Developing the National Team: Russia Moving Forward

Russia v Brazil - International Friendly

A lot of ink has been spilled on the future of Russia’s national team since Dick Advocaat’s squad crashed out of Euro 2012. An eight-match unbeaten streak for the senior team with Fabio Capello at the helm has put Russia in excellent position to qualify for Brazil 2014, but major questions remain, particularly in the junior ranks. Despite Capello’s willingness to call up a much broader selection of players – provincial clubs like Terek, Kuban, Rubin and Anzhi have seen a jump in national team invites in the last year – the starting XI has hardly been touched.

Sure, there have been gradual adjustments to the watershed 2008 squad that upset Holland in the Euro quarterfinals, but the defense remains nearly the same – Akinfeev in goal, Anyukov, V. Berezutski, Ignashevich on the back line – while the rest of the squad isn’t much younger. The Zenit midfield trio of Denisov, Shirokov and Fayzulin, likely to start on Friday vs Portugal, are 29, 31 and 27, respectively. Up front, Bystrov, Zhirkov and Kerzhakov are even older – 29, 29 and 30.

Dzagoev and Kokorin, both 22, are the two bright spots in Russia’s future, but they are the only two players to have featured in an official match that will also be under 30 come 2018. Dmitri Kombarov and Andrei Eschenko, two left backs (though Kombarov can play in the midfield, as well) are more recent additions to the squad, but at 26 and 29, only Kombarov is likely to factor in 2018. 27-year-old goalie Igor Akinfeev and Viktor Fayzulin will be there, too, barring injury, along with super sub midfielder Denis Glushakov, but that’s the extent of Russia’s U-27 talent with national team experience.

Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Kokorin

Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Kokorin, budding Russian stars

Goalie Akinfeev, left back Kombarov, centre midfielders Fayzulin and Glushakov and attacking midfielders Dzagoev and Kokorin… Replacements for centre backs Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski, right back Anyukov, holding midfielder Igor Denisov and forward Kerzhakov will have to be found in the coming years, as well as some much-needed depth.

That’s why the 2013 European Under-21 Championships have been so eagerly awaited (or dreaded, depending on your outlook) in Russia. The 2018 generation, as some call it, is slotted in the group of death Spain, Holland and Germany.

Unfortunately, last night’s 1-0 loss to Spain wasn’t a surprise, and only reinforced the looming challenge for Russia in rebuilding the national team. Spain had its way in Jerusalem, holding 78% possession and obliterating the Russians in every imaginable statistical category: shots (on target) – 17 (3) vs 1 (0); corners – 8 vs 0; crosses – 30 vs 3; passing accuracy – 91% vs 58%; fouls (yellows) – 8 (0) vs 19 (3). Pavel Yakovlev, a 22-year-old Spartak forward, had Russia’s one dangerous moment in the 38th minute, catching Spanish keeper David de Gea by surprise from distance, but his effort went just wide. Otherwise, Nikolay Pisarev’s squad crowded its own end of the field, resilient but not resilient enough, as Spain’s Alvaro Morato headed in Thiago’s perfectly placed cross in the 81st minute for the match winner.

Russia U21 prior to kick-off vs Spain U21 at Euro 2013

Russia U21 prior to kick-off vs Spain U21 at Euro 2013

To be fair, four key players were missing: Alan Dzagoev and Fedor Smolov, currently with the national team in Portugal, and Aleksandr Kokorin and Arseniy Logashov, both out with injuries. Dzagoev, of course, didn’t even play with juniors during qualifying, while Kokorin moved up to the senior team in early 2012.

Logashov, who’s earned significant playing time at Anzhi and senior team call-ups of his own, could be Russia’s future starting right back. Pisarev labeled his injury the biggest blow to the squad in the run-up. Logashov is often reluctant to push forward on offense, but he’s a smart, athletic player and just 21 years old, with tremendous potential for improvement.

Anzhi teammate Fedor Smolov will fly to Israel immediately following tonight’s WC qualifier, along with Alan Dzagoev. Smolov was a leader during Euro 2013 qualifying, bagging seven goals in nine appearances, but he has struggled to make an impact in Dagestan, scoring just once this season, way back in August against Vitesse in Europa League qualifying. In the absence of Kokorin, Smolov will need to be sensational, if Russia is to have any chance against Holland and Germany and advance out of the group.

Of the players already in Israel, another Anzhi youngster, midfielder Oleg Shatov, and the aforementioned Yakovlev are worth keeping an eye on up front. At the back, where most of the action took place, Georgi Schennikov (CSKA), Nikita Chicherin (Dinamo), Taras Burlak (Lokomotiv) and Ibragim Tsallagov (Krylia Sovetov), played decently. They’re each on the fringes of the senior team and, with the exception of Tsallagov, saw significant time at the club level all season.

