The contrasting futures of CSKA Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg

Prior to this season CSKA Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg dominated the 2010s in Russian football, however, whilst both were left trailing by new champions Spartak this season, the immediate future prospects for both show vast contrasts.


CSKA Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg has become one of the strongest rivalries in modern Russian football. Both teams have a legitimate claim to say that their UEFA Cup triumphs in 2005 for CSKA and 2008 for Zenit were better achievements. Prior to this season both teams had won all available Russian Premier League titles between them in the 2010’s with CSKA triumphing in the 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons and Zenit triumphing in the 2010, 2011-12 and 2014-15 seasons respectively. Finally, throw in the rivalry between the cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg and you have all the ingredients for a fascinating rivalry. However, for the first time this decade this season, both CSKA and Zenit have been knocked off their perch as Spartak Moscow won the 2016-17 Russian Premier League and broke the duopoly. Furthermore, Spartak have done it comfortably as well, holding a 7 point lead over CSKA who finished 2nd and an 8 point lead over Zenit who finished 3rd. After 6 seasons of hegemonic dominance, both CSKA and Zenit now find themselves in transitional phases with squads in need of rebuilds. Taking this season’s Russian Premier League into account, I am about to outline how the future and squad rebuild at CSKA looks brighter and is progressing along at a better rate than the one at their fierce rivals Zenit.

 Viktor Goncharenko – Tactically innovative and bold

As aforementioned in one of my most recent articles, CSKA’s future does look bright under the direction of their new manager, 39 year-old Belarussian Viktor Goncharenko. Since succeeding former CSKA manager Leonid Slutsky at the club in December 2016, Goncharenko has taken a side that were struggling for consistent form and results pre-winter break in their failed attempt to retain their Russian Premier League title and has restored their confidence, delivered impressive results and given them hope to win back the title next season. Slutsky’s tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation that was rarely ever altered during the whole of his 7 year spell at CSKA has been replaced by a 3-5-2 formation with attacking wingbacks by Goncharenko. Just like Chelsea in England who under Antonio Conte switched to a back three in early October, Goncharenko’s CSKA have been transformed into a well-oiled machine in this formation. The presence of 3 in midfield enables them to monopolise possession of the ball thus dominating the centre of the pitch and constantly creating goal-scoring chances throughout games. Furthermore, the advanced wingbacks in tandem with the 2 strikers in the 3-5-2 enable them to execute flank-to-flank smother presses which keep opposition defences pinned back and the presence of 3 at the back helps to protect their goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev from attacks. The stats for CSKA this season show just how effective the switch in formation combined with a switch in playing style from slow and short passing under Slutsky to quicker and more direct passing under Goncharenko have been. In Slutsky’s 17 games in charge of CSKA this season, he managed 9 wins, a win ratio of 53 per cent, under Goncharenko, CSKA have achieved 9 wins from 13 games, a win ratio of 69.23 per cent. When it comes to goals scored, Slutsky managed 21 in his 17 games, an average of 1.24 goals per game, under Goncharenko, CSKA have scored 26 goals in his 13 games, an average of 2 per game. Finally, Slutsky’s CSKA only conceded 10 goals in 17 games this season, an impressive ratio of 0.59 goals per game, however, it is comfortably surpassed by Goncharenko, who’s CSKA have only conceded 4 goals in 13 games, an outstanding ratio of 0.31 goals per game.

CSKA’s Loan Stars and Clever Transfers

During his time at CSKA, what made Slutsky’s success impressive was good quality signings at good value prices given CSKA were unable to compete in terms of transfer fees and wages with Zenit and Spartak. Under Goncharenko, CSKA are going to have to demonstrate even more acumen due to the opening of their new 30,000 capacity Arena CSKA stadium last summer. After many seasons playing their home matches at the Arena Khimki in North-West Moscow paying rent, CSKA now have a stadium of their own, which will enable them to keep all gate money from their matches and should also see larger attendances. However, there is a short-medium term downside to this, Arena CSKA will not be a host stadium for matches at next summer FIFA World Cup, therefore, CSKA had to completely finance their new stadium solely using private money unlike many of the new/upgraded stadiums for next summer’s tournament which have been financed via the help of the Russian state. As Eastern European football website Futbolgrad highlights in this article, CSKA as a result are reportedly now the 7th most indebted club in European football, with an estimated debt of EUR 224 million.

