Russia: Hosts, question marks, low expectations

Russia is a weird team to profile. There was a lot of talk, and a whatever it takes attitude toward making the national team successful. They even talked of starting the national team as a club side in their own national competition. However the big plans did not come to fruition. They will start the tournament with an ageing and injury-ridden squad.  

Many players are absent with injuries, who might have expected to start this summer. In defence Vasin and Dzikhiya will be missing. This lead to the call up of 38 year old Sergei Ignashevich.

Kokorin – considered the country’s top attacking talent – will be watching the tournament from the stands. Meanwhile Dzyuba, a prolific striker and top attacking talent in Andre Villas-Boas’s Zenit saw his career slow down and spent the last months on loan at Arsenal Tula

Cheryshov played a back three (3421) with the national team for most of his tenure, due to the preference of most Russian club teams to play with a back three. However in recent pre-world cup friendlies they fielded a back four. They started in a 442 shape against Turkey, and a 433 against Austria.

How strong are they?

The midfielders lack mobility, the wingbacks will hardly beat anyone 1 v 1, the attack is rather static and ball movement far too wobbly and slow. Very few of their players seem special on the world stage.

So how about the sum of the players? The qualities of the individuals do not seem to click and complement each other apart from a few partnerships. Doesn’t sound very good, does it? 

The side will struggle to score goals, with a lack of organised movements and very few players who are special on the world stage. However their group draw is very easy, and progressing from the group is possible. Getting past the last 16 would be a huge surprise, as both likely opponents Portugal and Spain are far better quality. 

Tactical Trends in the Friendlies

One of their players who might be worth watching is 22-year old Aleksandr Golovin. He played as a winger throughout his youth career, but switched to a deep playmaker role under the current CSKA Moscow coach. He was back on the left wing against Turkey. In the middle Dzagoev and Smolov started as the striker partnership.  

Structure at cross 2nd ball - 24th minute TurkeyBased on this one friendly I don’t think Golovin’s best position is on the left wing. Even if he got an initial advantage over the fullback, he had to pull back the ball on his right foot. This caused problems for the strikers in the timing of their runs.

The moment he cut back the ball on his right the initial advantage for the strikers in the middle was gone. The defenders had  more time to settle, take their reference points. Now the defenders could push out and attack the ball instead of having to clear the ball while retreating. Not to mention that bringing a hard cross to the first post with the right foot is very difficult if not impossible from this close to the line. Such crosses are easier for the goalkeeper to collect.

Even if chance creation from the initial cross was difficult, their structure for collecting the second ball/clearance was decent. Instead of attacking the far post, Samedov moved in front of the box, Zobnin and Gazinskiy took different lines in the central zone. 

Samedov – mobility on the right wing

Samedov often asked for the ball inside, between the lines. As the ball was switched to him Smolnikov made the overlap with full speed. The fullback was eager to get forward.

Samedov moves deeper, one striker wide - 43. minute v Turkey.pngSometimes Samedov moved in  front of the Turkish midfielders. The roles about which Turkish player should go with him, or how to defend him in these moments were not clear. The central midfielder on this side stepped out, leaving too much space between the lines. Meanwhile the fullback also moved out, but in a position that was totally inaffectual. He left space wide, while not gaining any access to the ball. Smolov could be isolated 1 v 1 against the Turkish central defender.

Despite his good initial movement without the ball he failed to capitalise on it. He is neither the player to beat an opponent with dribbling and speed in these situations, and was too heavily reliant on his right foot to thread a final pass through to Dzagoev arriving from behind,making a run through to the goal in the blindside of the ball far central defender.

Overloads and collecting second balls after goalkicks

Long goalkick, 2nd ball - 52nd minute v TurkeySamedov’s inside positioning creates the extra man to collect second balls after goal kicks. With the Turkish midfielder caught between him and Gazinskiy, there is an extra man on the ball side for collecting the second balls. Meanwhile Dzagoev and Smolov play off each other, one making the aerial duel, the other attacking the space behind the defence.

Meanwhile Samedov and Gazinskiy press and collect the ball that bounces back. Smolnikov presses the winger very aggressively from behind. Smolnikov was eager to press forward and make use of every pressing trigger. Not only was he active in overlapping in attack, but he demonstrated a level of proactiveness and aggressivity in pressing the ball that is rare to see in international football.

Team Defending

Problem with distance between central defenders - 7th min v Turkey.pngIn their own third they play a narrow 4411 system. Their issues are with the distance between the two central defenders when the fullback moves out to press the opponent’s wide player – in this case the fullback coming up. Ignashevich moves out to the halfspace, Kutepov is too far from the striker.

The far side central midfielder – Zobnin – is not sliding back to close the space between the two central defenders. The ball side central midfielder is not covering the passing lane to the striker.

Not to mention that Golovin is not very active in pressing backwards and applying pressure on the wing in case the ball surpasses him.