Especially when you exclude Dzagoev and Kokorin, the outlook beyond the back line appears grim. Shatov, Smolov and Yakovlev  could develop into superstars, but they’re just as likely to fade into the woodwork.

That lack of depth is precisely why Fabio Capello, brought to Russian on an enormous annual salary, has been so reluctant to experiment. He understands that his job is to deliver a World Cup berth in 2014, and, hopefully, progression to the knockout stages. Beyond next summer, though, it all gets much more complicated, with full attention focused on developing a competitive side for the first-ever Russian World Cup.

Russia granted 2018 World Cup - November 2010

Russia granted 2018 World Cup – November 2010

In the best-case scenario, Capello’s short-term gamble will pay off and the Russians will reach the quarterfinals or better in Brazil, stirring enormous excitement at home, much like the Euro euphoria of 2008. With some of the top talents from this U-21 squad already along for the ride at the World Cup – Yakovlev, Smolov, Shatov, Logashov, Schennikov (again, not counting Kokorin and Dzagoev) – Russia will completely remake its squad during Euro 2016 qualifying, giving itself four years to fine-tune for 2018 and develop a core of 26-28-year-old players, led by the unflappable Igor Akinfeev in goal and two destructive attacking midfielders in Aleksandr Kokorin and Alan Dzagoev. Young players, shockingly, will finally be nurtured and brought up through the ranks wisely, with most Premier League clubs fielding teams in the lower divisions to season their academy boys. Improved infrastructure throughout the game, meanwhile, will make it possible to develop three or four times the number of players at the youth level.

Worst case, Russia chokes once again – either in spectacular fashion to miss the 2014 World Cup entirely or by exiting quietly in the group stage. Moving forward, very little young talent will develop into national team material material, leaving a patchwork back line and unbalanced offense, particularly due to the lack of options on the right wing and up front. While Russia and Ukraine combine to create United Championship in 2015, boosting TV ratings, revenues and attendance, homegrown players are left out in the cold and the Russian national team enters a dark age, in which qualifying for Euro is hailed as a major achievement and World Cup dreams are left behind.

Reality, of course, will fall somewhere in the middle, though I’m inclined to think it will favor the positive end of the spectrum. The Russian Premier League is improving from year to year, with 10 competitive clubs competing for Europa League places where there were maybe six or seven a few years back. While there’s a risk that foreign talent will overrun the league (or proposed United Championship), club academies are also on the upswing and with more competitive clubs and top-notch coaches out there these days, there are more opportunities for Russian youngsters to compete at the highest level, surrounded by professionals.

It’s truly a glass half full/glass half empty scenario, but with the World Cup still five years away, I’m optimistic that Russia, despite its glaring needs, is on the right track. Best of all, the journey should be immensely entertaining. Capello has molded a hard-nosed, defensive squad with the present generation, which can essentially guarantee progression to Brazil with a win over Portugal tonight. Meanwhile, Russia’s future stars are developing, progressing, pushing for the breakthrough that will vault them onto the national stage. I can’t wait to find out who they are.

Author: Andy Shenk

I discovered football when my family moved to Russia in the early 2000′s. I’ll never forget sprinting around my house after Russia qualified for Euro 2008, belting out the Russian national anthem. Since 2011, I’ve supported Anzhi in all its inspiring glory and heartbreaking dysfunction. Also Andrei Eschenko’s #1 American fan.


  1. Mark Knisley says:

    Denis Glushakov not dmitri.

  2. Mark Knisley says:

    Oh and Taras Burlak plays for Lokomotiv Moscow not CSKA

  3. No love for Ionov (24)? Think he had a great season with Kuban and may finally have his head in the right place. Very talented player, will see how he goes at Anzhi next season. Smolov looked very good against Portugal last night, it actually surprised me, think he needs to find a starting role at an RPL team because he showed a lot of potential last night.

    Capello is working these very raw players in slowly, giving them small sniffs of the national team to make them hungry and work hard. Heck even Kozlov who is 26 held his own against Portugal.

    • Andy Shenk says:

      You’re right, I should have at least mentioned Ionov and Kozlov. They’re definitely in the mix for the next 5-7 years and I hope they continue to improve. It just goes to show that no one knows who exactly will make it into the national team in the next 2-3 years.

      I agree on Capello, too, if it wasn’t clear from my article. I think he’s taking the right approach at this point.

      • In my previous comment I forgot to mention that this is a great website, and I do enjoy reading your opinions. I do believe Ionov in terms of potential is at the same level as Dzagoev and Kokorin. His problem has always been attitude and that is why he lost a couple years in development. I do expect him to continue progressing next season and be in the mix for a starting role if Russia make the 2014 World Cup.