Because the vast majority of the reported debt the club has is stadium spending, this does not mean that the club is in severe financial trouble as because CSKA now own their own stadium they will eventually pay the debt off. Nonetheless, for the next 3-5 seasons, transfer funds are expected to be limited because of the new stadium to pay for. More emphasis is now placed on CSKA maintaining players already under contract, coaching existing players to improve as opposed to using the transfer market frequently and when use of the transfer market is necessary, finding good quality signings on the cheap to fit their tactical system. Already, just months into his reign at CSKA, Goncharenko has already impressively demonstrated these attributes.

Three of CSKA’s best performers so far under Goncharenko have been either been purchased on a loan deal from another team or recalled from successful loans elsewhere. The talented loan star brought in is 28 year old attacker Alexey Ionov who was purchased from relegated Dynamo Moscow last summer on a season long-loan by Slutsky. Ionov is a versatile player, capable of filling in as either a winger on both flanks, an attacking central midfielder or a striker. Under Slutsky, Ionov featured regularly in the team and has retained his place in the side under Goncharenko, predominantly as one of the 2 strikers in the aforementioned 3-5-2 formation. He can play as both a deep-lying second striker, sometimes peeling away from the centre to support his advanced wingback and central midfield on one flank and he can also play as a main advanced striker as an impressive poacher finish from inside the 6 yard box in CSKA’s 1-0 victory against Terek Grozny on Matchday 20 of this season proved. Finally, as an added bonus, his parent club Dynamo Moscow, whilst having won promotion back to the Russian Premier League next season are in serious financial difficulty, meaning that CSKA could sign Ionov for a bargain price this summer fitting in with the club’s strategy of finding good quality bargain signings.

The first of two returning loanees who have flourished under Goncharenko is 23 year-old Brazilian attacking midfielder/striker Vitinho who was signed by CSKA in the summer of 2013 as a 19 year old from Brazilian side Botafogo. Upon signing, Vitinho was highly thought of in Brazil and had appeared in their Under 23 side at the 2012 Olympic Games, however, he could not become a regular under Slutsky. In January 2015, Slutskiy sent Vitinho out on loan to Brazilian side Internacional, where in the 2015 Brazilian Serie A season, he scored 11 goals in 33 games. Despite impressing and CSKA having an option to recall Vitinho in the summer of 2016, Slutskiy opted against this, purchasing Ivory Coast forward Lacina Traore on loan from Monaco as a replacement for star striker Ahmed Musa who left for Premier League champions Leicester City. Traore was a major disappointment at CSKA, however, and had his loan terminated during the winter transfer window. One of Goncharenko’s first moves after his appointment was to bring back Vitinho, where in the 2016 Brazilian Serie A season, he scored 8 goals in 28 games. Instantly, Vitinho became a regular in CSKA’s starting eleven and has played in all 13 of CSKA’s games post-winter break. In these 13 games, he has scored 6 goals and made 3 assists, however, it is not just the goals and assists that have made him stand out, it is also the way he has proved a vital cog that links CSKA’s midfield and wingbacks to their strikers. Vitinho often floats around in attack during games, sometimes staying central playing as the deeper of 2 strikers trying to find pockets of space to pick out passes. Sometimes Vitinho floats into wide positions to try and play quick one-twos with the wingbacks to help launch attacks down the flanks. He has been CSKA’s most influential player post-winter break and his recall from loan was an excellent decision.

The second returning loanee under Goncharenko is 28 year-old Russian centre back Viktor Vasin. Vasin was just 22 years old and was one of the most promising young defenders in Russia when he was signed in the January transfer window of 2011 by CSKA from Spartak Nalchik and he was seen as a long term replacement for CSKA’s veteran centre back Sergey Ignashevich. However, Vasin struggled for game time under Slutskiy and in 4 seasons between 2011-12 and 2015-16 made just 7 CSKA first team appearances and was loaned out to perennial Russian league strugglers Mordovia Saransk in 2014-15 as he failed to displace Ignashevich. Still under contract to CSKA at the start of the 2016-17 season, Vasin was once again loaned out to FK Ufa who at the time were being coached by Goncharenko, there he impressed in their defence, playing in all of Ufa’s 17 league games prior to the winter break. Upon Slutsky’s departure and Goncharenko replacing him, Vasin was immediately recalled by CSKA and with the switch in formation to 3-5-2 has slotted in excellently to CSKA’s defensive line. His good reading of the game and performances have contributed to CSKA’s 10 clean sheets in 13 games after and won him a recall to the Russian national team. Like the recall of Vitinho, Vasin’s return is in essence a new signing which has cost the club nothing and fits in with CSKA’s new strategy.

