Lucescu – Failure or Scapegoat?


After a third-place finish last season, which meant Zenit St. Petersburg missed out on Champions League football for the second season in a row, they sacked Romanian head coach Mircea Lucescu after just one season at the club.

The baggage left behind by his predecessor André Villas-Boas was no gift. If from a distance, say in Lucescu’s previous home Donetsk for example, it looked attractive and manageable, then only when you get closer could you begin to see the clear signs of aging and where the stitches were coming undone. Villas-Boas’ tactical patchwork had increasingly relied on the qualities of three outstanding individuals: Hulk, Axel Witsel, and Ezequiel Garay to hold things together across the pitch.

Beloved as they may have been, the reliable legionnaires of the past: Miguel Danny, Domenico Criscito, and Nicolas Lombaerts were clearly waning by the 2015/2016 season. Igor Smolnikov, Oleg Shatov, and Artyom Dzyuba had progressed well but the pressure was on Hulk to help them shine. The rest, either inconsistent or unspectacular were a by-product of the risks and realities of Financial Fair Play (FFP), coupled with restrictions placed on foreign players. Villas-Boas, who was reluctant to look to youth, inevitably became increasingly vocal about his frustrations surrounding Russian football.

In his final season, after realising his team’s limitations in Europe Villas-Boas “did a Yuri Semin” and saved the blushes of a third-place league finish by lifting the Russian cup. It was clear that team lacked the squad depth and mental vigour required to compete on all three fronts.

Villas-Boas was not the man who had the will or the way to carry on when it would perhaps be necessary to start from scratch. Instead Mircea Lucescu, thirty-three years the elder, took up the gauntlet. During twelve years at Shaktar Donetsk he had crafted together an archetype for Eastern European success in Europe. He had built and several times rebuilt a Shaktar team renowned for their exciting attack-minded football. There he won 22 trophies and his eye for cultivating youth and talented foreigners became world-famous. In many ways, he appeared the mirror opposite of Villas-Boas, and it was hoped that he would be the man to take Zenit to new heights.

A Man Of Principles Meets A Club Considering A New Identity

Immediately Lucescu found he had a lot on his plate. After having just finished a beleaguered third and welcoming a new head coach many of the players grasped at their chance to leave the club. Lucescu reveals that Witsel, Garay, and Hulk were quickly at his door asking to leave and that it was impossible to keep hold of them. Hulk joined Villas-Boas at Shanghai SIPG, and Garay after a few games left for Valencia. Witsel remained only for the time being as he seemed to be deciding between the widest range of suitors. Most interestingly Lucescu reveals that Criscito and Lombaerts brought similar demands to leave, and they didn’t – Zenit had three players heading out and two (or more) in limbo. Meanwhile Danny who of course was previously set to leave would now remain to recover from a cruciate ligament injury.

While one might speculate whether Lucescu could have fought harder to keep his stars, the truth is that this was probably a planned-for inevitability – the offers for Hulk and Garay, and the one that would follow for Witsel were likely too good to turn down. Indeed, such forethought may have formed a key part of reasoning for the club hiring Lucescu, a man who had proven that he could build a successful team instead of a Carlos Ancelotti type of coach, who is best when he takes over an already ready team and then starts winning.

Graph 1 shows how a gradual FFP slump following the €88.76 million laid out for five in 2012/2013 was about to come to a head, and the cycle of spending could be restarted. 2016/2017 transfer sales would bring in €104.5 million but the money was to be re-invested in a more sustainable manner under Lucescu. It speaks volumes that since January 2016, Anton Yefremov, the man who had inconspicuously been in charge of Zenit’s transfers was previously employed at the famously frugal CSKA Moscow.


Graph 1. The value of Zenit’s incoming and outgoing transfers based on numbers from Transfermarkt.

Attention should also be paid to Lucescu’s claims that a possible summer move for his former Shaktar graduate Fernando was refused by the club, for reasons he has been “unable” to disclose. We know Lucescu had also wanted to sign Luiz Adriano and it is seems unlikely that the players themselves would not have chosen in favour of their former manager.  Both of them could have helped Lucescu much in the same way as Hulk had done for Villas-Boas. Instead both players moved to Spartak Moscow and assisted them in winning the league, Fernando in particular having an exceptional season. Whilst Lucescu has said that he does not like to spend money just for the sake of it, these two instances may point to a case of manager marionette – where the board had tied Lucescu’s hands to a caricature of his principles. Fernando ended up costing Spartak €12.5 million, significantly more than Lucescu’s most expensive signing, Hernani (€8 million). Luiz Adriano, although signing on a free contract has a wage that is allegedly €3.5 million, and this was perhaps the stumbling block as it would have made him the third highest earner at Zenit at the time.