        Another player you did not mention is Ozdoev. He is only 20 and in the 2011-12 season (When he was 19) he started in 26 games for Lokomotiv Moscow, Advocaat called him up to the Provisional squad for Euro 2012 before cutting him. Sadly he fell out of favour with Bilic this season which was very frustrating. He is not an exceptional player but he is young and has a lot of experience in the RPL for a 20 year old (43 Appearances, 31 Starts). Makeyev is also in contention post 2014 and will be around come 2018. Cheryshev is another player who I think can elevate his game in the coming 12-24 months, he has scored 11 goals in 31 starts in the Spanish Segunda Division. More than ready to move to a La Liga club on loan.

        One thing I do not understand about the Russian Football Federation is why they ignore players born in Russia that moved overseas at a young age. Cheryshev was ignored but through his fathers connections got an invite, usually these players are ignored. One player I think Capello should look at is Konstantin Rausch, 23 years old, born in Russia, Left Back that has expressed on numerous occasions that he wants to represent Russia and considers himself Russian. At 23 he has already played 150 times in the Bundesliga and has just moved to Stuttgart. He has played at every youth level for Germany except the senior squad, stupid to ignore someone with that experience at only 23 with the 2018 World Cup 5 years away. I recall Andreas Beck (Russian born German Footballer) expressing that he would play for Russia, Hiddink ignored him, now he has 9 caps for Germany at 26. Alexander Merkel (21 years old plays for Udinese) wanted to play for the Russian National Team too although his situation is more complicated as he was born in Kazakhstan. Real shame that these players are ignored, Especially the likes of Rausch who would really fit in an area where Russia has a small pool of players.

        • Andy Shenk says:

          Thanks so much for the extended feedback. I don’t know as much about Makayev, but I completely agree with you on Ozdoev and Cheryshev. They’re players that need regular appearances at the senior level. Hopefully that happens next season.

          Your info on Russians playing abroad is especially interesting. Is there any chance you would like to develop that material and write an article for us on Russians abroad? Off the top of my head, I know Stanislav Kritsyuk also recently signed with Braga (and is a back-up in Israel).

          Either way, thanks for reading and commenting. The feedback is very much appreciated.

          • Sorry for the late response, my job in Moscow can be very time consuming especially when I am an expat hired specifically to help solve the Traffic problems Moscow faces. I guess I could write something about this in the near future. In the mean time, I noticed that so far on the first match day of the RPL, 18 Russians under the age of 25 have started (With two games remaining tonight). I guess it should be around 21/22 after the first match day ends. Not sure if that is good or bad, but the oldest player (24) will be 29 years old in 2018 when Russia hosts the World Cup, so it is something to watch with interest

          • Andy Shenk says:

            No problem. If you have the chance to write something, we’d love to post it here, but certainly no pressure from us on that count.

            It has been nice to see a number of young Russian players out there. Less than a month now until the Northern Ireland match. It’ll be interesting to see who Capello calls up, given the importance of the match.

  4. Ahmad ISMAIL says:

    Dear Andy, I believe some other players could also have a potential role in Russia 2018 (Cheryshev, Kannunikov, parshivlyuk (if not injured), Solovyev (dynamo/zenit), yusupov, maxim grigorey, panyukov..) without forgetting the U-17 champions (maybe a couple of the players who will be 22-23 could feature (mitryushkin, Dzhamaldin Khodzhaniyazov)…list can still be extended.. I think there is a big potential to develop a serious squad by 2018, the boys need to be given a chance on club level! thanks for this nice article!

    • Andy Shenk says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I hope you’re right and that a lot of these guys make it on the team by 2018.

    • Andy Shenk says:

      I just wanted to add that I completely agree with you about playing time. The biggest need for Russia’s development right now is for these 20-24-year-old guys to play every week at their clubs, even if it means moving to a smaller club or playing abroad. They simply can’t sit on the bench any longer.

  5. Ben V says:

    I’ve actually been talking about this lately but the 2018 team does have a lot of promising things going for it, there’s a lot of talent up front beyond the big two as Cheryshev, Smolov, Yakovley, Panyukov and Serderov have all flashed a lot of talent. And the midfield isn’t poorly stocked with Shatov, Mamaev, Ozdoev and Petrov, and both Burlak and Shennikov have a lot of potential on defense.

    • Andy Shenk says:

      Thanks for reading and for the feedback. The next few years will be very interesting as we find out which of them develop into national team players.

      • Ben V says:

        Yeah, the RPL’s youth development is so wonky because of the domestic player rules pushing youth past their level and so much of the youth level football being so corrupt, fortunately Dzagoev and Kokorin are already established and Cheryshev is safe in Spain, so at the very least the attacking line should be strong. Plus I think the increasing number of capable teams in the RPL helps young players find PT against capable opposition where they’re not overwhelmed.

