Goodbye Dzyuba? How Driussi’s Arrival at Zenit Could Mean the End for the Big Man

Artyom Dzyuba celebrating a goal against Olympique Lyon in November, 2015. Photo: Вячеслав Евдокимов

Artyom Dzyuba celebrating a goal against Olympique Lyon in November, 2015. Photo: Вячеслав Евдокимов

An unexpected sting in the tail, tension, end to end entertainment and a late goal to secure victory; it is fair to say that Roberto Mancini’s home debut as Zenit Saint Petersburg manager on matchday two of the Russian Football Premier League did not disappoint. Despite falling behind just before half time to Kurban Berdyev’s Rubin Kazan – thanks in no small part to a poor piece of defending by Zenit’s Portuguese defender Luis Neto – the team from Piter turned it around with an injury time winning goal to make it 2-1 and take all three points.

Zenit’s star man in their comeback victory was their summer recruit from River Plate, Sebastian Driussi. The 21-year-old Argentine striker had an excellent home debut, particularly in the second half, where he scored Zenit’s two goals in their comeback victory. However, in addition to the two goals that he scored, the second of which was a fine finish worthy of replaying several times, Driussi also impressed with his dribbling and link up play with his Zenit team-mates Aleksandr Kokorin, Oleg Shatov and Giuliano, particularly in the second half which resulted in some fine one-touch passing moves that carved open Rubin’s well organised backline. Leading Russian sports newspaper Sport-Express gave Driussi a rating of 8 out of 10 for his performance, the highest rating of all the players on both sides in the game, and when walking off the pitch to be substituted immediately after he scored the winning goal, Driussi received a standing ovation from the Zenit faithful who have found themselves a new striking hero.

Dzyuba has been Zenit’s go-to guy since his arrival

As so often occurs, Driussi, Zenit’s hero, was only expected pre-game to play the role of support striker to Zenit’s main forward and Russian international Artyom Dzyuba in the 4-4-2 formation that Mancini lined Zenit up in at the start of the game. At 6 foot 5 inches and weighing 91 kilograms, 28-year-old Dzyuba is  a handful for any defender on his day, and with 15 and 13 league goals respectively for the Saint Petersburg club over the last two seasons, is normally a reliable source of goals. Like he did in Zenit’s opening 2-0 victory over SKA Khabarovsk, however, Dyuba played a poor match for Zenit for the second week in a row. Despite some decent knock-downs from direct passes throughout the match, he failed to link up well in passing moves with his attacking team mates. Sport-Express rated his performance a 5.5 out of 10, the second lowest of all of Zenit’s starting eleven, only above that of the aforementioned Luis Neto, so it was no surprise to anyone that Dzyuba was substituted on 65 minutes for Giuliano, who made far more of a positive impact in his 25 minutes on the pitch.

We should be wary of rushing to conclusions after the contrasting performances of two players after just one game, but following Driussi and Dzyuba’s respective performances, should the young Argentine now inherit the main striking role current held by Dzyuba? There is a strong argument to say yes and throughout the match against Rubin, Mancini himself showed evidence suggesting that not only will Driussi displace Dzyuba as the club’s main striker, but the latter’s days as a guaranteed starter for Zenit could soon be numbered.

Dzyuba certainly has his strengths as a player. His height and build allow him to win aerial duels with central defenders, he can lay off direct passes to his team-mates and his height makes him ideal to attack crosses into the penalty box. However, despite these strengths, one issue that any manager who starts Dzyuba has to accept is that your side’s whole attack has to be built around just him. This is the weakness of a player like Dzyuba; if he has a poor game, then it is likely Zenit will struggle to score goals and win tight football matches against mid and high-ranking Russian Premier League sides. In addition, playing Dzyuba also makes Zenit predictable. Many attacks launched by Zenit in the opening two games have consisted of long direct balls for Dzyuba to hold up and lay off to a fellow attacking player. Eventually, a style like this can be easy for opposing teams to defend against if they know what is coming most times Zenit attack.

Shatov, Erokhin, Ivanovic, Kokorin and Dzyuba in Zenit's new kits before this season. Photo: Анна Майер & Евгений Асмолов

Shatov, Erokhin, Ivanovic, Kokorin and Dzyuba in Zenit’s new kits before this season. Photo: Анна Майер & Евгений Асмолов

Dzyuba doesn’t suit Zenit’s style

However, the biggest argument against Dzyuba starting at present for Zenit is that the characteristics he possesses are not compatible with his support cast in attack. This includes the likes of Giuliano, Driussi, Kokorin and Shatov, all small, mobile and technically gifted players, with Driussi and Kokorin also possessing pace to worry a defensive line. Dzyuba is not the most technically gifted player, he lacks pace, and because of his height and build is not a mobile striker who would link up well with his four aforementioned teammates. Upon Dzyuba’s substitution for Giuliano, Zenit switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation and suddenly started to carve out more goal-scoring opportunities against a Rubin side who had set out their stall to play on the counter with a deep defensive line. The reason for this was because a player with good mobility and pace like Kokorin or Driussi now occupied the main striking role. As a result, Zenit were able to play more one-touch combination passing moves with greater success, finding holes in Rubin’s deep defensive line and subsequently more goal opportunities.

