Carrera’s Catenaccio or Alenichev’s Authoritarianism?


Spartak Moscow is on the way to returning to the zenith of their powers; the team currently lead the way in this season’s Russian Football Premier League (RFPL), have arguably the best player and manager in the league, and are one of the economic powerhouses with a deep pool of oil money. Leonid Fedun has long been one of the richest oligarchs’s in Russian football through his status as the major shareholder (9.2%) of LUKoil, but for the first time since the demise of the great Oleg Romantsev, Fedun now has the team to match.

The backbone of their success has been a very non-Russian sturdy defence akin to the Italian Catenaccio, protected by arguably the most influential midfield duo in the league this season; Fernando and Denis Glushakov. Implemented and designed by Massimo Carrera – once protégé and right-hand man to Antonio Conte – who takes all training personally at Tarasovka, and has been credited with transforming the players’ unfulfilled potential and mentality to genuine title candidates. However, does all the credit belong to Carrera alone, or the staunch work of his predecessor, Dmitry Alenichev, himself a protégé of the great Oleg Romantsev? Towards the end of last season blooding youngsters, installing an authoritarian workmanlike mentality similar to the teams of his mentor, and moving on from the disastrous reign of Murat Yakin.

The Debate

Igor Kolyanov ignited the debate, in an interview with Sportfakt, the former FC Ufa coach cast aspersions over Carrera’s involvement in the team’s success, claiming; ‘I believe that most of the work Alenichev did at the beginning of the season’. The ex-Spartak youth player followed on that he believes Alenichev only got sacked for his failure in Europe this season. The Russian was sacked after Spartak were controversially dumped out of the Europa League, losing 2-1 on aggregate to Cypriot side AEK Larnaca.

After the game, Sport-Express conducted a poll in which 22,000 members of the public took part, who were asked what the reason for the loss was. Over 30% claimed ‘nobody is to blame, it is the realistic strength of Spartak’, while 22.5% blamed solely the coaching staff. The players (9.8%), the owner (7.4%) and Alenichev himself were blamed the least (1.6%). Although the public did not blame Alenichev, Fedun did and sacked him later in the week. The huge discrepancy between Fedun’s blaming of Alenichev and only 1.6% of those who voted were because Alenichev is still seen today as a legend at Spartak for his role in the Peoples’ Team dominating the early years of the RFPL, winning the title four times between 1994-1998, and many fans of this era consider the playmaker the best of his generation. Upon his return to Spartak after Oleg Romantsev departed, Alenichev lamented that ‘I am ashamed with Spartak these days’, alluding to the style of football that was being played since their attractive, short-passing game was abandoned in early 2002. Many Spartak fans resonated with his comments, but Alenichev was controversially thrown out of the team after this interview and many fans have since stood by their idol.

The debate has roared on since, with many ex-Spartak players, pundits and current stars weighing in. The first to throw his weight behind Carrera was another ex-Spartak coach, Yegor Titov. He initially, and quite outspokenly, proclaimed that he believed no Spartak player had a ‘winning mentality’ but did concede that only came through continued victories. Titov did, however, reserve much praise for the current incumbent of the so-called ‘poisoned chalice’, citing his vast experience in Italy as vital to upholding the Red-Whites’ title run. Beyond this, Titov further claimed ‘after Alenichev, only Carrera could fix [Spartak] tactically and add [that] Italian fire’. This comment has been particularly controversial considering Titov was Alenichev’s assistant at Spartak last season, he does not just praise Carrera but dismantles all possibility of last season’s foundations the latter formed to be considered part of this season’s success at all.

