Season Preview: Spartak Moscow

Spartak Moscow fans celebrating the championship outside of Otkritie Arena Sunday night. Photo: Danny Armstrong/RFN

Spartak Moscow fans celebrating the championship outside of Otkritie Arena Sunday night. Photo: Danny Armstrong/RFN

Since the elation of last season’s championship win, Massimo Carrera has understandably kept a steady ship during the 2017/18 off-season, overseeing merely two incomings and sanctioning only two senior departures, at the time of writing. The club’s first Russian title in sixteen years may have been a long and agonising drought, but was worth the wait for the fans of the Red-Whites, with the victory Spartak’s 10th Russian championship victory, extending the club’s record as the most successful since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The two incomings have both been to inject talent and youth into defence, with the signing of 24-year-old Marko Petkovic from Red Star Belgrade joined by the permanent signing of on-loan full-back Georgi Tigiev from Anzhi. Meanwhile, fringe players Sergey Pesyakov and Evgeny Makeev have moved to Rostov, alongside Aleksandr Zuev who leaves on loan, while youth prospects Georgi Melkadze and Denis Kutin have both moved to Tosno on loan for the season.

Head coach

Massimo Carrera was the driving force behind Spartak’s championship victory last season, revolutionising and awakening a sleeping giant since taking over from Dmitri Alenichev last August. Now entering his first full season in charge, expect the Peoples’ Team to evolve further as he stamps even more of his insatiable authority upon the team.

Tactically, Massimo Carrera is very similar to his mentor and coach at Juventus, Antonio Conte. He shares an acute obsession with the Chelsea boss for building out from the back and utilising attacking patterns while on the ball. Off the ball, the similarities are even starker as both men prefer man marking and defending from deeper zones. Although Conte did switch from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3 to great success, Carrera only utilised a three-at-the-back on five occasions in the league, two of which were directly after taking over from Alenichev who himself employed a similar formation. For the majority of the season, Carrera favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation allowing attacking players like Quincy Promes, Jano Ananidze and Roman Zobnin license to roam.

The 52-year-old was initially hired as the defensive coaching assistant to Alenichev, but he has taken over and succeeded where seventeen of his predecessors failed, including – near the end of his career – even the great Oleg Romantsev.

Greatest Strength

Spartak last season didn’t have the best defence nor the best attack in the league. They didn’t have the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets nor the outfield player to score either the most goals or register the most assists. Spartak’s greatest strength last season was Carrera, his winning mentality and their perfect approach to nullifying the opposition through early build-up phases, fluid attacking movement and a high press.

Carrera relies upon his two centre backs to progress the ball higher up the pitch, any two of Serdar Tasci, Georgi Dzhikiya, Ilya Kutepov or Salvatore Bocchetti shift wide as the fullbacks push up high and Fernando drops deep to provide vertical, penetrative passing lanes very similar to Conte’s Chelsea. Dzhikiya is particularly impressive at progressing the ball up the pitch by advancing with the ball at feet through half-spaces, which is why he was preferred to Ilya Kutepov during the run-in. Fernando dictates Spartak’s style of play and tempo with his keen ball retention and physical abilities (very much in the mould of N’Golo Kante) while Denis Glushakov and Roman Zobnin break forwards as box-to-box midfielders who roam between the half-spaces and ease the pressure upon Fernando. Ze Luis upfront has the same job as Diego Costa; to drop deep, hold-up the ball and drag defenders out of position to create space for any two (or three) of Promes, Jano, Zobnin, Aleksandr Samedov, Lorenzo Melgarejo or Ivelin Popov to exploit.

On top of this, Spartak has arguably the strongest set of legionnaires in the league as well as a spine of talented Russians, who are now central to the hopes of the national team as well as the most highly supported in the country.

Greatest weakness

Last season, Spartak had very few weaknesses as they strode to the league title, but one that can be identified was their tendency to collapse every now and again. Spartak only lost five games last season, one of which an early 1-0 loss at home to Ufa, but in the other four they conceded 14 goals during a 4-2 loss to Zenit, 4-0 against Krylia, and 3-0 against Rostov and Arsenal Tula. If not for these four games, Spartak would have only conceded 13 goals all season, even less than the famously watertight CSKA Moscow defence with 15.

Carrera will need to address these lapses in concentration and focus on avoiding dropping too many point next season. That being said, Spartak’s greatest weakness in losing these games led to their strongest form of the season straight after the Zenit, Kyrlia Sovetov and Rostov losses with respective form runs of six, seven and six games unbeaten and winning all but two.

Key player

Look no further than RFN’s 2016/17 Player of the Season, Quincy Promes. The enigmatic Dutch winger has been in our Team of the Season for three years in a row now – the only player ever to receive such an accolade – and has been Spartak’s fulcrum throughout. Promes has led the line for Spartak ever since he signed and amassed 21 goals and assists last season as the Red-Whites’ stormed to the championship, more than any other. He followed on from his impressive form the season prior as he scored 13 goals in 2015/16 and established himself as the key component of Spartak’s attacking play.

Promes has constantly been linked with moves away from Spartak for roughly a year now, with Liverpool a constant in rumours. These rumours have quietened recently, as Promes himself has announced he wants to stay at Spartak and play for the Red-Whites’ in the Champions League. If he does fulfil his promise, expect Promes to be on fire for Spartak next season.

Young starlet

Spartak’s main young hope for the future, Georgi Melkadze, as previously outlined is currently on loan at Tosno. Two of Spartak’s current young starlets are not Russian and are only recent additions to Tarasovka. Idrissa Sambu and Fashion Sakala were both signed in February from FC Porto and Zanazo FC in Zambia respectively. Sambu has been held in particularly high esteem by new Spartak-2 manager Dmitri Gunko and scored in the opening game of Spartak-2’s season away to Sibir Novosibirsk last week. Sambu was also brought by Carrera to the first team’s summer training camp in Austria and played in a number of the friendlies while away with the team. The only problem stopping Sambu from progressing may be if Vitaly Mutko replaces the current “6+5” foreigner limit with a “10+15” squad foreigner limit, as Spartak currently have ten first team legionnaires, leaving Sambu to play in the FNL for Spartak-2.

Season Predictions

The aim this season must be the victory in the RFPL once again, at the very least qualifying for the Champions League seems a given with only Zenit and CSKA ready to compete with the Red-Whites.

Leonid Fedun, however, is a notoriously ambitious owner and may demand European progression from the Italian, who performed admirably while assistant to Conte at Juventus. This is something which has evaded Russian clubs in recent years, with only Zenit in 2016 reaching the knockout stages and none has reached the quarter-final since CSKA in 2010. With Zenit’s re-structuring still underway and Spartak and CSKA yet to make any massive inroads in the transfer market, the Russian top three are very much at a status quo, and as things stand I’d expect Spartak led by Carrera, Promes and captain Denis Glushakov to defend their title since 2001.

Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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