CSKA’s Class of ‘17

One of the few blots on Slutsky’s copybook at CSKA was a lack of ability to integrate talented young players from the club’s youth and reserve teams into the club’s first team, with only 20 year old Alexandr Golovin being the most notable youngster introduced by Slutsky since he took the managerial reigns at the club in 2009. As an article by Futbolgrad and the aforementioned cases of Vitinho and Vasin above demonstrate, Slutsky was very reluctant to introduce fresh tactics or young players into CSKA’s team and whenever one of CSKA’s star players was sold like Ahmed Musa last summer, he was unwilling to trust a current bench/squad member or a player in the youth/reserve team to fill that gap, opting instead to use the transfer market and bring in the ineffective Lacina Traore. CSKA, in 18 year old striker Fyodor Chalov had a potential replacement for Musa all along in their youth/reserve sides, he has been in devastating form for CSKA’s Under 20s team in the 2016-17 UEFA Youth League, where they topped their group beating the likes of Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham and Monaco along the way. In one of the games against Monaco, CSKA won 5-0 with Chalov scoring 4 goals. Yet despite Chalov’s record in the UEFA Youth League, it essentially took poor performances by CSKA’s big summer signing Traore before Slutskiy finally decided to give Chalov an opportunity.

Goncharenko however, could well turn out to be perfect when it comes to integrating young players from CSKA’s academy into the first team. When he was coach of BATE Borisov in Belarus, Goncharenko had access to the best youth and reserve teams in the country and many young Belarusian players were integrated into BATE’s first team. As a result of being part of a side that wins the Belarussian league year-in/year-out and exposure to top European sides in the Champions League many of the young Belarusian players Goncharenko introduced into BATE’s first team went on to play for the Belarus national team and even signed for clubs in better quality European leagues. CSKA’s Under 21/Reserve team finished 2nd in this season’s Russian Under 21 Premier League behind Spartak Moscow and reached the Quarter Finals of this season’s UEFA Youth League. With Goncharenko’s record of developing youth and CSKA’s possessing almost a “Class of 17” with their youngsters, he will surely relish giving some game time to some of these players. Chalov has appeared numerous times as a substitute and a starter and 20 year old central midfielder Astemir Gordyushenko and 19 year old striker Timur Zhamaletdinov have made the club’s bench frequently under Goncharenko’s with both having also featured for the new coach on a few occasions as a sub and I do expect more youngsters to be given first team opportunities by Goncharenko in the upcoming seasons.

Mircea Lucescu – Experienced, yet rigid and stubborn tactically and paid the price as a result

Whilst there is a strong sense of optimism emerging at CSKA under Goncharenko to challenge for honours, 710 kilometers north-west in Saint Petersburg, the picture looks much bleaker. Despite a 2-0 victory over Lokomotiv Moscow in the final game of the season, one of 3 straight wins in the last 3 matchdays for Zenit, it was not enough to overhaul CSKA and as a result, Zenit finished 3rd in the league and will only participate in the 2017-18 UEFA Europa League under the guidance of their manager, veteran 71 year-old Romanian Mircea Lucescu. Lucescu was appointed in the summer of 2016 to replace Zenit’s former manager, the Portuguese Andre Villas Boas after he resigned as manager of Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk after 12 highly successful years with the Eastern Ukrainian club where he won 8 Ukrainian league titles and 6 Ukrainian Cups. The Zenit hierarchy were of the belief that Lucescu having spent 12 very successful years working in Ukraine with Ukrainian players who have very similar characteristics to their Russian counterparts would represent a better fit for Zenit than Villas Boas. However, as this season has shown, the exact opposite has occurred.

I recently read an article on Eastern European football site Futbolgrad about Lucescu’s struggles at Zenit, in which the author, Manuel Veth stated that one of several reasons why Lucescu failed to replicate his Shakhtar success at Zenit is because he completely underestimated the standards across the majority of the teams in the Russian Premier League. Veth’s argument is a very strong one, I would argue that Shakhtar and Zenit are two very similar ranked teams and that a match between the two of them would be very difficult to pick a winner. However, aside from the presence of Shakhtar’s fierce rivals, Dynamo Kiev, there is very little else in terms of competition in the Ukrainian league. In essence, Dynamo and Shakhtar’s domestic domination of Ukrainian football throughout the last 25 years is essentially like that of Celtic and Rangers in Scotland. In the Russian Premier League, however, things are a lot more competitive throughout the whole league, for sure you have the “elite 3” of Spartak, Zenit and CSKA who win the vast majority of the titles between them, yet you also have upper-mid-table Russian teams like Krasnodar, Rostov, Lokomotiv Moscow and Rubin Kazan who are far superior to their Ukrainian mid-table counterparts and thus ensure that one of the likes of Spartak, Zenit or CSKA do not win the Russian league by a huge margin like in Ukraine every year with either Shakhtar or Dynamo.

