year-old Italian centre back who is in his 4th season at Spartak after signing from fellow Russian club Rubin Kazan in the summer of 2013 are vital. Spartak’s defence on occasions last season really let them down and in 30 games, the club conceded 39 goals which is way above the one goal per game mark which is often an indicator of a title winning team. Compare and contrast this to the 25 and 20 goals conceded by both last season’s champions CSKA Moscow and runners up FK Rostov respectively. Bocchetti is the most experienced of all the centre backs at the club and an improved defensive record this season for Spartak will likely depend on his performances and organisation skills at the back.
Fernando – Spartak’s big summer signing and already judging from his 30 minute cameo from the subs bench in the game against Arsenal Tula, he has the potential to become one of the best players at the club. The 24-year-old Brazilian midfielder signed for Spartak just 2 weeks ago from Italian club Sampdoria for a fee of around 12 million Euros after just 33 games in Serie A for the Genoese side. Early indicators point to Fernando acting as an upgrade to the aforementioned Romulo as Spartak’s defensive midfield anchorman, however, his passing range is good too and he was able to pick out both wide players frequently with medium-range passes from deep. With Brazil’s national team being in disarray at the moment after their early Copa America Centenario, a fine start to the season for Spartak could put Fernando in the mind of new Brazilian national manager Tite for the upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
Quincy Promes – Spartak’s best player and the man who will likely spear-head any potential title challenge this season for the club. 24-year-old Dutchman Promes made it into my 2015-16 Russian Premier League Team of the Year and since signing for the club in the summer of 2014 from Dutch side FC Twente, has emerged as a constant positive for the club with fine individual performances even in disappointing Spartak losses and performances. Promes is capable of playing both the inside forward winger role of cutting inside from the flanks and as a more traditional winger who stays wide and crosses from the byline. Furthermore, an additional bonus Promes provides Spartak is clinical finishing in the penalty box when cutting inside from the wings to get onto balls put into the opponents’ box from the flank opposite to him. Promes was linked with the likes of Atletico Madrid, Juventus, PSG and Valencia earlier this summer, however remains a Spartak player, nonetheless, a third fine season in a row with Spartak could convince a top Western European club in one of the big European leagues to purchase him next summer. Furthermore, with the likes of Arjen Robben starting to age a little as he approaches the end of his excellent career, Promes could well be his long-term replacement for the Dutch national team.
Alexandr Zuyev – As aforementioned, Alenichev would have been delighted with the impact that his three substitutes made in the match against Arsenal Tula, however, the one that impressed most was 20-year-old Alexandr Zuyev. Capable of playing as either a winger or an attacking central midfielder, Zuyev made his debut as an 18-year-old two seasons ago under former Spartak manager Yakin and last season featured regularly as a substitute under Alenichev. His role by and large is also likely to be a substitute this season as well. However, his performance against Arsenal Tula which involved numerous long dribbling runs which beat opposing players, crafting out numerous goal-scoring chances and a brilliant assist pass which found Promes in the opposition penalty box for Spartak’s fourth goal will give Alenichev encouragement to use Zuyev often this season as an impact sub to run at and take on tiring defenders late in games.
There is every possibility that Promes could leave Spartak at the end of this season for a larger club, should that be the case, I would like to see Zuyev brought into the starting eleven to replace him as opposed to Spartak looking overseas for a replacement as some of his sub cameos last season alongside his cameo against Arsenal Tula are evidence that he has the ability to replace Promes and could in turn save Spartak a fortune in transfer fees. Born in Kazakhstan, but currently represents Russia internationally and is a regular for their under 21’s national team.
Spartak Moscow are known in Russia as Народная команда (Narodnaya Komanda), the people’s team, owning to the fact that after the Russian revolution in 1917, Spartak were the only Muscovite club who were formed by a public trade union. Compared to their major Muscovite neighbouring clubs like CSKA, Dynamo and Lokomotiv, Spartak have a much larger fanbase. Last season Spartak averaged 27,864 fans per home match, which was the highest in the division by far and over 11 thousand more fans per home match than Zenit who were the second highest averaging team. Over 28,000 fans were in attendance for their 2016-17 season opener against predicted relegation strugglers Arsenal Tula, which is a strong demonstration of how loyal their fans have been over the painful 15 years since their last title win in 2001.
Off the pitch in terms of fanbase, Spartak are proving successful, if they could now get the on-the-pitch side of things right, they could once again return to the summit of Russian football. In the past, poor decision making regarding changing the manager at the end of every season and having a new man in charge the following season has hindered the club’s ability to end their title drought. However, Spartak owner Leonid Fedun has kept Alenichev in charge for a second season and has backed him with signings, giving him a second chance to make Spartak title contenders. In my opinion, this decision is the correct one, last season in the games I watched, Alenichev showed glimpses that Spartak could be future title contenders under him and because he is still inexperienced as a manager, no-one expects him to not make mistakes in his first full season at the club.
It might only be the end of matchday 1 of the new season, but Spartak’s performance in their 4-0 demolition of Arsenal Tula combined with the summer transfer of Fernando which is an upgrade on the personnel they had last season give hope that this season, Spartak could at minimum finish higher than last season’s fifth placed finish and at most finish in the top 2 and qualify for the Champions League for next season. With rivals CSKA and Zenit having lost key personnel like Ahmed Musa and Hulk respectively from their squads, Spartak could emerge as dark horse title contenders this season in what promises to be another tight and difficult to predict season in Russian football.
Written by Richard Pike
Read all our 2016-17 Hipster Guide articles here.