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Russia’s Leicester City: How FK Rostov are spearheading an unlikely title challenge

It is not just the English Premier League which has been gripped with underdog fever in its top flight this season as Rostov march towards a just as remarkable title triumph. Richard Pike is back with another gripping tale.

Rostov-on-Don, a quiet city based in the South-West part of the Russian Federation with a population of just under 1.1 million people. Not a place known by many outside of Russia and within Russia, both the city and the region are most well-known for its agricultural industry which produces one-third of Russia’s vegetable oil from sunflowers.

FC Rostov 2016

However, in the last few months, this has changed considerably thanks to the efforts of the town’s football club FK Rostov. When analysing Rostov’s history in post-Soviet era Russian football since 1991, their record has been unremarkable. Since winning promotion to the Russian top flight in 1994, the club has spent 20 seasons out of 21 (including this season) in the Russian Premier League and achieved a highest finish of 6th place in the 1998 season. Last season the club finished in 14th place out of 16 in the league, narrowly avoiding automatic relegation to the Russian First Division by virtue of a better head-to-head record and goal difference over 15th placed Torpedo Moscow. However, the club then had to endure a two-legged promotion/relegation playoff against second tier FK Tosno to preserve their top flight status, which they duly won 5-1 on aggregate. If you were to ask many English football fans to name 7 Russian football clubs, Rostov, understandably, would probably not be one of the names disclosed and are probably only briefly known in England as being a former club of David Bentley, the prodigy once touted as the long-term replacement for David Beckham in the English national team .

However, like Leicester City in the English Premier League, this season for Rostov could not emphasise better the phrase “What a difference a year makes”. After 22 rounds of the Russian Premier League, the Yellow-Blues are currently top of the standings with 44 points, one clear of second-placed CSKA Moscow with just 8 games to play in the season. Just like their English counterparts, their transformation from relegation battlers to championship contenders in just one season is remarkable. Leicester’s rise from obscurity to potential champions has been analysed by pundits and journalists, and fans all over England are aware of how their rise has come about, so just how have Rostov managed to “Do a Leicester”? Here is everything vital you need to know.

Russian football’s master tactician

Leicester’s rise to title contenders is in no small part down to the appointment of veteran Italian manager Claudio Ranieri who succeeded Nigel Pearson and built on the foundations Pearson left behind. With Rostov, the manager is also a key component of their stunning success story. The man in question is 63 year old Kurban Berdyev who was appointed manager of the club halfway through the 2014/15 season on 18/12/14.

The veteran coach from Turkmenistan, like Ranieri, found himself in a sticky situation upon arriving at the club midway through last season. The league had just broken up for its 3 month winter break after round 18 of 30 with Rostov bottom in 16th place and staring down at relegation. Yet, 5 wins from their next 6 matches meant Rostov jumped up the standings from bottom to 10th and even though they did not win any of their remaining league matches, that post-winter break burst kept them out of the automatic relegation places and eventually led to them preserving their top-flight status.

Battling against the odds suits Berdyev ideally, previously he was manager at fellow Russian Premier League club Rubin Kazan for a period of 12 years between 2001 and 2013. In that time, Rubin went from being a unheralded second division provincial side upon Berdyev’s appointment in 2001 to having won 1 Russian First Division Championship (2002), 2 Russian Premier League Championships (2008 and 2009), 1 Russian Cup (2011-12) and two third place Russian Premier League finishes (2003 and 2010) upon his departure in December 2013. Furthermore, Berdyev’s Rubin proved tough opposition for the finest European teams, which included 2 seasons competing in the Champions League by virtue of twice being Russian champions, the highlight of which being a famous 2-1 victory against then defending European Champions FC Barcelona at Camp Nou .To win the Russian league not once, but twice with a non-Muscovite/Saint Petersburg club is no fluke and it highlights the quality of coach Rostov have at their disposal.

