How High Can the Rocket Go?, by Manuel Veth

Photo Credit: Tom Kludt

The World Cup party in Russia is now truly underway. Russian spectators have gone from being hosts to partying with the fans of foreign teams, to finally embracing their national team after Russia caused a massive upset in the quarterfinals against Spain.

As foreigners, we can only marvel at this transformation. But looking back it makes sense why Russians were apprehensive about this side. The Sbornaya were shocking at the last two tournaments, going out at the group stages at the 2014 FIFA World Cup and Euro 2016 and then in the buildup of this tournament did not win an international match for seven games in a row.

That abysmal record did not include the victory against a club side last fall—a hastily arranged friendly against Dinamo Moscow at Khimki Arena at the outskirts of Moscow after the Russian Football Union failed to attract a potential opponent last November.

It is perhaps no surprise then that fans had fallen out of love with this Sbornaya. Furthermore, head coach Stanislav Cherchesov was seen as the wrong man at the wrong time by many. His tactics not adequate, his selection too much based on his favorites rather than the best players available.

His tactics were also criticised, especially his insistence of keeping to 3-5-2 in the buildup of the tournament despite losing key defenders Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikyia.

Without enough defenders how could Russia play 3-5-2? Initially, Cherchesov addressed that issue by nominating the 38-year-old CSKA Moscow defender Sergei Ignashevich. That in turn, was also criticized. How was a 38-year-old going to shut down the likes of Mohamed Salah, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez during the group stage?

At that point, the talk about Russia advancing from the group seemed almost impossible for most observers. The squad lacked talent, and the tactics were not suitable for the players the Sbornaya had at its disposal.

What came next, however, was a 5-0 victory over Saudi Arabia with a new 4-2-3-1 tactic rather than the 3-5-2—a switch that was almost unnoticed by most observers. Another aspect was that Alan Dzagoev went down with an injury, which forced Cherchesov to bring on Villarreal midfielder Denis Cheryshev, who had the game of his life against Saudi Arabia.

Cheryshev, in fact, has used this tournament to arrive at the Sbornaya  finally. Always considered a bit of an outsider—Cheryshev spent most of his life in Spain as his father Dmitri spent most of his career with Sporting Gijon in La Liga—the 27-year-old scored two goals in the opener and then the third goal against Egypt.

He’s not the only one that has used this tournament to make a mark. In January, Zenit St. Petersburg sent striker Artem Dzyuba away to Arsenal Tula. For a long time Dzyuba had led both Russia and Zenit. Head coach Roberto Mancini felt that the tall and jovial striker did no longer fit his concept.

Sent away, Dzyuba was thought to be out of contention for the national team. But what followed was a fantastic spring in which Dzyuba scored six goals in ten games for Arsenal Tula – including one goal that would ultimately cost Zenit a spot in the Champions League. At Arsenal he guided a side of unknowns within one point of UEFA Europa League qualification, showing real leadership and getting himself back into contention for a spot in the national team.

At that point, Fedor Smolov had firmly established himself as the number one striker in the Sbornaya and was even considered as the brightest talent in this side. Cherchesov, in the meantime, had nominated Dzyuba somewhat reluctantly—jokester Dzyuba and the stern Cherchesov did not always see eye to eye.

Ultimately, Dzyuba was seen as a squad player. Someone to come on at the end of the match to either hold the ball up front or to get a last-minute goal if needed. But in the first match, Smolov succumbed to the pressure and Cherchesov reacted by bringing on Dzyuba.

The striker thanked his coach by scoring Russia’s third goal and then another goal against Egypt. Perhaps it was the months in the Russian wilderness playing for Arsenal Tula, but Dzyuba seemed to have finally learned the importance of work ethic and tracking back as the striker’s work rate in all three matches of the group stage and then in the quarterfinals against Spain was impressive.

That quarterfinal against Spain, in fact, may have firmly established him among the leaders of this side. Down a goal, he stepped up in the 40th minute to convert a penalty to level the score and then was among the hardest working players throughout the remaining 80 minutes as the game stretched all the way to extra-time and then penalties.

There another player stood out who in the past has been the centre of criticism. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was excellent throughout the 120 minutes against Spain and then saved two penalties in the shootout to see his side advance. Voted the player of the match, the 32-year-old CSKA Moscow keeper has in the past often been the source of Russia gloriously going out in previous tournaments—most recently at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.

Generally a technical, excellent goalkeeper, Akinfeev’s career has been marked by a series of errors and a dubious record in the Champions League – the goalkeeper did not record a clean sheet for 43 Champions League games in a row.

Those mistakes and the Champions League record overshadow records set in the Russian Football Premier League. The leader of the prestigious Lev Yashin Club—a ranking that includes all Soviet and post-Soviet keepers that have kept more than 100 clean sheets throughout their career —Akinfeev has kept 245 clean sheets (44 for Russia)—throughout his career.

The 32-year-old has identified this tournament as a way to repair his image as a mistake-prone keeper by leading his country to the later stages of the competition. And there is a good chance that this could happen—after Russia went through there were Igor Akinfeev chants on the streets of Moscow as he was identified as one of the biggest heroes of this side.

Cheryshev, Dzyuba and Akinfeev, therefore, symbolize the rise of the Sbornaya from the ashes. But what about the fans? Ahead of the match one of the biggest worries was the support.

After losing 3-0 against Uruguay there was little disappointment as the second-place finish would allow Russia to play in Moscow at the Luzhniki rather than in Sochi. At the 78,110 seat arena, they believed, the support would be bigger than in the Black Sea resort town.

Furthermore, Spain’s passing game seemed to suit Russia’s running game better. Spain like to tire teams by passing the ball until the opponent breaks down. But running stats published throughout the tournament highlighted that Cherchesov had his side turned into a running machine with the necessary work ethic to break down an opponent like Spain.

What, however, would happen if Spain took the lead? Russian fans are famous for their enthusiasm but also for their melancholy. When the game started, there was almost a sense of anxiety, fear mixed with hope that seemed to be quickly squashed by La Roja’s lead.

In the past, that anxiety would have carried over to the field. Disasters and lost momentum are after all a Russian national team speciality. But perhaps it is Cherchesov’s biggest achievement to have installed a sense of belief among the players.

Even after going down, and with the stadium becoming more and more anxious, Russia continued to execute their game plan. When Russia scored the atmosphere only briefly improved. It almost felt like the nation was collectively holding its breath—only briefly exhaling in loud shrieks every time the Sbornaya won the ball—for the 80-plus minutes after Dzyuba equalized.

Those shrieks of expectations grew into a roar when the clock ticked of minute after minute, first into over-time and then into penalties. Finally, when Akinfeev stopped Koke’s penalty the roar inside the Luzhniki became louder and then when he saved the fourth penalty, shot by Iago Aspas, which sent the country through to the next round, the roar became like a Russian rocket about to take off as players and fans were celebrating into the Moscow night.

That rocket without a doubt has now fired up the World Cup as Russian fans have truly arrived to join in the celebrations. But how high can the rocket go?

With Croatia, Russia face a team that matches their tactics. Croatia is more of a reactive team rather than a ball possession team. In fact, the sides are very similar—except that Croatia have a much more talented side. Hence, Russia will need a new game plan but as the country parties few doubt that Cherchesov is the man who can keep the Russian rocket fuelled long enough to reach the stars…

 

Manuel Veth is the Editor-in-Chief of the Futbolgrad Network, which focuses on football in the post-Soviet space, the Bundesliga and football in the Americas. He has also been published in the Guardian, Newsweek and several other outlets.