Soon after, in an interview with Sport-Express during the winter break, Spartak’s Georgian midfielder Jano Ananidze was asked simply what he thought was the main reason for this seasons success. His answer was as obstinate as it was swift, as the dynamic attacking midfielder replied simply with ‘Carrera’. In a follow-up question he expounded; ‘’One hundred percent. He created the atmosphere, the desire, the fight to win’. It was Alenichev who provided Ananidze with his big break towards the end of last season, as he was brought in from the cold for the game at home to Mordovia Saransk in April 2016. Including this game, he started the last six league games of the season and starred in them all, with a particular highlight an assist over the impressive 3-0 home win over historic rivals Dinamo Moscow in May. Yet, despite all this Ananidze alludes to a lack of trust from Alenichev. Unlike Titov, Ananidze does not publicly criticise Alenichev but does later praise Carrera’s impact upon the players and himself in training, and even claims ‘every workout is a holiday’.

Contrary to this, two more Russian football legends have spoken out against Carrera, and put their considerable weight in Alenichev’s corner. On the same day, Ananidze’s interview was published, Sport-Express also released an interview with former CSKA Moscow coach Valeri Gazzaev. He did initially acknowledge that their position in first is ‘of course a great achievement of the new coach [Carrera]’. Yet later claims it was ‘Alenichev who created this team, and prepared it for the championship’.

The other one to become involved was Valery Karpin, who disseminated his opinion live on Match TV as part of his punditry for the broadcaster. When asked for his thought on the work of Massimo Carrera this season, Karpin mentioned how clear Zenit’s tactics under Mircea Lucescu and Rostov’s under Kurban Berdyev (and Ivan Daniliants, and Dmitri Kirichenko) have been thus far this season and further claims that he ‘does not understand’ Spartak’s tactics. Karpin followed this with a tirade against Carrera’s tactics this season, particularly in offence, and suggested that nothing has changed from last season under Alenichev except for mental cohesion;

‘If someone knows how … If the players said they understand how there is something not changed in terms of emotions, but in terms of tactics, let them talk. I love to hear. God grant that it was. In addition to new emotions, except for team cohesion, I do not see anything’.

This stinging attack on live television from a household name in Russia was bound to grab headlines and convince many watching that in reality nothing has changed, and is by far the most vociferous of all four opinions proposed.

Firstly, before analysing which coach is more responsible, the intentions and agency of each individual involved in the debate must first be disinterred.

Jano Ananidze’s intentions are clear from the outset, as a current Spartak Moscow player he will not speak out against the current head coach, and of course will also stick by Alenichev, the man who gave him his big break. Furthermore, Alenichev himself is far from retired in his managerial career, and Ananidze burning so many bridges at only 24 would be highly ill-advised. Gazzaev has relatively clear intentions from the outset; he is a long-time Russian head coach and proud nationalist, and thus will likely support Alenichev in the aim of promulgating the successes of Russian coaches amidst great pressure upon the nation ahead of the World Cup in 2018. Alenichev has been mentioned in many circles as a possible head coach of the Sbornaya one day just as Gazzaev himself has been proposed as a successor to Vitaly Mutko as head of the Russian Football Union, therefore it will be unlikely he will criticise too many high profile Russian coaches in the foreseeable future.

Karpin, however, was born in Narva in the Estonian SSR, and since 2003 has held both Russian and Estonian citizenship. Although his nationality is muddled, he did play for the Commonwealth of Independent States at Euro 1992, and then for Russia until his retirement in 2003. Karpin also works for the state-owned and ran Match TV, who have monopolised television rights to the RFPL since it was launched in November 2015. It was directly created by the order of Vladimir Putin and is responsible for promulgating the strengths of Russian football and Russians in football in the lead up to 2018. Furthermore, the channel is owned by Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of Gazprombank, the third largest bank in the Russian Federation. Although this may sound simply like Capitalism at work, a conflict of interest arises through Aleksei Miller, the Chairman of the Board of Gazprom and unofficial owner of Spartak’s biggest title rivals this season: Zenit Saint Petersburg (his co-worker and close friend Aleksandr Dyukov is Zenit’s current President). Therefore, Karpin’s agency must be brought into question, and he will almost likely continue to back Alenichev in this debate in the future.