Sows Ears converted into Silk Purses

Rubin’s double title win with in 2008 and 2009 was remarkable considering the club were spending a fraction of the sums spent by the Russian Premier League’s more illustrious clubs. Rostov’s success this season has been built on similar foundations, upon their narrow escape last season, Berdyev orchestrated a summer rebuild. Out went veterans like former Tottenham and Spartak Moscow goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa and Russian internationals Dimitri Torbinski and Vladimir Granat and in came young unheralded players like 20 year old Iranian forward Seydar Azmoun on loan from Rubin and 23 year old Russian central midfielder Pavel Moglievets on loan from Zenit Saint Petersburg. Both have proven to be fine signings for Rostov based on their performances this season, however, like Ranieri at Leicester this season, the ability of Burdyev to inherit players who last season looked nothing more than decent lower-table players and convert them into some of the best players in the league is the most impressive thing about Rostov’s transformation.

A notable example of this is Rostov’s 24 year old striker Dimitri Poloz, the club’s closest thing in style to Leicester’s Jamie Vardy. Poloz has been at Rostov since 2012 after he was released by Russian Premier League heavyweights Lokomotiv Moscow without making a single first team appearance for the Railwaymen. Like Vardy, last season was unremarkable, scoring just 4 goals in 20 games compared to Vardy’s 5 goals in 34 games. This season he has improved his goals tally to 7 goals in 22 games and also like Vardy, even when not scoring goals, he is getting assists and tirelessly working hard for the team. Other examples of Rostov players who have been transported from relative obscurity to the attention of a nation with their performances are 24 year old central defender Ivan Novoseltsev who arrived at the club last January from Torpedo Moscow and 29 year old goalkeeper Soslan Dzhanayev, who arrived from Spartak Moscow in 2014 having failed to establish himself as a youngster at the Muscovite giants making just 38 appearances in 6 seasons.

The Old Pals Act – You’ve Got a Friend in Me

Former BBC pundit Alan Hansen is much mocked for his infamous comment “You’ll win nothing with kids” when describing Manchester United’s title chances after their opening day defeat in the 1995-96 Premier League season (The Red Devils subsequently went on to win the league title at the end of that season), yet crucial components of their title win were Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce and Eric Cantona. All three were 28 years of age and older and played a big development in the maturity of Man Utd’s youngsters that season which culminated in a championship success. Berdyev certainly has experience in his ranks and turned to two of his old boys from his Championship winning days at Rubin to provide it.

The two players in question are 36 year old Spanish central defender Cesar Navas, signed on a free transfer last summer after his release after 6 successful years at Rubin and 30 year old Ecuadorian international central midfielder Christian Noboa who was signed from PAOK last summer after a short 6 month spell at the Greek club. Both Navas and Noboa proved to be crucial catalysts in Rubin’s 2009 title winning squad and their performances since their reunion with their old gaffer this summer for Rostov are just as impressive despite their now advanced years.

Navas, like Robert Huth and Wes Morgan for Leicester is a veteran old-school central defender who carries out the basics of defending to the best of his ability. Dominant in the air heading balls away using his near two meter height and always willing to make tackles and throw his body into blocks to prevent the opposition getting shots on target. Despite having just turned 36, on the evidence of what I have seen, Navas could still continue his career at this level for another few years as he has shown no noticeable signs of decline.

Whilst Navas is Rostov’s rock, Noboa is the cog of the team, a deep-lying playmaker who dictates the tempo of matches with his variety of short, medium and long-range passes. His display in last Saturday’s match against Spartak Moscow was key to Rostov’s 2-0 win as not only did he control the midfield, he worked tirelessly in a midfield three alongside Rostov’s captain, Moldovan international Alexandru Gatcan and Moglievets helping to snuff out Spartak’s attacks and whipped a fine ball into Spartak’s penalty box from an early free kick which was met by the head of Rostov’s central defender Bastos for the game’s opening goal. Finally, to crown off a man of the match display, he scored Rostov’s second goal in the match, a bullet header from a cross provided by Poloz after he had made a 40 or so yard attacking run into the centre of Spartak’s penalty area.