Lucescu did not adapt to this all season, another point that Veth makes and that I agree with is that he showed zero tactical flexibility to make an attempt to combat the greater competitiveness in the league, instead he simply just used the same 4-2-3-1 formation all season and by and large the same group of between 14-18 players. Before watching nearly all of Zenit’s games all season it has been so easy to predict how Lucescu set his team up, what players were picked in the starting line-up and what formation was used. To summarise, Lucescu simply took what formation worked for him at Shakhtar and imposed it on this Zenit team in blind faith that it would get the same results, however, this has not been the case due to the fact that Zenit unlike Shakhtar do not possess across their squad pacey, mobile attacking players to play the sort of football that was a feature of Lucescu at Shakhtar. It was therefore not a surprise that just a week after failing to qualify Zenit for next season’s Champions League, the board at the club sacked Lucescu as head coach on 28th May.

Stagnation of both Summer and Winter Transfer Window signings

It was just short of five years ago when in September 2012, Zenit stunned the footballing world with the GBP 64 million double signing of Brazilian international striker Hulk and Belgium international midfielder Axel Witsel from Porto and Benfica respectively, two players who had been highly coveted by some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Nowadays, Zenit’s spending has been curbed as a result of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, meaning that their owners, natural gas giant Gazprom can no longer finance such lavish purchases without first having to bring in funds via player sales. Both Hulk and Witsel departed Zenit this season, departing for Chinese clubs Shanghai SIPG and Tianjin Quanjian for a staggering combined fee of EUR 75.8 million meaning that Zenit incredibly made a profit on two transfers they never would have thought possible. The departures of Hulk and Witsel alongside Argentine full back Cristian Ansaldi who joined Italian club Genoa for EUR 4 million and Argentine centre back Ezequiel Garay who joined Valencia for EUR 24 million meant that Zenit raised a total of EUR 103.8 million in cash in both last summer and this winter’s transfer windows. As a result of raising such a substantial sum of money, in both transfer windows Lucescu was backed by Zenit’s hierarchy with some of this cash and splashed out a total of EUR 35.4 million on 9 players to fill the gaps left by the departures of Hulk, Witsel and Garay.

However, the vast majority of these summer signings have not been a success. Curiously though, I don’t think it is down to consistently poor performances from these players, more a case that Lucescu, simply never gave them an opportunity to play regularly thus making it hard to judge them on their performances. The most notable case in point is 25 year-old Russian international centre back Ivan Novoseltsev who was bought as a replacement for the aforementioned Garay on the final day of the summer transfer window for a fee of EUR 10 million from last season’s surprise package in Russian football, FK Rostov. Last season Novoseltsev was one of the best defenders in the Russian Premier League as he helped his old club Rostov finish 2nd in the 2015-16 Russian Premier League, narrowly missing out by a single point on winning the league. The move to Zenit for Novoseltsev seemed like a logical one, the player had just broken into the senior Russian national team as a result of his performances for Rostov and by playing for Zenit, he would get the opportunity to play at one of Russian football’s biggest clubs not to mention his chances of becoming a regular for his country in time for the 2018 World Cup which Russia will host would only improve. However, the last 7/8 months have been a nightmare for Novoseltsev. He has appeared in only 5 games for Zenit out of a possible 25 games since he signed for them on deadline day of the summer transfer window. This is incredibly the same number of league matches he played for his previous club Rostov this season where he was a regular starter and played in the first 5 matches of the season before his move to Zenit.