Carrera or Alenichev?

Aside from the past controversy and shady agency of the personalities in the debate, Spartak’s immense achievements thus far this season cannot be ignored, but are these successes a direct result of Massimo Carrera’s tireless work at Tarasovka both on and off the pitch, or has he simply expounded upon the resolute foundations put in place by Dmitry Alenichev last season.

Despite a disappointing overall season, Dmitry Alenichev did make a number of changes following a disappointing 5-2 loss to Zenit Saint Petersburg in April 2016, with a number of late changes providing the framework for a Spartak renaissance, and allowing the club to finish fifth overall and qualify for the Europa League. Although this success was ultimately, and ironically, the poison chalice which forced Alenichev out of his position at the club, he undeniably laid strong foundations for the current season’s title challenge.

The first change implemented by Alenichev was a focus upon youth development. Vladimir Granat, Sergey Parshivlyuk, Serdar Tasci and Lorenzo Melgarejo were dropped in favour of Ilya Kutepov, Aleksandr Putsko, Sergey Bryzgalov and Jano Ananidze. All four were relatively inexperienced 23-year-olds who had risen through the ranks at Tarasovka under the tutelage of Yevgeni Bushmanov. Alenichev set his team up for the future, focussing on youth and long-term development for the first time at Spartak arguably since 2001, as each manager in the meantime merely attempted to buy their way out of trouble. As aforementioned, in this case trusting youth worked out as Spartak won four of their last six games without conceding a goal, including a crucial 2-0 win over Europa League qualification rivals, Lokomotiv Moscow. The most impressive performer during this spell was Ilya Kutepov, who proved that he could be the perfect partner to Salvatore Bocchetti and finally live up to his unfulfilled potential, and was rewarded with a new four-year deal towards the end of the season.

Despite this late rally, Alenichev still missed the official aim of reaching the top four and only qualified for Europe courtesy of Zenit’s victory in the Russian Cup. Furthermore, key players such as Artem Rebrov and Vladimir Granat underperformed under Alenichev for much of the season, leading to all three losing their places in the starting line-up (and the latter two being sold to Dinamo Moscow and FC Rostov in the summer). Rebrov’s replacement, Sergey Pesyakov received rave reviews for his performances in Spartak’s four-game winning run but he did not play particularly well but merely did not make the same glaring errors his successor made beforehand. Alenichev must take both praise and criticism for this turn of events, he could not get the best out of some senior players but reacted well and replaced them with backups who performed admirably.

Alenichev must receive much credit for bringing the best out of star man Quincy Promes, who scored an excellent 18 goals from out wide last season, including four in the last four games during their winning run. More than any other player, Promes is responsible for making Spartak tick under both managers and has been their key figure since he signed from FC Twente. Last season, however, Alenichev signed Ze Luis from Portuguese club Braga and the pair linked up perfectly as Promes provided assists for four of the Cape Verdean strikers eight league goals. Dmitri Alenichev, after a season of struggle, finally emulated the successes of his great master Oleg Romantsev by taking control of the situation and in an authoritarian manner, ruthlessly revamped his squad for its long-term gain.

Massimo Carrera took over from Alenichev early this season, following the aforementioned disappointing European defeat to AEK Larnaca. Antonio Conte was not the only member of the Italy coaching staff to look for pastures new this summer, as the less heralded but equally intense and talented Carrera became Alenichev’s assistant during the summer, recommended by fellow Italian and current Spartak goalkeeping coach, Gianluca Riommi. He was initially tasked with shaping up a poor Spartak defence and providing tutelage to the swathes of young defenders Alenichev installed into this defence towards the end of last season but soon began to grow in power and influence. Eventually, the man who Sport-Express journalist Philip Papenkov claimed was the ‘most important transfer of the summer’ would inevitably take over from his manager as the pressure upon Alenichev mounted.