How Burdyev’s Rostov function tactically

Here is Rostov’s starting line-up at full strength.


Made using Tactical Pad

Made using Tactical Pad

Like Leicester, Rostov deploy 2 strikers, however instead of using 4-4-2, are set-up in a 5-3-2 formation. Often when a formation involving 3 central defenders is deployed, it is a message to both full-backs to operate as wing-backs and to primarily focus on attacking. Rostov however utilise their full-backs solely in a defensive capacity with both Kudrashov and Rotenberg rarely venturing past the halfway line. In their last two home matches against both CSKA and Spartak Moscow, the strength of both opponents primarily came from wide areas. CSKA having their two talented attacking full backs in Georgi Shchennikov and Mario Fernandes who both contribute with numerous assists. In Spartak’s case, their two wingers Dutchman Quincy Promes and Paraguayan Lorenzo Melgarejo have been two of the league’s best players this season. Yet, both CSKA and Spartak were rarely able to get in behind Rostov’s flanks, due to a combination of both the fullbacks being deeply positioned and the flexibility of three central defenders. For attacks down Rostov’s left, the left sided central defender moves across to either double up two on one with their full back on an opposing attacking winger or match up two on two against an opposing attacking fullback and winger. Furthermore, the right central defender can shuffle across more centrally alongside the middle central defender for attacks down the left meaning that should a ball happen to get into the box from out wide, there will always be two central defenders well-positioned waiting to head it clear. It is vice-versa for attacks down Rostov right.

In an attacking sense, Rostov differ from Leicester by playing narrow and centrally in contrast to Leicester’s deployment of two wingers in Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton. However, like Leicester, Rostov deploy two strikers in Azmoun and Poloz and the different defined roles assigned to both allow them to create goal scoring chances during matches. Poloz is utilised as a deep-lying forward who attempts to time runs beyond the opposition’s defensive line using his pace when a ball into space is played by either the deeper Noboa or more advanced Azmoun. Whilst Azmoun is Rostov’s more advanced playmaker, when Rostov do not have possession of the ball, his positioning centrally plays a vital role in helping Rostov’s midfield three protect their defence.

When the opposition centre backs have possession, Poloz and Azmoun both advance in line with each other but only press if one of the centre backs advances to within one or two yards of either of them. Essentially both are used primarily to pin the opposing centre backs deep, which creates a problem for their opponents when trying to get the ball forward to launch attacks. Because both occupy nearly equal distance between the opposing central defence and opposing central midfielders, should the centre backs try and play a pass forward to the central midfielders, Poloz and Azmoun have the time and positioning to try to intercept the pass and subsequently threaten the opposing centre backs. Equally, it forces the opposing centre backs to launch more direct passes to their advanced attacking players, which given the three central defenders, deeply positioned full backs and Gatcan’s role as an anchor-man midfield player sitting in-between the back 3 and other two central midfield players, Rostov can keep their discipline and shape in the centre of the field and snuff out opposition attacks.

Finally, it goes without saying that Rostov are a side that both work and press incredibly hard in midfield. Whenever an opposing midfielder has possession in an area of free space expect to see within seconds a swarm of yellow comprising of two Rostov players pressing them and attempting to win back the ball.

Many questions have been asked and so far each one has been answered

Like Leicester, Rostov have frequently this season had to ensure questions along the lines of “Will they last the pace?” “Do they have a Plan B when Plan A does not work?” etc. They have answered their critics on every occasion. Prior to their match against then leaders CSKA in round 20, it was widely perceived this would halt the Rostov bandwagon much like Leicester’s trip this season to the Etihad to face Man City in the Premier League. Rostov’s subsequent 2-0 victory against CSKA was as powerful a message as the Foxes’ 3-1 win over Man City, in both cases the answer to the question “Will they last the pace?” was “We are in this title race and will be to the bitter end”.