Lucescu was either all too happy in the belief, that through his experience and past success he could brush past this, or it was a bit of tough luck, because the board were not yet as cosy as they had been at Shaktar. As he says now (admirably or foolishly) he had wanted to work with what he had and build a team of Russians.

4, 2, 3, 1, and… compromise!

Consequently, we saw a bare minimum of players join Zenit during the summer window – Ivan Novoseltsev with his Russian passport was a shoo-in for rotation, Victor Giuliano as “Lucescu’s Hulk”, and Robert Mak the likely man to provide cover for Danny and Shatov. Giuliano and Mak settled well, but the perpetually injured Novoseltsev was a disastrous signing. In a revelation Lombaerts did not appear to appreciate being kept hostage by Lucescu, and Zenit were doomed to playing with a centre back pairing previously seen as almost a last resort.

As far as youth goes, Lucescu felt there was nobody immediately capable of making the step up from Zenit-2. A damning judgement but not a consequence of his own making and perhaps fair. Given his track record there is reason to trust Lucescu when he says he was going to integrate players from the youth academy next season, he even names them as Leon Musaev, Nikita Kakkoev, and Daniil Lesovoy, names to keep in mind.

Making do with “what he had” then, Lucescu set about work with his favoured 4-2-3-1 from Shakhtar. Without Hulk the move towards a collective possession-based 4-2-3-1 with Giuliano playing the star role appeared logical. This system promised much and started well, Giuliano, Lucescu’s chosen one was brilliant, and Zenit would soon lead goal scoring charts both at home and in Europe.

Same Zenit, Different Hulk

However paradoxically, the goals belied an actual lack of finishing quality within the squad. Far too much still hedged on Giuliano and Dzyuba to finish chances. The combined efforts of everyone else barely matched those two. Hulk’s counter-attacking prowess had masked the worrying weakness in positional attacks under Villas-Boas, and it was a challenge for most players to step it up.

The goals also distracted from what was happening at the other end of the pitch – Neto and Criscito were very error prone along with goalkeeper Yuri Lodygin in defence. Javi Garcia, the league’s highest earner, was an immovable time-bomb in more ways than one, his saving grace being that he offered the defence at least some sort of physicality. At the back everything was awfully fragile, with aging players, and a severe lack of depth. Without Lombaerts there was nobody who could consistently win the ball in the air. Then, not uncharacteristically, Smolnikov got himself injured and a hefty list of key players lost from last season grew larger.

A lack of mobility that Zenit exhibited all over also meant that when their attacks did occasionally break down they were vulnerable to the counter, a high number of yellow and red cards point to this. Zenit’s awful 4-0 loss to Anzhi in the Russian cup where they got a red card and proceeded to be torn apart on by counter-attacks? That was not a glitch. The games against Dundalk also highlighted the overall lack of mobility and physicality as Zenit struggled in a 4-4-2 against the minnows.

By the winter break if things appeared to be going well it was largely an illusion, but one that many Zenit fans, including myself, had gladly bought into at the time. Once again, a single Brazilian was largely responsible for the success or failure of Zenit. His contribution had helped Zenit lead the goal scoring charts and simply outscore the amount of goals the defence let in. Aside from the first round win against Spartak, the most notable example would of course be the first game against Macabbi Tel-Aviv, where Giuliano would lead Zenit to a comeback from 3-0 down to a 4-3 win within the remaining 14 minutes. Giuliano thrived in the 4-3-2-1, the others not entirely. Defensively several teams had recorded better results thus far, and a wise man would have known that this lack of balance did not bode well…

Winter Is Coming, Witsel Is Leaving

Sure enough the problems were there for all to see come winter, when the last of the three Villas-Boas musketeers, Axel Witsel left. Now, before a crucial Europa league round of 32 fixture against Anderlecht, a man who disapproves of winter transfers ended up signing a whole five new players. Hernani, Yohan Mollo, Andrey Lunev, Ibrahim Tsallogov, and Branislav Ivanovic joined the ranks. According to Lucescu these were cover for key players lost. Lunev was bought to finally sort out Zenit’s much avoided goalkeeper problem.

