Exploring Lokomotiv Moscow’s Auspicious Start To The Season

Lokomotiv Moscow has been through a tunnel of despair, now a small glimmer of light teases the hopeful. At the time of writing they occupy second place in the RFPL table – an auspicious start with some laudable victories, a drastic improvement over last season – but where can this journey realistically finish?

 

Lokomotiv’s (P)Resident Bogeymen  

Yuri Semin the team’s current manager is renowned for his early achievements at Lokomotiv. After he no longer saw eye-to-eye with the club’s president he left in 2005, and ever since the joy of that golden period has yet to return. Semin’s intermittent absences appear to almost act as a recurrent curse – whereby the club’s results, attendances, finances, and club stature in general, diminish.

READ MORE: Yuri Semin: The Holy Man of Russian Football

His most recent and longest absence under the presidency of Olga Smorodskaya was particularly ill-fated. The club’s “holy man” became Smorodskaya’s first victim; channelling Henry VII, she proceeded to get through no fewer than six more head coaches, in six years – a single Russian Cup win to show for all the bloody corpses. She circumstantiated the belief that a bogeyman (or woman) comes to haunt Lokomotiv’s tracks whenever Semin is too far away.

READ MORE: Smorodskaya’s Reign of Chaos is Coming to an End

Ilya Gerkus, taking over Smorodskaya’s duties as president would once again place faith in Semin. This despite the legitimate questions surrounding Semin’s prolonged relevance. After early exploits, his success had been somewhat sporadic.

Did Gerkus want the man or the brand? Cynics believe Semin’s managerial capability was largely irrelevant. Fans had hated Smorodskaya and attendances were at an all-time low – Gerkus was a Zenit fan with some unpopular views of his own. Hiring Semin could be seen as the ideal PR strategy for Mr President and his club.

READ MORE: Ilya Gerkus – A Zenit Man to Revive Lokomotiv

Mediocrity is easier accepted with a club legend behind the helm. If Semin failed to retrace his steps it would only acknowledge that Gerkus had respectfully brought Semin’s time at Lokomotiv to an end.

 

Semin’s Ragged Crew

Having had so many different managers in such a short space of time, the players last season comprised a difficult and unsightly jigsaw, whose many jagged edges Semin would have to mull over. A lot of the best individuals were ageing veterans, while newer recruits for lack of willing victims appeared to have become overpriced stabs in the dark.

Semin lacked the play-pieces going forward, so he would instead have to try and mould some new ones. Ezekiel Henty and Petar Škuletić were strikers with quality below par – they would not have looked out of place in the FNL or at best in an Amkar shirt. New recruit Igor Portnyagin was also stale, he suffered a season-ending injury after scoring just once in five appearances. Semin would be forced to turn to Maicon and Aleksey Miranchuk, filling in regularly (out of position) upfront.

Building from the back was a necessity and Lokomotiv’s defence with the addition of loanee Igor Denisov was a solid asset to depend upon. It is no surprise however that ultimately a club without firepower struggled to win games, particularly against the top teams, and that a lot of games ended in draws.

 

Patching Up

Semin’s implementation of a 3-4-2-1 setup was well suited for this emphasis on defence but attacks would rely very heavily on the individual creative talent of a few; a lot of the team for lack of it would cautiously stay back under Semin’s instruction.

This time last season, Lokomotiv were anchored in the lower depths of the table. Besides the striker problem, a huge Portuguese-shaped mass of talent had been missing. Manuel Fernandes, in his debut season, had hauled in seven goals and three assists in 35 appearances, but after a conflict arose during 2015-2016 he made just 13 appearances with no goals and a single assist. Semin and Gerkus were successful in an offer to parley and Fernandes would become Semin’s main man o’ war.

In the winter, the club steered away from the familiar temptation of bringing in dead wood. Rather than sign Aleksandr Prudnikov Lokomotiv announced a reputable new director of sport in Erik Stoffelshaus. He championed the signing of Jefferson Farfan, with whom he had previously crossed swords with at Schalke 04. Farfan a replacement for Samedov, who had left for Spartak (amidst rumours of a conflict with Semin).The club then made further quality signings to fix problem areas, as Solomon Kvirkvelia and Ari joined on loan deals.

