Bobby Dazzled – Problems in Piter

For Zenit St Petersburg, 2017/18 was supposed to represent a glorious return to the summit of Russian football and in the UEFA Europa League reaching at least the semi-finals or matching the achievements of Zenit’s glorious vintage of 2007-08 when they won the competition defeating the likes of Bayern Munich en route.

READ MORE: 2007 – Zenit St. Petersburg’s Wonder Year

Roberto Mancini had been hired as coach, a previous winner of Italian Serie A and English Premier League championships with Inter Milan and Manchester City respectively. In came €85 million worth of talent for the playing roster, some big names like AS Roma’s Argentine international midfielder Leandro Paredes signed for €23 million, some highly coveted by other large clubs such as young Argentine striker Sebastián Driussi.

It was not just stars that were bought for the first team, with five players bought from Rostov, three of which on free transfers to give Zenit a size and depth to their squad that no Russian club side has ever had before.

After eight wins and three draws from their opening eleven games following a 2-0 away win against Krasnodar on 24th September, they stood top of the standings with a healthy lead over their rivals and comfortably led their Europa League group with three wins from three. The prophecy was looking like it would be fulfilled.

How the tables have turned, fast forward seven league games to the 27th November and after eighteen games out of 30 in the RFPL, Zenit have now dropped to second in the standings with only one win in those seven games, trailing leaders Lokomotiv by six points and now only holding one and two-point margin leads over CSKA and Spartak respectively. So just what are the problems in Piter and how has Bobby (Roberto) Mancini been left dazzled (unstuck) rather than doing the dazzling (particularly excellent work)?


October & November – Zenit’s Kryptonite

The green material Kryptonite was famously Superman’s weakness and the months of October and November historically have a mean green look about them for Zenit.

In the 2015-16 season under Andre Villas-Boas’ stewardship, Zenit played seven games between 3rd October and 28th November, achieving a very mixed set of results; three wins, two draws and two defeats, not the form one would associate with a title-winning side. The run eventually left the club too far behind both CSKA and the surprise package that season Rostov to be able to catch them come the end of the season.

If the 2015/16 October-November run could be described as patchy, atrocious is a better description of Zenit’s October and November this season, with the 5-0 victory at home against relegation-threatened Tosno and a 2-1 home Europa League win against Macedonian minnows Vardar being their only 2 wins in all competitions in all of that period. Worryingly, the three poorest performances have all come at home, two league defeats to Arsenal Tula 1-0, a 3-0 reverse at the hands of league leaders Lokomotiv and a 1-1 draw against Norwegian side Rosenborg in the Europa League which had it not been for a 93rd minute equaliser by Alexsandr Kokorin could have been even worse.

So why is it always a case of “Wake me up when October and November ends” for Zenit? As previously discussed on RFN, one factor could be the weather and Zenit’s often large foreign player contingent. According to estimates, the average temperature in Piter drops from 14-20 ℃ in August and September to 2-8 ℃ in October and November. Going back to 2015/16, Zenit had both the Brazilian striker Hulk and Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay on their payroll and because the temperature in Piter drops so suddenly and is a complete contrast to what both aforementioned players (who previously played in the Portuguese league are used to), it is an understandable explanation for a drop in performance.

This season, the weather and temperatures could also be having a similar effect on some of Zenit’s star foreign contingent with the players most likely affected being Zenit’s five Argentines. The aforementioned Paredes’ form has dropped considerably since the start of the season. Whereas Driussi’s last league goal came in September and in recent games remained an unused substitute. With Driussi having signed from Buenos Aires giants River Plate, this huge shift in climate would take some getting used to and for Zenit’s sake, both him and his compatriots need to adapt quickly to regain their form and salvage their season.

READ MORE: Zenit and the Winter-Curse


Second Half-Season Syndrome

It is not just Zenit, however, who have a bad period of the season when results go sour, but throughout 53 year-old Mancini’s sixteen-year managerial career so far, results and performances in the second half of seasons at Mancini’s clubs have tended to drop compared to the first half.

Ten seasons ago in 2007/08, Mancini was in his final season of his first managerial stint at Serie A giants Inter Milan. In the first half of that season, in Inter’s first nineteen games, Mancini accumulated 49 points at an average of 2.57 points per game. Yet, in the second half of that season, Inter accumulated only 36 points from 19 games at a much reduced average of 1.89 points per game.

Going into a mid-season game against Napoli, Inter were still unbeaten and held a nine-point lead over second-placed Roma. After losing that game against Napoli 1-0, just two weeks later they succumbed to Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League, and Inter’s remainder of the season was poor. Given the weakened state of Serie A at that time due to the fire sale at Juventus post-Calciopoli and AC Milan’s ageing squad, their title triumph was only secured on the final game and only by three points from Roma.

It is easy to forget that we are in the second half of the RFPL season already as the league only consists of sixteen teams and thus 30 games, and the winter break taking place after twenty of these. Only three rounds in the second half of the season have passed, however, the signs are that history could be repeating itself as the aforementioned matches between their win against Krasnodar and their 3-1 defeat to Spartak demonstrate. Furthermore, the slide could continue if Zenit and Mancini are not careful. Next week, Zenit travel away to sixth-placed Ahkmat Grozny. Akhmat, despite their inconsistencies this season, have in recent seasons proved to be a bogey team for Zenit, emerging victorious at home against Zenit in the last two seasons. Zenit simply has to avoid a third straight away loss against Akhmat, as the gap to Lokomotiv with just ten games left in the season could grow to nine points, which would be very difficult to haul back, and they could be leapfrogged by CSKA and Spartak in the race for Europe.

