RFPL Mid-Season Review – Part One

As we are at the halfway stage of the 2017/18 season, it is now time to look at the season so far and how it has transpired for each RFPL member club. This mid-season review will look at the pre-season expectations for each club based on their squad and summer signings, cross-referencing with last season’s performance and reputation. Then deducing whether or not each club is achieving its pre-season goals so far this season, the comparative high and low points so far for each club, expectations for the rest of the season and finally, placing a grade based on all of the aforementioned factors out of ten.

Part One reviews Akhmat Grozny, Amkar Perm, Anzhi Makhachkala and Arsenal Tula.

 

Akhmat Grozny

Last Season: 5th

Pre-Season Expectations: Upper-mid table or Qualify for Europe (Between 5th-8th).

Current Position: 9th

If ever a team’s season can be described as a “mixed bag” so far, Akhmat is that team. The Chechen’s started the season on fire stunning everyone by lying third after their first three games following impressive victories against Amkar Perm, Rostov and Dinamo Moscow respectively. Their next results in rounds four, five, six and seven of the RFPL resulted in four straight defeats to Ufa, Krasnodar, Zenit and Arsenal Tula. Those two sequences of results have been the only thing consistent about Akhmat this season so far. Results have ranged from the sublime (a 1-0 away win against CSKA Moscow) to the abysmal (drawing against both SKA and Anzhi). For those of us on RFN who play the weekly score predictions game, Akhmat’s unpredictability certainly make them one of our least favourite teams to guess the results of.

The start of the new season saw a large amount of optimism, the appointment of former Krasnodar coach Oleg Kononov – unfortunate to be sacked by the Bulls part-way through last season – was seen as a coup by the club. Summer recruitment was likewise impressive. Brazilian Under-20 international striker Leo Jaba was signed from Corinthians and was tipped to do very well, whilst fellow compatriots Ravanelli and Felipe Sampaio were signed from Brazilian side Ponte Preta and Portuguese side Boavista respectively, and also tipped to do a good job for Akhmat. After narrowly missing out on Europe by just a single position last season, Akhmat looked well equipped to qualify for Europe. Yet, despite their current ninth place not being a complete disaster, their inconsistency plagues them and after conceding a late equaliser at home in a 1-1 draw against bottom club Anzhi in round 15, Kononov has been dismissed as manager. Thus comes the difficult task of finding a replacement mid-season, which is a blow to Akhmat’s European hopes. Rumours are already encircling Grozny that despotic owner Ramzan Kadyrov has already approached ex-boss Rashid Rakhimov to return.

READ MORE: Akhmat Grozny – Three Name Changes, Two War’s and One Crazy Owner

Positives: The three-match winning streak at the start of the season was proof that Akhmat could qualify for Europe. Likewise, the 1-0 away win against CSKA and the 1-1 home draw against current leaders Lokomotiv displays proof they can mix it with the elite of the division on their day. Finally, 24-year-old central midfielder Anton Shvets, an under the radar summer signing from Spanish side Villarreal’s B team has outshone the Brazilian imports and has just won his first call-up to the Russian national team for the November friendlies, merely six months after playing in the Spanish third tier.

Negatives: Inconsistent results and performances have been the major issue at Akhmat all season long. The aforementioned Leo Jaba who started off impressively in Russian football, scoring two goals in his first four games for Akhmat, has not scored since in the league, a drought of eleven matches.

Grade: 5/10 – Not a poor season for Akhmat so far, but without question, below expectations. Their inconsistencies need to be cured and the appointment of the next manager to replace the sacked Kononov is a huge call which the club must get right.

 

Amkar Perm

Last Season: 10th

Pre-Season Expectations: Stabilise in the lower-mid table (Between 9th-12th place).

Current Position: 12th

Amkar, in recent history, have been the perfect example of mid-table stability in the RFPL; never qualifying for European competition, never getting relegated and often reach the safety barrier of 35 points in the 30-game Premier League before then ending the season in a poor run of form after having already secured survival. In essence, they are the West Bromwich Albion of Russia. At one stage this season, it looked like Amkar were going to break their mould of “mid-table stability” for the worse, as they began with four straight defeats to leave them bottom of the standings. However, two impressive draws against Ufa and Krasnodar in rounds five and six steadied the ship and in the nine games since those two draws. Amkar, under the stewardship of the oldest manager in the RFPL, 72-year-old Gadzhi Gadzhiev, have recorded four wins and three draws this season, impressively including away wins against Lokomotiv and Rubin Kazan and an away draw against defending champions Spartak.

The Red-Blacks are currently on a 6 game unbeaten run in the RFPL and recently reached the Quarter Finals of the Russian Cup after a penalty shoot-out victory against Rostov in the last 16. Their Quarter Final opponents are second tier Avangard Kursk, giving Amkar a real chance to potentially reach the final of a cup competition and do something their comparative cousins West Brom never seem able to do. Whilst this season may see more of a relegation scrap than in previous seasons, Amkar is outside of the relegation zone at present and is thus fulfilling their objective of mid-table stability. With only eight goals scored in 15 games so far, it certainly is not pretty nor exciting but one would back Amkar to do enough to prolong their stay in the top flight.

Positives: The defence. In 15 games, Amkar have conceded only ten goals, the joint second best in the league with CSKA and trailing only second-placed Zenit by just one. Their recent 0-0 away draw against Spartak was a superbly executed defensive performance, in which Spartak rarely penetrated their defensive line and created very few chances throughout the game. In actual fact, Amkar will be disappointed to have failed to win the game as they missed some easy chances and had a strong shout for a penalty in the latter stages of the game.