Evidence of how much team combination passing play has to be sacrificed to incorporate a player like Dzyuba was also on show during last summer’s European Championships in France, where he was given the responsibility of being the main central striker in Russia’s attack. However, as mentioned above, in the two games involving Russia against England and Slovakia that I watched, the technically gifted, mobile and pacey attacking players playing behind Dzyuba like Shatov, Kokorin and Fyodor Smolov failed to conduct quick, fluid combination passing as he possesses distinctly different characteristics to his supporting cast in attack. Furthermore, the presence of Dzyuba in the main central striking role forced the aforementioned Smolov, who was the form Russian striker going into the tournament having top scored with 20 goals in the 2015-16 Russian Premier League, to play out on the wing throughout the tournament. Unsurprisingly, Smolov did not have a good tournament in France being played completely out of position.

So would the easy solution for Mancini be to drop Dzyuba to the substitutes bench? Perhaps, but it is not so simple because of Russian football’s foreigner rule, which stipulates that five out of a club’s eleven players on the pitch for league matches have to be qualified to play for the Russian national team. For the match against Rubin, Zenit’s starting eleven had exactly five, one of which was Dzyuba.

More on the debate over the foreigner limit can be found here.

However, even with the quota rule in place, Dzyuba should now be seriously concerned when it comes to maintaining his place in Zenit’s starting line-up. The reason for this is because alongside recruiting foreign players like Druissi and fellow Argentine Leandro Paredes this summer, Zenit also signed a number of Russian players such as fullback Denis Terentyev, midfielder Aleksandr Erokhin and striker Dimitri Poloz from FC Rostov to make sure that they do not fall foul of the quota rule. None started against Rubin, however, but are all capable of coming into Zenit’s starting eleven and performing against most opponents. One potential option for Mancini could be to drop the error-prone central defender Luis Neto, move Italian Domenico Criscito from his position at left fullback to central defender where he played capably for a large part of last season, and in Criscito’s place put the aforementioned Terentyev. Zenit would then have an extra Russian player in their line-up in Terentyev, which also means that Dzyuba could then be dropped and Driussi could then take his place as the main striker behind an attacking midfield three of Shatov, Giuliano and Kokorin.

The development of Russian tactics speaks against Dzyuba

Even the Russian press have now begun to criticise Dzyuba’s performances and question whether or not he should be a starter for Zenit. In his article for Sport-Express, writer Gosha Chernov highlighted that since many Russian teams have switched to three-man defences in their formations, Dzyuba is now surrounded by defenders in and around the penalty box, which given his lack of pace and mobility, make it difficult for him to escape their attention and move into space in the box to execute shots on goal. Chernov also highlights that of the six goals that Dzyuba has scored in all competitions for Zenit since Feburary, all have been scored against teams with two central defenders rather than three-man defences with wingbacks. Finally, Chernov highlights in his article that upon Dzyuba’s substitution for Giuliano, Zenit’s attack became more fluid with Kokorin and Driussi interchanging in the central striking role, stretching and challenging Rubin’s defence more than when Dzyuba was on the pitch, a point that is difficult to disagree with for anybody watching the game.

READ MORE: The Evolution of the 5-Man Defence in Russian Football

Despite the above criticisms of Dzyuba, he remains an important player in Zenit’s squad. His ability to bring fellow attackers into play, bully central defenders and attack crossed balls make him a useful Plan B option for Zenit if they are trailing in games. However, when Mancini has a full complement of players to choose from and providing Zenit can satisfy the full quota of Russian players in their starting line-up, which is likely to be in a 4-2-3-1 formation, it is tough to see exactly where Dzyuba fits into this formation on merit.

One potential alternative to dropping Dzyuba could be finding an alternative formation to the 4-4-2 used at the weekend by Mancini, which could incorporate both Driussi and Dyzuba better. Perhaps the answer could be a narrow 4-3-3 formation, with Dyzuba as the central striker and Driussi and Kokorin as narrow wide forwards in support, with a midfield three comprised of Paredes in a deep playmaking role, Zenit’s new summer signing Daler Kuzyayev in a box-to-box midfield role and Giuliano as an attacking midfielder in a roaming advanced role just outside of the penalty box.

Zenit possess two fullbacks capable of getting forward frequently to support attacks in Domenico Criscito and Igor Smolnikov, a strong requirement of a 4-3-3 formation. Another reason for suggesting 4-3-3 as an alternative formation is a potential solution to the dilemma explained above in Chernov’s article. If Driussi and Kokorin were utilised in narrow wide forward roles being underlapped by the wide-positioned fullbacks on both sides, they could pull central defenders out of position with their dribbling and trickery, allowing more space for Dzyuba in the penalty box when faced with deep three man defences which Zenit are likely to encounter when many teams play them this season.

Either way, the 4-4-2 utilised by Mancini this weekend with Dzyuba as the main striker did not prove effective, so a decision will have to be taken whether to incorporate Dzyuba with Driussi in a more effective formation, or to give Driussi the main striking role by dropping Dzyuba to the substitutes bench very soon.

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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