Carrera, a former sweeper under Marcelo Lippi’s Catenaccio at Juventus in the mid-nineties, led the way at Tarasovka during defensive drills. Carrera was a competitive, erratic, yet staunchly brave and uncompromising defender at the centre of every backline he played in and is naturally a tactical genius as a manager. He takes after his mentor Antonio Conte in much more than just nationality, as the pair together reformed Juventus after the Calciopoli scandal in 2006. Carrera himself claims he did not expect to be in charge of a team so soon, but he has taken his opportunity with both hands and never looked back.

Amidst rumours of Kurban Berdyev’s imminent arrival following Alenichev’s sacking, the Italian’s Conte-like energy off the pitch and tactics on it both convinced Leonid Fedun to stick with his man. Spartak went on a six-game unbeaten run following the defeat to Larnaca, winning all but a difficult 1-1 draw away in Kazan. During this, the team played fast, attacking, technically sound and – most importantly – emotional football. Although the latter may seem less integral to western audiences, Alenichev’s motionless, almost vacant appearance on the bench greatly angered both Leonid Fedun and Spartak’s ultras, the Fratria. Although Carrera is not Russian, his typical Italian fiery personality does match well with the ferocious determination of Russian football fans, and more than any other recent foreign manager understands the Russian mentality.

Fratria tifo 'Forza Massimo' during the game againt Amkar Perm in November.

Fratria tifo ‘Forza Massimo’ during the game againt Amkar Perm in November.

Numerous players this season have been playing out-of-their-skin, with Denis Glushakov, Artem Rebrov, Fernando, Roman Zobnin, Dmitry Kombarov and Salvatore Bocchetti all playing in the zenith of their Spartak careers. Glushakov and Fernando make up arguably the strongest midfield partnership in the league, and Rebrov has moved on from last year’s disappointing performances to repeatedly impress with a string of commanding, impressive performances. Although Spartak has not necessarily been a swashbuckling attacking side this season like the old Romantsev teams, they have been based upon a robust, almost immovable defensive unit. No matter if deployed as a three-man-defence or typical four, Bocchetti and Kutepov have excelled under the Italian. Only CSKA, Amkar Perm and Rostov have conceded fewer goals this season than Spartak and the only keeper to have as many clean sheets as Rebrov this season (10), is now a fellow Spartak player: Aleksandr Selikhov.

Carrera, likewise to his successor has focussed once again upon young talents such as Kutepov, Zobnin and Jano Ananidze all playing key roles in their ascent up the table. The most important aspect Carrera has brought to Spartak, however, is a winning mentality. Even both Gazzaev and Karpin both attributed Carrera’s work with the mentality of his players – as he himself is a serial winner. The Italian has won the Champions League, UEFA Cup, UEFA Super Cup, the Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana as a player, then the Scudetto three times and Supercoppa Italiana twice as assistant to Conte.

Other factors away from Alenichev’s renaissance and Carrera’s revolution have contributed to Spartak’s’ current league position. Leonid Fedun has a vast array of resources thanks to his ownership of Russia’s biggest oil company, LUKoil, who incurred a revenue stream of $144.17 billion in 2014. As such, thanks to these resources, Spartak currently employ arguably the best set of legionnaires in the league led by Promes, Ze Luis, Fernando, Ananidze, Bocchetti, Mauricio, Serdar Tasci and joined by recent new recruit Luiz Adriano. Despite all this, fellow rivals Zenit have even more resources and just as fine a set of foreigners but are currently 5 points behind Spartak, thanks to Massimo Carrera.

Carrera has irrevocably taken some strong foundations laid to him by Dmitry Alenichev and transformed them into a team not just capable of winning the league for the first time in sixteen years, but capable of creating another Spartak dynasty if he stays at the club. The latter may be one day the manager of the Sbornaya, but Carrera has only just begun his path to becoming a genuinely world-class football manager.

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Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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