  6. Ben V says:

    So while the game was a disaster there where some nice things for the future of russian football. Dzagoev was the star man of the russian offensive movements. In the first half he crafted a good half dozen dangerous moments for himself and his team-mates that could’ve become goals if the russians execution was sharper, including a shot he curled bitterly wide shortly before the dutch opener. In the second half he again was the man in the middle of things whenever the russians put an attack together. For their goal he won the ball back from the dutch defender, went wide where he passed it back and forth with the one man who’d already arrived, to create time for his other team-mates to rush forward and for him to survey the scene. As they moved the ball across to the other flank he snuck into the box to put a header off of the woodwork for Cheryshev to slam into the net. This kid is a star already and will be at the heart of russian football for the rest of this decade.

    I thought Shatov also gave a good account of himself in this game, getting himself into attacking situations in a very shirokov-ian way the couple of times he pounced in from deeper to help create real danger out of the russian possession. Moving forward I’m starting to jump more and more on his bandwagon as a future key piece of the Russian NT if he can continue to improve his consistency in the final third and become a lethal and sneaky threat like the mercurial Zenit star.

    Denis Cheryshev started against Spain and flashed his skill the handful of times he actually got the ball, unfortunately against spain he was very isolated and overmotivated to show himself. Here he came off the bench and did well, he looked much more comfortable playing off of a player like Dzagoev and showed that nose for goal that’s seen him become Real’s second team’s second leading scorer, as he cleaned up Alan’s header for the one russian goal. This kid is a big talent and has himself a good place to grow in Spain’s second division, soon though he’ll need to look for a loan to a bigger league that can further his development. I hope he follows the path Real used with Carvajal and are rumored to be considering for his team-mates Jese, and goes to the BuLi. He could grow a lot there as he takes the next step in his career and tries to join Dzagoev and Kokorin as russia’s established young stars.

    Yakovlev was very hit or miss today, again he flashed, and that’s good from a young player but I’d really like to see him bring those flashes together and become a reliable threat before I raise my expectations above another Bystrov like solid NT winger, but no star. He did show some real creativity though, especially with that clever backheel to shatov, which gives me hope that he’ll break out soon and force me to raise those expectations, but so far there’s still a lot to work on before I start to get on board.

    Smolov did alright, he was playing as the man leading the line and he made some striker decisions that I wasn’t too happy with, but at the same time can’t complain about too much either since that’s what you want your striker doing. He wasn’t too sloppy with his play when he wasn’t looking for goal although he did seem rather anonymous to me.

    His teenage replacement I did notice though and I liked what I saw, Panyukov’s still very young so i expect a little less precision from him than the older players, but he fit right in showing some craftiness sometimes and then sloppiness the next. All in all I was more impressed with him than disappointed, and he is still so young so that if he grows well he could also be one who pushes into the Dzagoev / Kokorin tier of top young russian attacking talent.

    • Andy Shenk says:

      Thanks again for the extended comments. It was a pretty positive outing for the men up front, at least compared to the game against Spain and I’m certainly excited to see Shatov, Smolov and Cheryshev get regular playing time at the club level next season. Shatov can hopefully win a regular place at Anzhi, while it looks like Smolov is headed back to Dinamo and Cheryshev is waiting on the new Real Madrid coach to decide where he goes (he won’t be back with the 2nd team).

      I’m also hoping to see Tsallagov with more playing time after sitting on the bench at Krylia most of the spring. It will be interesting to see where Panyukov ends up now that his loan at Khimki has ended and he’s back to Dinamo.

  7. I consider the following players to be the “new blood” for Russian National Team:

    1. Kokorin
    2. Dzagoev
    3. Cheryshev
    4. Yakovlev
    5. Schennikov
    6. Parshivlyuk
    7. Dzyuba
    8. Serderov
    9. Shatov
    10. Ionov
    11. Panyukov
    12. Burlak
    13. Smolov
    14. A. Kozlov (Spartak)
    15. Logashov
    16. Kannunikov
    17. Ozdoev
    18. Bezlikhotnov
    19. Kutepov
    20. Solovyov

    And others.

    There is plenty of talent here to have a very strong side for the future. The key is development, which is something that can be an issue with RPL clubs.

    Plus there are still good players in the mid-20s who can factor in 2018 (Akinfeev, D. Kombarov, Granat, Fayzulin, Glushakov, Belenov, Nababkin, Kozlov, Kasaev)

    • John Sager says:

      It does look quite positive when you put it that way. A solid group of players who are getting playing time at the big clubs.

      That is a very impressive list and looks like you know the national team well. Would you be interested in developing it a bit more into an article for the site, or if not do you mind if I borrow the list for an article? (Giving full credit of course)

      Thanks a lot for participating in the discussion.

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