Central midfielder has to step out in the halfspace - 48th min v Turkey.pngAs with most  international sides, the defending of the strikers can be an issue. They can leave the midfield unprotected. This combined with the width of their midfield line due to the man orientation of their wingers on the fullbacks can cause a real issue. The central midfielders have to cover too much space, as they have to step out to press in the halfspaces.

The two strikers often start defending too far from the midfield line. They can’t put pressure on the ball in the halfspace, they get isolated and they can’t cover the passing lane to the six space from the deep halfspace. Due to the distance between Zobnin and Gazinskiy, it is easy to double up in the midfield on the player who attempts to press in the halfspace. 

Their defending in the wide areas can be exploited too. Golovin’s lack of closing back once the ball got past him caused problems. One example of this came in the 54th minute, when Zobnin moved wide to track the player who made the run behind the fullback stepping out on the winger. Golovin didn’t close back to the central midfield position, this space was used by the fullback to overlap and make a free cross.  

Basic mistake in the workings of a back 4 - 59th min v Turkey.pngIn some moments the back four looks very shaky, especially when it comes to deciding when to take which reference point. For example here Malli can make a free run, Smolnikov is too far from the central defenders. The midfielders are too far from the last defender on the picture. Either Kutepov doesn’t have to step out, a midfielder has to track the run of Malli or the fullback has to be in that space. Any of these solutions can work.

This situation arose after a hopeful clearance from the goalkeeper. A pretty straightforward, easy to read situation for a well organised defence. But they looked anything but that.

So back 5 or back 4?

Although after playing two World Cup friendlies with a back four starting again with a back five would be surprising, but still certain moments might be useful in highlighting the individual qualities or certain tactical issues of the Russian team.

Attacking Processes in 3421

The game against France featured their preferred 3421 formation. Golovin played as one of the deep playmakers in front of the back five.

In the buildup phase France played with a narrow 433. The winger attacked the Russian sideback when he attempted to dribble into the game. In this moment Golovin only had to step out of the cover shadow to receive the ball free past the first line of the French defence. 

Russia attempted runs from midfield the moment the fullback stepped out to the wingback, a fairly common tactical occurrence if a back five and a back four meet. 

Attacking the space behind the fullback v France - 6th min.pngThe moment the French fullback stepped out to the wingback, an attacking midfielder – Erokhin in this case – made the run behind.  The larger the distance between the central defender and the fullback, the more effective these runs are. Or if the central defender is occupied, he might support behind the fullback too late and the Erokhin can get an advantage with his run. In this particular instance Miranchuk moved back in front of the defensive midfielder, so there was no manipulation of the backline, the central defender could simply let him go.

Lack of movement from players in advanced lines

Not to mention that the ball circulation was slow, so the French backline was already compact when Golovin received the ball. They were not stretched by having to shift from one side to the other all the time. 

In other cases the problem was more severe than the movement of certain players. Sometimes nobody attacked the space behind. With such static attacking players the team was easy to defend.

After a while Mbappe started defending from Golovin instead of pushing out to Neustadter. The ex-German-became-Russian central defender was pressed by the young Frenchman only at backwards passes or slow sideways passes.  However the French team often didn’t move up together, or in the right moments.

Zhirkov as a wingback

Ball wide to Zhirkov - v France 15th minute.png One of such instances was when Golovin passed back to the sideback. Dembele and Mbappe pressed on the ball side, but Erokhin could rotate into the free space left by Dembele. The 4 players in midfield created a 4 v 3 overload, which left the far side holding midfielder free. Erokhin could quickly change the play out wide to Zhirkov with the French team concentrated in the middle.

This particular instance showed how Zhirkov is unlikely to provide a serious attacking threat. Even though he had large free space in front of him, and from the Erokhin’s body position the pass could have been expected, still Zhirkov didn’t attack the space without the ball. He only started running forward after the ball was on its way. Despite the positional disadvantage of Pavard, he read the pass far sooner and could start his run earlier, taking away the initial advantage of Zhirkov.

Could be better pass angle to Zhirkov - France 16th minute.pngThis situation showed how the Russian team was too conservative in their ball circulation. Zhirkov didn’t attack the space in front of him aggressively enough while the French team shifted over. Meanwhile Kudryashov didn’t use the ball or his body to manipulate the pressing angle of Dembele, and create a better passing lane to Zhirkov. By simply dribbling into the game, or dropping his shoulder he could have created a much better passing angle to Zhirkov. 

Instead of passing in front of the French team shape, he could pass diagonally through behind Dembele, and release Zhirkov. But Zhirkov didn’t make the run forward either. 



Overall a team which was put together more in mind with who was available rather than a clear gameplan in mind. Most of the team is ageing, and the synergy between the players on the pitch is not without flaws.

However they are in an easy group. Progressing from the group is all that can be expected from this team.


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