The Zenit Issue: Ageing Players, No Creativity and No Vision

Kirov overlooking the glorious Gazprom Arena | James Nickels/RFN

Zenit have been knocked out of the Europa League. Following Sardar Azmoun’s heroics in the round of 32 against Fenerbahce, Zenit fans were understandably pleased to learn that their team had been drawn against Villarreal in the next round, a side fighting relegation in the La Liga. This draw was quite a favourable one, with only two or three teams that were worse on paper than the Yellow Submarine. One would have expected the Russian League leaders to beat a team struggling to survive in Spain over two legs.

As we saw, however, this was not to be. In the first leg, Villarreal handed Zenit their first home loss in the Europa League (2009-present) era. Quite a statement. Goals from Vicente Iborra, Manu Morlanes and Gerard Moreno meant that the Spanish side had a comfortable two-goal advantage and three away goals. At their fortress, Zenit was comfortably the worse team.

Away from home, Zenit is horrible, to be polite. With one away win in the European knockouts in ten years (2-1 vs Borussia Dortmund, 2014), the odds were stacked against the blue-white-sky-blues in the second leg. The game in Spain started well for the Russians, with two great chances in the opening 15 minutes, that Sardar Azmoun should have perhaps put away. After that, they turned off. Gerard Moreno scored in the 29th minute, and Carlos Bacca scored two minutes into the second half. Though Branislav Ivanovic pulled a goal back in the 91st minute, it wasn’t nearly enough. Zenit lost 5-2 on aggregate.

This loss means that the Anti-Aircraft Gunners haven’t got past the round of 16 of any European competition in four years (2014/15 Europa League Quarter-Finals being the last occasion). Looking at the current state of the club, it doesn’t look like they will soon either.

So what is the issue? Let’s take a look.

The Squad

Let’s start from the back. In goal, Zenit has a solid keeper in Andrey Lunev while his backup, Mikhail Kerzhakov, can do a serviceable job. This is perhaps the only position wherein the side from Piter can make do with their existing options.

The signing of Yaroslav Rakitskiy from Shakhtar Donetsk in the winter window is already looking like a great piece of business. The Ukrainian’s defensive and on-the-ball capabilities gave Zenit a stalwart at the back. Emanuel Mammana is quality when he starts (keyword: when), and should be playing more. Branislav Ivanovic, the last of the three centre-backs contending a starting spot is the leader in the squad. With Miha Mevlja and Luis Neto both seemingly on their way out, and with the latter being invisible as of late, the club does need one or two reinforcements. Ilya Skrobotov does fit the bill, however, he is only still 18 and Sergey Semak has not given him too much attention since he arrived.

Speaking of people that Semak has not given too much attention to, Elmir Nabiullin. The gaffer prefers Yuri Zhirkov and even an out of position Ivanovic or Daler Kuzyaev to the young left-back. Zenit have a severe lack of options when it comes to full-backs. Anyukov and Zhirkov should not be near the starting XI, and with Ivanovic and the aforementioned two wing-backs, the club’s back-line is comparable to the Berezutskiy-Berezutskiy-Ignashevich trio, not in a good way. Denis Terentyev has been sent back to Zenit-2, and Igor Smolnikov has been average at best. In the summer, Javier Ribalta should look to improve this part of the team.

Vitesse’s Russian defender Vyacheslav Karavaev is a player Zenit can easily lure and sign. At just 21 years of age, the player is one of the best at his role in the league and has serious potential.

The central midfield is weird when it comes to Zenit. The obvious high points include new signing Wilmar Barrios, Christian Noboa, Magomed Ozdoev’s return to form and perhaps newcomer Leon Musaev. The low points (there’s a few) include Hernani being a disaster every time he plays, Matias Kranevitter, and the complete lack of creativity in general. Claudio Marchisio was brought in to inject the side with some flair and skill, however, he has looked like a shadow of the player he was at Juventus and has been more of a business move, rather than a footballing one. Hopefully, Marchisio does improve soon. Aleksandr Erokhin, who is currently injured has been one of the better players in the otherwise mediocre midfield – but remains sidelined.

In the summer, Hernani and Kranevitter need to be offloaded, and an attacking midfielder or two need to be brought in.

Talisman and top scorer Dzyuba has now not scored for over four months. | AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky

A word on Daler Kuzyaev. Sergey Semak has played the midfielder in every position imaginable, from left-back to central midifled and left-wing to varying degrees of success. The player is at his best while playing as a defensive/central midfielder, and should be positioned there.