Players like Novoseltsev are not an isolated case either with Zenit’s transfers this season and how they were ridiculously under-used by Lucescu. Another example is 23 year-old Brazilian midfielder Hernani who was signed for a fee of EUR 10 million in the January transfer window on a 5 year contract from Brazilian club Atletico Paranense as a replacement for the aforementioned Witsel. Hernani has pedigree in Brazil, he was a regular starter in the top flight of Brazilian football for his old club for the last 3 seasons and was part of a Brazil under 17 national team that emerged victorious in the 2011 Under 17’s South American Championship. Yet, he barely had a kick under Lucescu, featuring in only 9 games in both league and Europa League since signing in the winter transfer window and has spent a lot of the time on Zenit’s bench. A fee of EUR 3 million brought French winger Yohan Mollo from modest Russian club Krylia Sovetov to Saint Petersburg in the January transfer window after the Frenchman had impressed at Krylia and was their stand out player. Yet since arriving at Zenit, Mollo has only featured 7 times, scoring only 1 goal and the majority of his appearances since signing have been as a sub. Prior to Mollo arriving at Zenit, the club had splashed out EUR 3.5 million on another winger in the summer transfer window, 26 year old Slovak Robert Mak acquired from Greek club PAOK where he had shone as one of the best players in the Greek league and was just coming off the back of a fine European Championship with the Slovak national team. Yet despite making 14 league appearances out of 17 pre-winter break in the league, Mak’s appearances post-winter break have been far more sporadic, with only 4 appearances in 13 games and in none of those matches has he played for the full duration or started the match.

The most damning statistic of all was that in Zenit’s last match this season against Lokomotiv away on Matchday 30, Novoseltsev, Hernani, Mollo, Mak and another winter window signing familiar to all – former Chelsea star Branislav Ivanovic were all glued to the substitutes bench and did not start. The combined transfer fees of Novoseltsev, Hernani, Mollo and Mak total EUR 26.5 million, which for a club outside of one of Europe’s top 4 ranked leagues like Zenit is a staggering total. Only 2 of Lucescu’s 9 transfers over the last 2 transfer windows, 27 year-old Brazilian international attacking midfielder Giuliano signed from Brazilian club Gremio for EUR 7 million and by far Zenit’s best player this season and 25 year-old Russian international goalkeeper Andrey Lunyov who was signed from mid-table Russian Premier League side FK Ufa for EUR 3.5 million in the winter transfer window have been regular starters under Lucescu. This lack of integration of big money signings coupled with Zenit’s poor season justifies the sacking of Lucescu in my opinion. Lucescu particularly liked signing and playing young Brazilian players when he was Shakhtar manager, so his treatment of a young Brazilian player signed at considerable expense like Hernani is very bizarre. With regards to Novoseltsev, the bizarreness of his signing is encompassed even further by the fact for large chunks of the season, Lucescu played 30 year-old former Italian international Domenico Criscito, normally a left back in the centre of defence ahead of Novoseltsev, which makes you ask why was such a large transfer fee paid for a player when the manager clearly does not fancy him and would rather play a player out of position in his place?

Admittedly, Zenit like all clubs in Russia do have to adhere to a ruling whereby a minimum of 5 players eligible for the Russian national team must be in a team’s starting eleven for every league match, which in the case of Hernani has not helped him be a regular in the team. Nonetheless, Zenit have numerous Russian players who feature as regular starters like Lunyov, Igor Smolnikov, Yuri Zhirkov, Artur Yuzupov, Oleg Shatov, Artem Dzyuba and Brazilian born central midfielder Mauricio who has resided in Russia for 7 years and holds a Russian passport. Based on all the potential options above, it should not have proved too difficult to fit Hernani in the starting line up alongside fitting in enough Russian qualified players to satisfy the quota.

It was just short of five years ago when in September 2012, Zenit stunned the footballing world with the GBP 64 million double signing of Brazilian international striker Hulk and Belgium international midfielder Axel Witsel from Porto and Benfica respectively, two players who had been highly coveted by some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Nowadays, Zenit’s spending has been curbed as a result of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, meaning that their owners, natural gas giant Gazprom can no longer finance such lavish purchases without first having to bring in funds via player sales. Both Hulk and Witsel departed Zenit this season, departing for Chinese clubs Shanghai SIPG and Tianjin Quanjian for a staggering combined fee of EUR 75.8 million meaning that Zenit incredibly made a profit on two transfers they never would have thought possible. The departures of Hulk and Witsel alongside Argentine full back Cristian Ansaldi who joined Italian club Genoa for EUR 4 million and Argentine centre back Ezequiel Garay who joined Valencia for EUR 24 million meant that Zenit raised a total of EUR 103.8 million in cash in both last summer and this winter’s transfer windows. As a result of raising such a substantial sum of money, in both transfer windows Lucescu was backed by Zenit’s hierarchy with some of this cash and splashed out a total of EUR 35.4 million on 9 players to fill the gaps left by the departures of Hulk, Witsel and Garay.

