Zenit at Kuban Krasnodar was played in front of a rocking stadium of fans from both clubs this past weekend. In what was a huge game for both teams – Kuban trying playing their way into Europe – and Zenit chasing the title – the game had many interesting tactical battles. This week in our tactical review, I’m going to look at what Spalletti did right and wrong – and how Kuban played to their own strengths in having an opportunity to snatch the win.
Zenit started in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 with Hulk as the lone striker and Semak as a makeshift right winger. Danny played almost solely as a left midfielder. Anyukov started at right fullback, with Hubocan at the left position, but Anyukov was injured and replaced in the 22nd minute. In came the young Serbian, Milan Rodić, making just his third appearance for the Zenit first team. In the opening 20 minutes, Hubočan played an attacking role at left back, but with Anyukov’s departure played more reserved on the right. Rodić was out of his depth on the left and Hubočan awkward on right. Zenit clearly missed attacking left back Criscito, who is out due to injury.
Kuban started in a 4-2-3-1 with the attacking midfield band of Popov, Pizzelli, and former Zenit academy product Aleksei Ionov in fluid rotation on the counter. Charles Kaboré in center midfield dictated play for Kuban.
Zenit came out strong looking to control the game, but despite the intention to play on the front foot, Kuban pressed quickly and with organization as a team. Zenit were poor in Midfield – the Zyryanov – Shirokov – Denisov trident looking static and slow. While this disrupted Zenit’s possession, it perhaps played into Zenit’s hands, allowing them opportunities to counter.
Indeed, it was Zenit who jumped out to an early lead through Hulk, who was effective dropping deep to pick up the ball and run at defenders. For much of the first half Hulk was the target man and primary playmaker for Zenit and set up the first goal to Zyryanov. Somewhat against the run of play, Hulk picked up the ball and ran at defenders before slipping a perfect pass on to Zyryanov’s run.
Kuban attacks were made at a quick tempo, and Kuban were quick to pull the trigger to shoot from distance.
ZENIT ISSUES AFTER THE GOAL
After Zenit scored, their offensive possession dropped off. A major problem – in addition to the center midfielders’ lack of impact in controlling the game – was Semak as a right winger. Semak was invisible – unsurprising given how out of position he was. This was clearly a mistake by Spalletti, rectified by a substitution at halftime, but at what cost? Zenit lacked attacking ideas and tried to play almost entirely through the left where Danny was positioned as winger. Danny is much more dangerous in a central, more advanced free role with less restriction, but the tactical instructions seemed to have him limited.
Hulk began to drop deeper and deeper as Zenit struggled to hold on to the ball. As a result, Kuban got off quite a few long shots. In fact, Hulk losing the ball very deep near Zenit’s own goal set up a quick counter strike and goal for Kuban. Because of the serious lineup problems, Zenit found themselves down 2-1 at halftime. Kuban’s 10 shots to Zenit’s 3 in the first half speaks to Zenit’s tactical ineptitude after the first goal and Kuban’s quick strike attack. Zenit became entirely static, dependent on a Hulk or Danny stepover in isolation to create something.
Kuban’s best player was undoubtedly Charles Kaboré. Kaboré played as a ball winner, but with the ball he was not pressured – often bringing the ball forward on the dribble and distributing it excellently. His sharp passing and vision helped to start Kuban’s counter attacks, and he would continue to do so in the second half.
In the second half, Kuban shifted gears and played more on the counter and Kaboré was equally as effective. It is perhaps a testament to Zenit’s greater comfort as a team on the counter that Zenit gave up opportunities when Kuban was given the opportunity to counter. Take a look on the right and see Kuban breaking in numbers with Zenit chasing.
ZENIT’S HALF TIME CHANGES
Spalletti made the obvious change at half time, bringing on Bystrov for Semak on the right and the difference was noticeable. It is questionable as to why Spalletti made such a conservative decision as to not start a more attacking player in that position. Around the 65th minute Zenit started to exert control over the game and Kuban dropped further deeper. Bystrov had a part to play in this, offering an actual attacking threat on the right, and perhaps Kuban tired after the early pressuring.
Key to Zenit exerting their influence was the introduction of Witsel. Spalletti can also be questioned as to why Witsel did not start (even though Zyryanov did score a goal, Witsel offers energy in a midfield lacking control.) Shirokov also got more involved with his trademark runs to the box and had multiple opportunities to score. In the end, it was Denisov with a brilliant pass to Danny breaking through that leveled the match – a goal made possible by Zenit’s ability to control the game and press forward from midfield while maintaining possession. An integrated attack featuring the midfielders attacking as unit rather than relying on Hulk or Danny to create obviously has a greater impact. Hulk was less significant to the attack – in a good way – offering passing and dangerous free kicks, but not being forced to drop deep in an attempt to single handily create an offense.
END TO END FINISH
By the end of the game Kuban played with 9 or 10 behind the ball – the game had come full circle. As Kuban dropped deeper and played exclusively on the counter, Shirokov and Denisov were allowed greater freedom going forward. Witsel’s introduction increased energy and running, and the right wing threat of Bystrov pushed Kuban back. Again, this calls into question Spalletti’s first half team selection.
Nevertheless, it was Kuban who had the last gasp chance to steal the win. Again it was Kabore who collected possession and sent the former Zenit man Ionov running in on goal with the last flick of the game. Ionov hit the post at the last whistle and the 2-2 draw was a fair reflection of the game.
Zenit were increasingly vulnerable on the counter – again signifying a team more comfortable on the counter than controlling a game. Spalletti’s questionable decision and injuries did not help Zenit. (Bystrov also was injured late in the game.) Neto is also a weak leak in the defense. The game was tough, but Zenit’s defense was not title-worthy on this day.
Kuban had an excellent blueprint to beat Zenit, and played well as a unit. Kuban would be deserving representatives of the RPL in Europe and this game reflected well on the RPL – good action and fan support (and weather!) Kuban tactics evolved as the game went on, and this speaks to something that is often overlooked in games – they evolve as they move forward. Teams adapt, players tire, and the battle lines change significantly. Kuban played well at points in all phases of the game.