When Leicester lost only their second match this season against Liverpool at Anfield on Boxing Day, many wondered if that would herald a bad run of form and a slide down the table, yet from the New Year onwards, they went on a long unbeaten run and remained at the top. Rostov followed up their win against CSKA with a disappointing away draw at mid-table Amkar Perm. After this, the critics were sharpening their knives, yet their response last Saturday in blowing away Spartak at home firmly silenced them.

Another common line is “Do they have the depth of squad to sustain a challenge?, Some of Leicester’s reserve players when called upon this season have been decisive in winning the club vital points, most notably their striker Leonardo Ulloa who struck the winning goal in their 1-0 home win against Norwich. Rostov’s reserves have also delivered when it matters. Against CSKA, Berdyev was without the services of his two first-choice fullbacks, yet Rostov’s reserve fullbacks Timofei Margasov and Denis Terentyev, both of whom are just 23 years old performed admirably in the absence of Kudrashov and Rotenberg. Both Kanga and Moglievets rotate in their ball winning/box-to-box central midfield role and both perform capably when they stand in for each other.

Finally, like the Foxes, Rostov have perfected a habit every Championship winning side in any league needs to have, the ability to win ugly. As Leicester’s season has gone on, the performances have not been as fluid and as flamboyant as early doors, but there is three points after every game and a zero next to the goals against column. Rostov’s first game after the winter break, a 1-0 win against relegation strugglers Krylia Sovetov was the perfect example of an “ugly but title winning victory”, a well below par performance, yet their captain Gatcan stabbed home a scuffed shot from a Rostov corner into the opposition’s net and the defence held firm to hold on for a priceless win. With just 16 goals conceded in 22 matches, Rostov are following in the footsteps of all other title winning sides, emphasising that a good defence is just as key to a title win as a good attack.

So can they do it?

Rostov’s remaining fixtures (current positions of their opponents bracketed) are Anzhi (H) (16th/16th), Kuban Krasnodar (A) (13th/16th), Zenit (H) (4th/16th), Mordovia (A) (15th/16th), Lokomotiv Moscow (H) (3rd/16th), Dynamo Moscow (A) (11th/16th), Ural (H) (8th/16th), Terek (A) (5th/16th). People may look at Zenit and Lokomotiv and highlight them as likely defeats, yet after having watched Rostov confidently dispatch both CSKA and Spartak 2-0 in their last two home matches, they will not fear both Zenit and Lokomotiv coming to town. Like Leicester’s King Power Stadium, Rostov’s 15,840 capacity Olimp-2 stadium provides an intimidating atmosphere for any visiting team and if they can dispatch teams like CSKA, why not Lokomotiv and Zenit? Prior to the wins against CSKA and Spartak, I was not a believer, I honestly thought they would drop off and finish 4th or 5th, now however, I feel they have just as much of a chance as either of the two pre-season title favourites, Zenit and CSKA. However, Rostov’s position is not as strong as Leicester’s and given how many exciting twists and turns I have seen in the Russian Premier League this season, this title race will go down to the wire. Because of this, I am going to remain sitting on the fence and won’t give a final prediction just yet.

Nonetheless, wherever they finish at the end of the season, Rostov have made a real impression on me when watching them in the same way that Leicester have in England. In a modern footballing world which is increasingly seeing an ever-smaller number of super-clubs fighting for honours and ever-increasing amounts of money ending up at an ever-smaller batch of clubs, Rostov and Leicester’s rise from relegation contenders to potential league champions in just one season is a breath of fresh air. It is proof that even if player-wise you lack the individual talent of other richer clubs, with good defensive organisation, clever tactics and a never say die team spirit, sometimes miracles can still happen in football.

Written by Richard Pike.

Richard Pike

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