Stanislav Cherchesov took charge of Russia immediately after a disastrous Euro 2016 campaign in which the team – then led by Leonid Slutsky – finished last in a group with England, Wales and Slovakia. Shortly after his appointment Cherchesov announced his intention to build a side from scratch. First of all, he switched formation to a back three and began looking for the right combination of defenders. It was a case of shedding the past while moving with the times. “We all know the history – we have not achieved anything with four at the back,” he said when explaining his decision. “Moreover, almost half of Russian Premier League teams are playing with three defenders. So we want to be flexible.”
It was clear that Igor Akinfeev would keep his long-standing spot in goal, but the defence remained up in the air. Three veterans – the Berezutsky twins and Sergey Ignashevich – effectively retired from international football in 2016 so Cherchesov started to use inexperienced and young defenders like Ilya Kutepov and Georgy Dzhikiya from Spartak Moscow, or Viktor Vasin from CSKA. Those players aside, Cherchesov ended up using 10 players at centre-back in almost two years. It means nobody can accurately predict the three that will start this summer, perhaps even Cherchesov himself, although injuries to Vasin and Dzhikiya have added immeasurably to the uncertainty. Both would probably be expecting to face Saudi Arabia had they not torn their cruciate ligaments earlier in the year. Ignashevich in fact made a dramatic return to the provisional squad on 14 May after Ruslan Kambolov’s withdrawal although it would be quite a turnaround if he played any football in June.
Russia’s luck with injuries has been abysmal. Another key man, albeit with a very different role on the pitch, who will miss the competition after cruciate surgery is the forward Alexander Kokorin. He was brilliant in the first half of the season, scoring 19 goals in all competitions for Zenit St Petersburg, but now Cherchesov must source firepower from elsewhere. Kokorin’s backup at Zenit, Anton Zabolotny was on awful form this spring and Artyom Dzyuba – who has had an eventful loan from Zenit to Arsenal Tula – is in the doghouse with Cherchesov. The pair are rumoured to have fallen out and it means the first choice up front will be Fyodor Smolov, the prolific FC Krasnodar striker.
Midfield is yet another unpredictable area. Russia will certainly use two wing-backs but those spots remain up for grabs. More centrally, Russia’s big problem is the lack of strong holding midfielder. In fact there should be an obvious solution in the form of Igor Denisov, the Lokomotiv Moscow player, but as usual nothing is that simple. Back in 2015, when they both worked at Dynamo Moscow, Cherchesov and Denisov fell out and have not spoken to each other since. Denisov is the best defensive midfielder in Russia by a mile, but Cherchesov has never called him up and shed little light when asked about the player’s absence earlier this year. “Because I am the head coach. I make decisions,” he said.
Instead Cherchesov has tended to use Denis Glushakov, of Spartak, as a holding midfielder. Glushakov has had a poor season, though, and is not a specialist in that role anyway; he has only been named among the reserves in Cherchesov’s squad so that sets up another poser. Russia do, at least, have a number of good box-to-box midfielders; Cherchesov has confidence in Alexander Golovin, Roman Zobnin, Daler Kuzyaev and Alan Dzagoev, who are likely to fight it out between them for the three central berths. Finally, the gifted Alexey Miranchuk should start behind Smolov. With Kokorin injured, Russia willfield one striker and one attacking midfielder.
Strengths: Russia have a stable formation (3-5-1-1 or 3-5-2) and a very attacking central midfield. They are also good at pressing in their own half – always looking cohesive and efficient.
Weaknesses: Their ageing wing-backs are an achilles heel while, conversely, inexperience at centre-back – and in particular a weakness in aerial duels – may come to haunt them. The lack of a defensive midfielder is critical, too.
Kudryashov Kutepov Granat
Zhirkov Zobnin Kuzyaev Golovin Samedov
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Golovin is the youngest player in the team and one of three whose places in the starting XI are nailed-on (along with Akinfeev and Smolov). Since 2015 he has gone from being an unknown youngster to a key man at the heart of Russia’s midfield. No wonder there have been strong rumours about a possible move to top Premier League clubs, including Chelsea and Arsenal. He gave ample demonstration of his talents against the latter in April, scoring a fabulous free-kick at the Emirates during CSKA’s Europa League quarter-final. He wants to play abroad and is likely to be a name that jumps out at scouts this summer.
Which player is likely to disappoint?
Since Kokorin torn his ligaments, Smolov has become the main attacking force in Russia’s team. That does not necessarily make things easier for the Krasnodar striker, though. Smolov is has been the top Russian goalscorer in the past three seasons but he is nowhere near as prolific for the national team as for his club. That owes largely to a difference in philosophy: for Russia, Smolov generally has to defend more and this impacts on the number of chances he gets to score. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and Egypt both tend to park the bus and that will not help a player who thrives in open spaces. Smolov is likely to struggle against those teams. Further cause for concern comes in the form of his stats from Euro 2016 and last year’s Confederations Cup: Smolov started in all six games but scored only once, against New Zealand.
What is the realistic aim for Russia at the World Cup and why?
A place in the last 16. After the draw Russians thought their team was lucky to get such an easy group, but since December Mohamed Salah has become one of the strongest players in the world and that has planted seeds of doubt about the host nation’s ability to reach the knock-out stage. In any case, progress from Group A would probably be rewarded with a tie against Spain or Portugal – and Russia’s journey will almost certainly finish at that point.