As the season continued, attacking concerns shook hands and exchanged places with defensive woes. Vedran Ćorluka and Vitaly Denisov both receiving season-ending injuries, though these would be offset by the clever transfers the club had made. A late salvo driven by Ari’s goals and the creative talents of Miranchuk and Fernandes ensured they tallied up twice as many goals in the second half of the season and finished no lower than 8th.

Lokomotiv won the consolatory Russian Cup trophy, but rumours of Semin’s dismissal began to circulate nonetheless; it was reported that his contract was about to run out. Gerkus had allegedly been unsatisfied with Semin’s work and the names of Heiko Vogel, Leonid Kuchuk, Viktor Skrypnyk, and Kurban Berdyev, were all said to have been thrown into the hat.

 

Semin’s Party

What little success Smorodskaya had achieved in six years was matched by Gerkus in one with the Russian Cup win. The club legend’s popular return had also helped make inroads to improving attendances – these had risen by 7% from the previous season. Semin stayed, his contract reportedly renewed.

More deadwood departed and transfers at the start of the season breathed fresh life into Lokomotiv. The club signed a permanent deal for Kvirkvelia, boosting their defence, along with a loan extension for Ari and his many goals. Lokomotiv also returned youth product Arshak Koryan, a victim of the club’s former politics, who had since given a bright account of himself playing for Vitesse II.

READ MORE: The Return of Lokomotiv’s Prodigal Son, Arshak Koryan

In addition, the record-breaking Nikita Medvedev was brought in as cover for error-prone Guilherme, and Polish international Maciej Rybus was an interesting addition at wing-back. A contract extension with Miranchuk became the icing on the cake as the squad quietly began to look competitive.

They looked good in the first game of the season – the Super Cup against Spartak – it was only in extra time that they were bested. Proceeding to make a winning start to the league they looked more than good. Ari fired them to a convincing 3-1 win over CSKA and it seemed Lokomotiv could be this year’s dark horses.

 

Where Has All The Rum Gone?

Unfortunately, in that same game against the Koni, their celebrations met a bitter end – the goalscoring Ari was injured. Semin initially said they would look to internal reserves but 19-year-old striker Artyom Galadzhan has barely totted up more minutes than his years so far. Instead, Farfan and Aleksey Miranchuk have had to fill in.

A gentle fixture list had considerably helped the club to pick up points but that is not to say the games have been easy. Many of Lokomotiv’s points were won by the skin of their teeth. That is meritable, and now having the players to do so points to an improved transfer policy and Semin’s work with the squad.

Fernandes and Aleksey Miranchuk had been picking up where they left off last season, but aside from that there are a lot of individual improvements buffering the loss of Ari: Kvirkvelia, contributing both goals and clean sheets; Anton Miranchuk, catalysing his brother’s performances; the rise of starlets Dmitri Barinov and Mikhail Lysov; the re-emergence of Farfan’s pedigree.

Still though, without a designated striker the individual qualities of the players had inevitably started to reach breaking point, and Semin’s tactical instructions were at times becoming obsolete. A striker was desperately needed while the transfer window was open. A 2-0 defeat by relegation-threatened FC Tosno highlighted this.

Famous Russian pundit Vasily Utkin is an outspoken critic of Semin and after this result, he called him their weak link. Rectifying for Gerkus his decision to keep Semin after he won the Russian Cup was the reaction that followed. Supporters began bringing huge banners saying “No Semin, No Party”, singing songs in Semin’s honour, and hurling insults at Utkin.

 

Boarded

On the trail of an Ari replacement, Lokomotiv had the opportunity to sign Artyom Dzyuba from Zenit, but for speculative reasons, the board declined his candidature. Instead, they opted to loan Eder. The Portuguese Euro 2016 hero is one of a rare few who could challenge Dzyuba for infamy, but there were questions about his quality and he would need to adapt to the league.

Fans may also have been disappointed when they ended up without the signatures of Fernandes’ best friend Nani, and Vyacheslav Karavaev. The former perhaps understandably problematic for a squad with Igor Denisov – known to throw tantrums when it comes to well-paid foreign colleagues. Though with regards to Karavaev the official explanation was that the club has four other right backs – strange when Karavaev is getting such plaudits for his performances, and one of those four right backs is Boris Rotenberg.