They joined and Zenit crashed out of the Europa league… Lacking match sharpness Ivanovic made serious defensive errors that were compounded by Neto in the first leg. In the return fixture Ivanovic was dropped to the bench but Neto and Criscito proved inadequate once more and lost the tie for Zenit at the death.

When rewatching footage of Zenit’s games it becomes painfully obvious just how regular and costly individual errors from Neto, Criscito, and Lodygin had been over the season. Lunev’s signing helped in this regard and ensured that only five goals would be suffered in the second half of the season. Unfortunately, despite minimal goals conceded, defensive errors and mistakes continued, games were needlessly lost, and profligacy in attack emerged…

Shatov, who had totted up three goals and was leader of assists for Zenit during the first half of the season joined Lombaerts in expressing a nagging disdain towards Lucescu. These internal issues were seemingly never resolved and Lucescu was working within very fine margins for what looks like misplaced pride. After the winter break Shatov played on average for 24 minutes a game and his goalscoring contribution ended. Mak is another player who unexplainably seemed to dissapear after the winter break. New players along with the returning Danny had Lucescu rotating and hoping beyond hope to find balance. Instead this probably brought about more disruption.

Giuliano had started to cut a lost figure, dwindling between midfield and attack competing for meaning with Danny, trying to somehow fill the void left by Witsel, when the remaining central midfielders were not up to the task. Dzyuba could not be endlessly relied on either, he too had suited having more space to work with the ball than the 4-2-3-1 generally afforded. Lucescu had no other finishers he could rely on to change it up. The opposition adapted and made life harder. Desperation and route one lob balls to Dzyuba crept in at times.

The new quintet was too late to have an impact, most of them were hardly played, and the rest were losing faith. The league looked to be game, set, and match for Spartak, the cup embarrassingly forgone, Europe regrettably thrown away. A reportedly morose atmosphere in the Zenit camp became a far cry from Villas-Boas’ relatively cheerful Portuguese brigade and Zenit finished third, an agonising point or so away from second, eight away from winners Spartak.

No Second Season, Back to The Future

Lucescu could have been a successful manager at Zenit but not in that season, and in those circumstances. For all his experience, Lucescu was not pragmatic where it was required. So, whether he likes to admit it or not, it appears that like most managers there is a specific set of preconditions that enable him to be a success.

Zenit were a team looking to bounce back immediately and Lucescu was probably the wrong man for a quick fix. An idyllic long-term vision for Zenit was scuppered by this half-hearted mismatch, and the fact that there were more challenges to deal with in the short-term than anyone perhaps cared to accept and knew how to tackle. Nobody at Zenit was truly blameless that season. If it was going to be a collective effort it was also a collective failure. For Lucescu in his role as head coach this had included an off-the pitch role where he neglected to gain rapport and was perhaps misunderstood by players and fans alike.

It is tough not to sympathise with Lucescu because a lot of things simply did not go Zenit’s way, but ultimately, he failed to truly leave his stamp on Zenit and became a “nearly man” appearing to only offer excuses. Time may tell if it was the right decision to sack Lucescu but the acknowledgment of wider problems at the club will no doubt become an important first step towards a Zenit with a true identity and focus. Sports director Konstantin Sarsania, chairman Sergey Fursenko, home-grown talents Denis Terentjev, Daler Kuzyaev and Dmitry Bogaev are among old faces who have since returned, Yefremov has left, club legend Aleksandr Kerzhakov now co-ordinates the youth system…

Sometimes it is best to go back to what you know best – for Zenit the future is tied to its past.

Author: Neil Salata

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


  1. Bored todeath says:

    its a shame the club wasnt more patient with him after all the talent he brought in to shkatar …it wouldve been interesting to see a all russian defense with a brazilian attack bleh ……..also can someone tell viktor goncharenko that his defense is dead i mean dude and youre playing with 3 at the back with vasin and berezutski twins you cant be serious i dont even care for cska but why are they still playing lol

Leave a Reply