On the wings, Emiliano Rigoni is by far and wide Zenit’s best player but managed only one league appearance since he returned from his loan spell at Atalanta. This taken into account though, he should become more of a regular after his great performance in the match he played against Ufa. Robert Mak’s performances are below average while Oleg Shatov’s form has been erratic. A few switches are needed in this department. Though it may seem like a longshot, Denis Cheryshev would be the perfect solution to Zenit’s attacking woes.

Up front, things have dramatically improved since the arrival of Sardar Azmoun, and should improve further when (or if) the currently imprisoned Aleksandr Kokorin makes his eventual return. The god that is Anton Zabolotny is the second worst player in the RPL according to both WhoScored and Instat, which says a lot considering how many minutes he still gets. World Cup hero Artem Dzyuba last scored four months ago.

Sebastian Driussi, who has acted as both an attacker and winger for Zenit this season, has done very well, with four goals and eight assists in 17 league appearances. Still, reinforcements are required.

Zenit’s six players out on loan could eventually come back to help out as backups but will not affect the squad too much. Lodygin, Mevlja and Novoseltsev are expected to leave in the summer, Djordjevic and Poloz could potentially replace Zabolotny. The sixth player out on loan is Ibrahim Tsallagov, a right-back who has been acerage at best for Rubin Kazan.

All things considered, Zenit’s squad oozes mediocrity and is not capable of doing anything major in Europe. The deadwood in the squad must be cleared out this summer, and capable replacements must be brought in. A team with the financial strength that Zenit has, should be regularly competing in the Europa League’s upper echelons at the least. Right now though, Round of 16 exits in either the Champions or Europa League are now the norm.


Sergey Semak has divided opinion among the Zenit faithful. Some have heralded the young manager as a welcome breath of fresh air, while others have undermined his achievements and questioned his prowess, citing his inability to win big games. Both arguments are compelling, but fall short at the same time.

Taking a locally-owned Ufa with a shoestring budget to Europe is no small feat, especially looking at the state of the club in the current RPL table. At Zenit, Semak managed to keep the dressing room together while leading the table and has defeated Krasnodar, Lokomotiv, Fenerbahce et al. These achievements deserve respect, and do not warrant widespread abuse, or a sacking.

Sergey Semak at his Zenit unveiling with former club President Sergey Fursenko. | Photo: Евгений Асмолов.

On the other hand, Zenit have lost to Rubin Kazan, Dinamo Moscow and Anzhi in the league this season, which are teams they should be beating, even with the squad they have. The side’s football has not been particularly appealing either, which is arguably down to Semak. The manager’s lineups, shuffling of formations and weird substitutions have also justifiably raised concerns. A good counter-argument would be that the team simply does not have substitutes that can come and change the game, for example, Zabolotny is the man Semak has to look at when he wants an attacking impact off the bench.

Whichever side of the Semak debate you fall on, you will have a decent argument to fall back on. At the moment though, Semak has done a good job with the team at his disposal, and should remain at Zenit until at least the end of next season, provided the team don’t completely choke this season and the start of next

No Vision

When you ask yourself “What are Zenit building towards?”, there are not a host of answers that come to mind. Off the pitch, the club is doing a brilliant job with fan interaction and marketing. However, the picture is not as clear on the pitch. A club with the stature of Zenit should be regularly winning the league, have a long term plan in mind, and should be able to challenge for at least the Europa League title. Not too long ago, the club had plans to become one of the top ten in Europe.

According to the current UEFA coefficient rankings, the club ranks 19th in both the 5-year and 10-year rankings, behind clubs such as Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk.

CSKA Moscow’s Football Manager-esque rehaul has come out well, and should only get better and Krasnodar break their own records every year. Though Zenit is some way ahead of Lokomotiv and Spartak, this should not come as a surprise nor is not a huge achievement.

Right now, the club from St. Petersburg seemingly aims for short-term success and is part of a managerial merry-go-round. The Argentine experiment last year did work out to some extent and was a good building block in retrospect, but we hadn’t since much intent from the club until this winter window.

One can only hope that this summer brings about some drastic changes at the Gazprom Arena, both on the pitch and in finding a long-term vision – for they are desperately needed.


Author: Hanu Trivedi

I went to Russia once and got mesmerised. Support CSKA and Real Madrid. Quite optimistic, I don’t know if that’s good or bad when talking about Russian Football.

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