However, the vast majority of these summer signings have not been a success. Curiously though, I don’t think it is down to consistently poor performances from these players, more a case that Lucescu, simply never gave them an opportunity to play regularly thus making it hard to judge them on their performances. The most notable case in point is 25 year-old Russian international centre back Ivan Novoseltsev who was bought as a replacement for the aforementioned Garay on the final day of the summer transfer window for a fee of EUR 10 million from last season’s surprise package in Russian football, FK Rostov. Last season Novoseltsev was one of the best defenders in the Russian Premier League as he helped his old club Rostov finish 2nd in the 2015-16 Russian Premier League, narrowly missing out by a single point on winning the league. The move to Zenit for Novoseltsev seemed like a logical one, the player had just broken into the senior Russian national team as a result of his performances for Rostov and by playing for Zenit, he would get the opportunity to play at one of Russian football’s biggest clubs not to mention his chances of becoming a regular for his country in time for the 2018 World Cup which Russia will host would only improve. However, the last 7/8 months have been a nightmare for Novoseltsev. He has appeared in only 5 games for Zenit out of a possible 25 games since he signed for them on deadline day of the summer transfer window. This is incredibly the same number of league matches he played for his previous club Rostov this season where he was a regular starter and played in the first 5 matches of the season before his move to Zenit.

Players like Novoseltsev are not an isolated case either with Zenit’s transfers this season and how they were ridiculously under-used by Lucescu. Another example is 23 year-old Brazilian midfielder Hernani who was signed for a fee of EUR 10 million in the January transfer window on a 5 year contract from Brazilian club Atletico Paranense as a replacement for the aforementioned Witsel. Hernani has pedigree in Brazil, he was a regular starter in the top flight of Brazilian football for his old club for the last 3 seasons and was part of a Brazil under 17 national team that emerged victorious in the 2011 Under 17’s South American Championship. Yet, he barely had a kick under Lucescu, featuring in only 9 games in both league and Europa League since signing in the winter transfer window and has spent a lot of the time on Zenit’s bench. A fee of EUR 3 million brought French winger Yohan Mollo from modest Russian club Krylia Sovetov to Saint Petersburg in the January transfer window after the Frenchman had impressed at Krylia and was their stand out player. Yet since arriving at Zenit, Mollo has only featured 7 times, scoring only 1 goal and the majority of his appearances since signing have been as a sub. Prior to Mollo arriving at Zenit, the club had splashed out EUR 3.5 million on another winger in the summer transfer window, 26 year old Slovak Robert Mak acquired from Greek club PAOK where he had shone as one of the best players in the Greek league and was just coming off the back of a fine European Championship with the Slovak national team. Yet despite making 14 league appearances out of 17 pre-winter break in the league, Mak’s appearances post-winter break have been far more sporadic, with only 4 appearances in 13 games and in none of those matches has he played for the full duration or started the match.

The most damning statistic of all was that in Zenit’s last match this season against Lokomotiv away on Matchday 30, Novoseltsev, Hernani, Mollo, Mak and another winter window signing familiar to all – former Chelsea star Branislav Ivanovic were all glued to the substitutes bench and did not start. The combined transfer fees of Novoseltsev, Hernani, Mollo and Mak total EUR 26.5 million, which for a club outside of one of Europe’s top 4 ranked leagues like Zenit is a staggering total. Only 2 of Lucescu’s 9 transfers over the last 2 transfer windows, 27 year-old Brazilian international attacking midfielder Giuliano signed from Brazilian club Gremio for EUR 7 million and by far Zenit’s best player this season and 25 year-old Russian international goalkeeper Andrey Lunyov who was signed from mid-table Russian Premier League side FK Ufa for EUR 3.5 million in the winter transfer window have been regular starters under Lucescu. This lack of integration of big money signings coupled with Zenit’s poor season justifies the sacking of Lucescu in my opinion. Lucescu particularly liked signing and playing young Brazilian players when he was Shakhtar manager, so his treatment of a young Brazilian player signed at considerable expense like Hernani is very bizarre. With regards to Novoseltsev, the bizarreness of his signing is encompassed even further by the fact for large chunks of the season, Lucescu played 30 year-old former Italian international Domenico Criscito, normally a left back in the centre of defence ahead of Novoseltsev, which makes you ask why was such a large transfer fee paid for a player when the manager clearly does not fancy him and would rather play a player out of position in his place?