Negatives: It is a good job the defensive side of Amkar’s game is resolute, as they are a side who really struggle to score goals, emphasised by the meagre eight league goals scored so far. Their top scorers are two midfielders, Janusz Gol and Mikhail Gashchenkov with 2 goals each. Improving this could be key to avoiding a potential relegation battle as expecting the defence to continually bail the team out is risky.

Grade: 6/10 – After a shocking start, Amkar have regrouped well and are close to achieving their league objective for the season, the mid-season grade is higher than it could have been due to an impressive cup run.

 

Arsenal Tula

Last Season: 14th, Won Promotion/Relegation playoff against Yenisey Krasnoyarsk.

Pre-Season Expectations: Survival by avoiding the Promotion/Relegation play-offs (12th place or above).

Current Position: 8th

After scraping survival by winning the promotion/relegation play-offs on goal difference last season, the Gunsmiths have taken onboard the experiences of last season and so far this season have improved considerably. In every game so far this season, Arsenal have been competitive, their largest margin of defeat has been just two goals, only suffered once against Spartak and they have only conceded more than two goals in a game once, against Anzhi in a 3-2 away defeat. In 15 games, Arsenal has scored 15 goals at a ratio of one per game and have conceded only 17 goals, fewer than defending champions Spartak. This shows Arsenal have a good mix of being relatively solid defensively, whilst also being able to score goals, which can prove an achilles heel of so many similar sized clubs at this level.

Whilst Arsenal, who have 20 points after 15 games sitting eighth in the standings, are only three points ahead of 13th placed Tosno and may have to endure the dreaded Promotion/Relegation playoffs once more in a very congested bottom-half. Though they do look like they have enough this season to avoid the play-off and survive. They have a talented manager in Montenegrin Miodrag Bozovic, who has years of experience in Russian football having previously coached both Dinamo and Lokomotiv Moscow. Crucially as well, in 23-year-old compatriot striker Luka Djordevic, on loan from Zenit, they have a goalscorer in their ranks, which is priceless to a small club battling against the drop.

Positives: The stunning 1-0 victory away in Saint Petersburg against Zenit is the highlight of Arsenal’s season so far, even without Djordevic as he was ineligible to play against his parent club. Also impressive this season have been Arsenal’s signings, Djordevic was the headline grabber, but signing talent like 25-year-old Serbian midfielder Goran Causic from Osasuna and 24-year-old Spanish full-back Victor Alvarez from Espanyol. Both of whom have been regular starters in La Liga in recent seasons is proof that Arsenal is a club looking to eventually stabilise itself in mid-table in the RFPL away from battling relegation.

Negatives: Only the home losses against Tosno and Amkar, two teams who at home they would have fancied their chances of getting three points.

Grade: 7/10 – So far so good for the Tula-based outfit, survival looks likely without the need for a playoff and their signings give optimism that a mid-table finish between 8th and 10th is a very real possibility this season.

 

Anzhi Makhachkala

Last Season: 12th

Pre-Season Expectations: Avoid the promotion/relegation play-offs (Between 10th and 12th)

Current Position: 15th

One could look at Anzhi’s season so far and on first glance see that they occupy a relegation spot in 15th place, have conceded a staggering 33 goals in 15 games at over two goals a game and are onto their second manager of the season in Vadim Skripchenko. Aleksandr Grigoryan, who resigned after defeat against Dinamo, Anzhi came to the conclusion that they are having a shocker. Conversely, though as my colleague at RFN, David Sansun wrote about the club’s season so far in his recent article titled Anzhi are you OK? the team has actually put in performances so far this season that is perhaps not a fair indicator of their league position. The most notable of which was the 3-1 defeat against CSKA in the opening game of the season, where Anzhi could have won had they a little more luck and been more prolific in front of goal as for large chunks of that game, they matched their more illustrious opponents.

READ MORE: Anzhi are you OK?

Not everything is negative at the moment, when a club makes a managerial change, they pray for an instant boost in results from the new man. Skripchenko has managed this, under Grigoryan, Anzhi only picked up three points from six games (an average of 0.5 points per game), under Skripchenko, Anzhi have accumulated ten points from nine games (an average of 1.11 points per game). Furthermore, they have managed to score 16 goals in 15 games at a ratio of more than one goal per game, which for a side battling against the drop is a healthy ratio. Avoiding the promotion/relegation play-offs for a second season in succession is still a very attainable target.

Positives: As aforementioned, a good goal ratio for a side battling relegation, shared out goals between the whole team. Anzhi’s top scorers this season are midfielder Adlan Katsaev and defenders Sergey Bryzgalov and Oleg Danchenko with two goals each. This reduces the dependency on one player and should more performances continue like ones earlier in the season which yielded no reward of points, one would think that Anzhi will eventually start to pick up some more points.

Negatives: The defence. Conceding more than two goals per game at any level is a recipe for relegation and Skripchenko urgently needs to sort this out. Another issue with Anzhi is player turnover, a staggering 38 players were signed over the period of the last two transfer windows under former manager Grigoryan. Skripchenko’s arrival saw a number of these players leave the club prior to the shutting of the summer transfer window in late August, nonetheless, it is an unhealthy figure with regards to getting a settled squad, tactics and formation. Finally, whilst Anzhi has spread out the goals this season, it is a concern when two of their joint top scorers in Bryzgalov and Danchenko are defenders. None of the club’s forwards have been a reliable source of goals. If Anzhi are to delve once more into the transfer market this winter, the signing of just one prolific striker, as opposed to six/seven/eight average players, could prove the difference between survival and relegation.

Grade: 5/10 – Underperforming so far, but not a disaster, Anzhi, with an improved defence and the recruitment of a prolific scorer still look more than capable of achieving their pre-season objective.

READ PART TWO HERE

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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