Though with a tough must-win game to top their Europa League group in order to get a seeding for the knockout rounds of the competition game away to Real Sociedad sandwiched in-between the Akhmat game and last weekends crucial home victory over Ural, it certainly wont be easy.


Underestimation & Overconfidence

The beginning of the 2016/17 season saw Zenit have a large sense of optimism just like this season, Zenit had hired veteran Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu as their new manager to replace Andre Villas-Boas and whilst the spending levels were way below the levels this summer, Zenit were widely tipped to win the league.

Lucescu had just spent twelve seasons in his previous job at Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk between 2004 and 2016 where he had turned them into the dominant force domestically alongside winning a Europa League title in 2008/09 and reaching a Champions League Quarter Final. However, Lucescu’s first two games of the 2016/17 RFPL season were 0-0 draws at home to Lokomotiv and away at Ufa. Myself and my colleagues at RFN in several podcasts throughout last season pinpointed Lucescu’s shocked body language and facial expression upon the final whistle of both those two aforementioned games against Lokomotiv and Ufa, and subsequently throughout the season. It was a realisation that winning the RFPL would be a difficult kettle of fish to winning the Ukrainian league. Lucescu never came close to winning the title last season and after a third-place finish which failed to qualify Zenit for the Champions League was relieved of his duties.

READ MORE: Lucescu – Failure or Scapegoat?

Whilst Zenit started with much better performances and results this season compared to last, once more in recent weeks, underestimation of opponents could well have crept into Zenit’s displays as they look a contrast of the side that was swatting teams aside earlier this season.

On RFN we previously explored how in past seasons a fly-out-of-the-blocks start by Zenit both domestically and in Europe coupled with a lack of squad rotation has led to poorer performances in the latter parts of the season. This season, the policy of rotation has been different. As aforementioned, Zenit’s hierarchy allowed Mancini to assemble a large squad with depth to cope with the demands of combining midweek European games with weekend league games, whilst the likes of Denis Terentiev, Christian Noboa, Dimitri Poloz and Alexandr Erokhin might not be regulars in the league, all have been used frequently in the Europa League. Given all four players’ exploits for Rostov both domestically and in Europe over the last two seasons, they should be perfectly capable of performing to a high standard against opponents such as Rosenborg and Vardar in Zenit’s Europa League group. A lack of rotation should not be a factor in Zenit’s recent slowdown.

So could it be overconfidence that has crept in? Quite possibly, when one looks at the calibre of player Zenit has, four of Zenit’s five Argentinian contingents have recently been called up to the national side. Players such as Paredes and Matías Kranevitter used to playing in higher calibre leagues such as Serie A and La Liga could have a mindset that their quality and the past leagues that they have played in should mean that playing in the RFPL is easy when in fact it is the exact opposite. This coupled with Zenit’s great start could have led to many players thinking that by the time the halfway point of the league season approaches in the RFPL, turning up will simply win you games as they have beaten opponents comfortably up until this point when that is not the case due to the impressive competitiveness of many mid-table outfits in Russia.


Zenit Pressure Cooker

Finally, Mancini’s spell at Zenit and whether or not he is a success could be crucial in his future career path in management. If he succeeds and delivers RFPL titles, a potential Europa League title or long run to the semi-finals, then there is the possibility of future job offers at some of the top-level clubs in Western Europe or even the vacant Italy job.

However, following his recent disappointing spells at Turkish side Galatasaray and his second spell at Inter, a failure at Russia’s richest club with the best squad of players in the RFPL could be a damaging blow to his CV when it comes to landing high-end managerial positions in the future. Look at Andre Villas-Boas, now managing in the Chinese Super League. He failed to take Zenit to the next level by dominating domestically and breaking their glass ceiling in the Champions League, which was preceded by a disappointing spell at Chelsea and a failure to build on a promising start at Tottenham.

Mancini has been massively disadvantaged and Zenit as a club rocked by the recent death of Sporting Director and huge influence Konstantin Sarsania.

READ MORE: RIP Konstantin Sarsania, the Sports Director Behind Zenit’s Success

The €85 million spent on new players this summer by Zenit is more than all the other clubs in the league combined. Compare and contrast this figure with current league leaders Lokomotiv who spent just €4.25 million on new transfers. Given the colossal sums spent, winning the league and reaching the latter stages of the Europa League were the only objectives that would satisfy Zenit’s powerbrokers. When he stepped through the doors and after the opening rounds of the season, Mancini and Zenit had a swagger about them, they looked a class above anything else in Russia. Now, the tide has turned and the pressure is on due to Zenit’s bleak autumn. The remaining months of the 2017/18 RFPL could be crucial in the future direction of Roberto Mancini’s managerial career.

Author: Richard Pike

Wigan Athletic season ticket holder whose first memories of Russian football were TV highlights of Spartak’s 4-1 victory against Arsenal in the 2000-01 Champions League. Huge fan of the Russian Premier League, other mid-ranking European leagues and the English Football League

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