Admittedly, Zenit like all clubs in Russia do have to adhere to a ruling whereby a minimum of 5 players eligible for the Russian national team must be in a team’s starting eleven for every league match, which in the case of Hernani has not helped him be a regular in the team. Nonetheless, Zenit have numerous Russian players who feature as regular starters like Lunyov, Igor Smolnikov, Yuri Zhirkov, Artur Yuzupov, Oleg Shatov, Artem Dzyuba and Brazilian born central midfielder Mauricio who has resided in Russia for 7 years and holds a Russian passport. Based on all the potential options above, it should not have proved too difficult to fit Hernani in the starting line up alongside fitting in enough Russian qualified players to satisfy the quota.

Zenit’s promising young players discarded without being given a chance

Whilst CSKA is currently entering into a promising period with many young players breaking into the club’s first team, the polar opposite could be said of Zenit this season. Not only did Lucescu ignore Zenit’s summer and winter transfers, he has also completely ignored and discarded promising young players Zenit had on their payroll. The most notable example of this is 21 year-old Serbian centre back Vukasin Jovanovic. Jovanovic was signed in the winter transfer window of the 2015-2016 season as a 19 year-old from Red Star Belgrade after forging a reputation as a potential future international for the Serbian national team. On an international level, Jovanovic has made an impression too as he was part of the Serbian Under 20s national team that won the 2015 FIFA Under 20s World Cup. After spending the first 6 months of his time in Russian football playing with Zenit’s B team who play in the second tier of Russian football to acclimatise to moving to Russian football, Jovanovic would have expected to have been given an opportunity in the first team this season. However, such an opportunity never came under Lucescu who kept the youngster with Zenit’s B team during the first half of the season and then in the January transfer window, Jovanovic was loaned out to French Ligue 1 side Bordeaux for the remainder of the season after failing in 18 months to make a single first team appearance for Zenit.

Another example of a young player given the cold shoulder by Lucescu was 24 year-old central midfielder Pavel Moglievets. Last season, 24 year-old Moglievets had a season long loan at FK Rostov due to an inability to break into Zenit’s first team. At Rostov, Moglievets had a breakthrough season, appearing in 26 games out of 30 for Rostov helping the club to their shock 2nd place finish whilst also impressing with his personal performances. Upon returning to Saint Petersburg, Moglievets would have had ambitions to finally break into Zenit’s first team squad and become a regular starter, however, Lusescu never seemed interested in playing him and frustrated by this lack of an opportunity, Moglievets left Zenit permanently in this season’s winter transfer window and re-joined Rostov.

Lucescu’s reluctance to even give Jovanovic and Moglievets a chance in Zenit’s first team was extremely strange especially considering that in the last 12-18 months the performances of some of Zenit’s senior players has declined and also because at Shakhtar, young players like Willian and Douglas Costa were brought to the club and introduced into the starting line up straight away by Lucescu. At Shakhtar, if a player was good enough, Lucescu deemed him old enough to play, however, at Zenit, promising youngsters have been forgotten about and after at times almost seemingly not knowing what to do with them, Lucescu simply discarded them without a thought as to how to use them.

Poor scapegoating of referees and officials and the failure to breathe fresh air into an ageing squad made the case to give Lucescu a second season at Zenit impossible to support

In another of Manuel Veth’s Futbolgrad articles about Lucescu’s unsuccessful spell at Zenit, it was brought up how Lucescu allegedly suspected that the officials at the Russian Football Union and Russian Premier League referees favoured the big Muscovite teams like Spartak and CSKA over Zenit. Personally, however, I believe that the fact that Lucescu and Zenit were able to take the fight for 2nd place and Champions League qualification to the last game of the season was helped by some poor refereeing decisions in games involving Zenit that went in the club’s favour. The first of these examples was Zenit’s 2-0 victory over Ural Sverdlovsk in Matchday 24 of the Russian Premier League. For the first 60 minutes of the game, Ural were matching Zenit all over the pitch and were on course for either a shock draw or victory when on 60 minutes, Ural’s Romanian attacking midfielder Eric Bicfalvi was harshly shown a second yellow card for a tackle, which despite on first inspection looking like a poor challenge actually on the replays showed him winning the ball cleanly. In the aftermath of Bicfalvi’s red card, Ural’s players surrounded the referee and after saying something out of turn to the referee, Ural’s former Tottenham and Spartak striker Roman Pavyluchenko was also sent off. Seeing their opponents reduced to 9 players meant that a previously well-balanced game was turned on its head in a controversial moment and eventually, Zenit broke down 9 man Ural with 2 late goals.