Rumours persist that behind closed doors not all is rosy between Semin and Gerkus. Semin is said to have actually blocked the transfer of Karavaev, in retaliation for Gerkus and the board allegedly blocking the transfer of Nani. As far as the players are concerned it is a different story – Farfan recently underlined the good atmosphere at the club, calling it “one big family”. This draws comparisons to the golden era when Lokomotiv was being discussed as a family, one that Semin had built.

Popular sons Dmitri Loskov and Dmitri Sychev had also since been returned by Gerkus and the board: Loskov returned as a coaching assistant and at 43 years was registered to play a farewell match earlier this year; Dmitri Sychev currently plays for Lokomotiv farm club Kazanka.

The outside impression may now once again be purposefully familial but Semin is increasingly only the symbolic head of the family. Below the surface, much more have their fingers in this familial pie.

 

No Ari Yet, But Getting Eder

Lokomotiv with Eder had initially struggled – failing to win the first four games with him aboard, including a disappointing defeat in the Russian Cup. Without Ari, they looked at times to be labouring hopelessly against opponents’ numbers and compactness in defence. Eder did not appear to be helping – in those initial games, he had averaged less than a single shot per game.

Since then the club has been on a run of 3 consecutive wins. Eder scored a last-gasp winner in the first against FC Rostov, in the second against FC Zlin he added an assist, and most recently against Dinamo Moscow – he scored again.

Eder is not a game-changer in the same vein as Ari but he is useful when games are there to be won. Semin lets opponents show their hand first and because his favourite score is 1-0 defending often takes precedence. Following these principles, wins by more than a single goal margin has been rare this season. After Ari was injured the only exceptions have come in the most recent two games against much weaker opponents, where individual quality surpassed tactical instruction – in particular, the quality of Alexey Miranchuk and Manuel Fernandes.

Semin’s philosophy has been highlighted in their Europa league campaign: In the potentially difficult first game away against FC Copenhagen – Lokomotiv were content with no shots on target, just not to concede; in the second game against Czech minnows Zlin – the brilliant Fernandes scored an easy hattrick within 17 minutes, after which they coasted aimlessly past.

Similarly in the league: against Dinamo, who had not scored in their last four games, a more attacking mentality was afforded and Lokomotiv won 3-0. By contrast, in a balanced game, like the one against Rostov, they managed to score the game’s only goal through Eder getting a hint of luck in the final minute.

Semin has a firm hand on his squad and how they play, there is cause to criticise but so far he is getting results and morale is high. His positive influence on the more talented players is for all to see. The very average ones (of whom there are still quite a few), also in a way artfully brushed under the carpet by his tactics.

Eder is a hedged bet by the club as Ari is a class above, a player who does not like sitting on the bench, and it looks like he will recover in November. The team’s full strength may only be revealed on Ari’s return.

 

Lokomotiv’s Treasure

Gerkus has stressed that the club does not have a wealth of riches, so Semin makes do with what he has. Some positions remain dependent on the health and form of key individuals. If reports linking Kvirkvelia with a move to England are to be believed, then his future sale, for example, would provide money to wisely reinvest within the squad. Ćorluka is finally recovering from injury, so Lokomotiv will (for the time being at least) soon have a formidable pair of centre-backs, allowing more adventurous attacking play.

Given financial limitations, the foreigner limit, the lack of talented Russians on the market – Lokomotiv can rue throwing away talented academy products like Dmitri Poloz and Rifat Zhemaletdinov. Whilst they may need more than just Stoffelshaus to replicate the Schalke academy, they may not have to – the players have always been there. Semin has been doing a good job of giving the next generation chances; working with what he has, he is steadily proving the squad’s worth.

 

The New World

With a thumping hangover from Smorodskaya, the focus on repairing the club’s image has seen Semin strain to hold two worlds together: an artificial semblance of past glory, juxtaposed with a still slightly croaking present. It is a shame that there remains an air of distrust hovering in the background after all he has done for the club.

Critics circle and worries bite away at Semin’s heels, but it may just be a case of Lokomotiv having fewer problems than their competitors – on the pitch at least. With a bit of luck, he and his team are capable of carrying on this auspicious start and returning some real joy to the fans.

The club’s talisman will not be around forever. When Semin leaves for good, the club will no longer be able to hide behind him or the past – bogeymen may need to be faced head-on, above the surface.

Author: Neil Salata

A big fan of Russian football. Not much more, not much less.

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