The following Matchday, Zenit also benefitted from another fortunate decision when in their 1-0 victory over eventually relegated FC Orenburg, they were given a contentious penalty which resulted in their only goal in that game. The penalty incident was one of those incidents where yes, I have seen them given, however, having viewed the incident both in real time and on several replays after the incident, I came to the conclusion that it was a soft penalty. Prior to the penalty and for the rest of the game, Zenit were well matched by relegation threatened Orenburg and without that contentious penalty, I honestly believe they would have struggled to beat Orenburg. The above two incidents made Lucescu’s alleged claims about referees favouring the Muscovite teams like Spartak and CSKA lose credibility, they were in my opinion a poor excuse to hide behind his failings at Zenit. The seemingly pointless decision to splash out considerable sums of money on summer signings and give barely any of them regular game time, a failure to integrate some promising young players into Zenit’s first team to breath some freshness into the club and the fact that all season in both domestic and European games, Zenit have looked below par and average even when winning games. Despite winning their Europa League group with 5 wins from 6 games, even heavy weather was made of that with 3 of those 5 wins being by only a solitary goal against Irish side Dundalk and Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv. Whilst Villas Boas arguably underachieved at the club, in the 2015-16 season he managed 5 wins from 6 group games in the Champions League in a far tougher group containing Valencia, Lyon and Genk and won one trophy at the club in his final year, the Russian Cup, something Lucescu was not able to achieve.

Zenit also possess one of the oldest squads in Russian football and having watched them over the last 2 seasons, I am of the belief that many of their older players who have been the cornerstone of their successes in recent seasons are now past their peak and need replacing sooner rather than later. The average age of the starting eleven that took to the field against Lokomotiv in their final game of this season had an average age of 28.37 years. Furthermore, Zenit’s bench included the likes of Nicolas Lombaerts (31), Brantislav Ivanovic (32), Alexandr Anyukov (34) and Alexandr Kerzakhov (34). Zenit faced with this, need to act now to begin reducing the average age of their squad over the next 18 months to 2 seasons with younger players. Based on all that has occurred over the 2016-17 season at the club under Lucescu, I believe that keeping him for a second season would have been a mistake and that a change of manager was needed. His failure to integrate expensive signings into the first team and to give younger players an opportunity has been a constant feature this season and Lucescu in my opinion would not have changed his ideas on this or reduced the average age of the squad had he been given a second season which would have delayed the process of rebuilding Zenit’s squad even longer and as many clubs are finding out nowadays in modern football, failure to prepare is preparing to fail. I respect Lucescu for his fine managerial career and all that he achieved with clubs like Galatasaray, Besiktas and Shakhtar, however, his time at Zenit was a big disappointment and I believe the club’s decision to make a change was the correct one.

Conclusion

After inheriting a difficult situation at the club upon taking over in December 2016, Viktor Goncharenko has turned CSKA’s fortunes around in just 13 league matches as their manager with the adaptation of a fresh new formation, bringing in previously unfancied players from the cold and making them integral parts of the first team and integrating promising youngsters into CSKA’s first team from the reserves and academy. The future looks bright for CSKA. However, at Zenit, the future looks less bright, an ageing squad which has not been freshened up with new young faces, and both summer and winter window transfers who have been signed and ignored without being given a chance. Reportedly, former Inter Milan and Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini is set to be appointed the new manager of Zenit within days in a real coup for the club. However, upon Mancini’s forecasted arrival at Zenit, there is a lot of urgent matters highlighted above that need fixing and the difficulty of the job is emphasised as a result of the fact that a failure to qualify for the Champions League will probably result in a manager not being given a second season at the club. It will be a fascinating challenge that awaits Mancini and I would argue the toughest of his managerial career so far.

Richard Pike

Richard Pike

Keen fan and season ticket holder at Wigan Athletic in League One. Football addict who has been watching the beautiful game since the age of 7 with the first memories of the sport being the Euro 1996 Championships in England. Interested in all leagues and teams both domestically and on the continent with a particular interest and focus on upper-middle ranking European leagues such as the Russian, Portuguese and Turkish Leagues.
Richard Pike