To those of you who have been following the Russian Premier League, you have probably noticed the low scores. Without going into recent scorelines and statistics, a cursory glance at the final scores and you’ll notice an abundance of 0-0 games. Even teams with potent and big names such as Zenit and Anzhi, with Hulk and Eto’o respectively, have struggled to score. I’m going to take a look at some potential reasons for this.
1) Winter Break:
The Russian season inevitably faces a long winter break…. But this past break seemed particularly long. With 20 games played in the first half and only 10 in the second half and a 3 month break, it is almost as if there are two seasons. It reminds me of the divided seasons of South America. Two seasons that are not balanced in terms of games and with huge layoffs, that all count towards the final standings. Teams that are in form before the break are out of form after the break and vice-versa.
During the break there are transfers and some teams deal with early European games. In an attempt to maintain in-season form, during this break teams take part pre-season camp after pre-season camp, friendly after friendly, traveling to warm weather. But when it boils down to it, the break is essentially longer than the summer break for Western European teams – and is midseason- and causes a break in form. Terek Grozny are one example of a team that has slipped after the break- a team relying on excellent team chemistry, spirit, and form to challenge for Europe in the Fall. The winter break does not help the quality of games and leads to lower scoring games.
2) Tight Table:
The table is particularly tight this year, and points are at a premium with less than 10 games to go. As we often see in the first games of international tournament group stages, when points are tight teams tense up and go on the defensive. Currently there are 5 teams within 5 points of each other for 2 European spots. There is also a similar cluster at the bottom – 4 teams within 3 points of each other battling it out to avoid the relegation playoff spots. And there is of course the battle for the gold prizes of the title and two Champions Leagues spots which see a *relatively* large gap of 4 points.
Key in the tight table for the European spots are clubs like Krasnodar and Terek trying to break into the European royalty. For these southern- and recently wealthy clubs- a spot in Europe ahead of the likes of Rubin, Spartak, and Lokomotiv would be a big boost to the not only club prestige, possibly their regions as a whole. For established European clubs like Rubin or Spartak, a slip out of Europe altogether would obviously be considered a failed season.
Thus with points at a premium in an extremely tight race; teams have a lot to play for. Even 10th place Lokomotiv can still crack Europe. Compare this to other leagues where mid-table teams are effectively sealed in mid-table – with nowhere to go down and up- and you can get a sense why the league is so scrappy. Almost all teams have remaining motivation with only five games to play, and each point is significant in the table.
3) Tactical League:
An often overlooked point about the Russian Premier League is that it is a tactical league Teams play conservative, and look to grind out points. Games are cagey and can be ugly, and often keep a slow pace. This tactic has been most personified by Rubin, who despite often signing big money attacking talent, insist on playing very conservatively. It is perhaps a testament to CSKA – and a reason why they are leading the charge for the title- that they play an attractive brand of football with amazing attacking talent in a largely defensive league. Even big spending Anzhi has put out some very defensive lineups, often with 3 defensive midfielders and only 2 players attacking as we have outlined on this site. It is stereotypical to make this point, but Zenit, in spite of the wealth of star attacking players (Hulk & Danny among them), struggle to score – perhaps due to an Italian mentality brought by Head Coach Spalletti.
4) Lack of Russian attacking talent:
To be a strong team in the Russian Premier League is synonymous with having potent foreign attacking players. Every club features key players, typically South American or African, who are critical to unlocking the opposition and wreaking havoc. It is perhaps an indictment of the problems in Russia youth training that Russia is lacking young game-changing attacking players (with a few exceptions such as Dzagoev or Kokorin.)
This can be seen in the Russian presence in two rich clubs amongst the top of the table. Anzhi perhaps is over-reliant on young Russian attacking talent that is not panning out for them. Zenit still use their same Russian core from years passed, as young Russian attacking players Kanunnikov (Amkar) and Ivanov (Kuban) were transferred out. The jury is still out of Fayzulin, who is still growing as a player evan at 26, but has looked largely mediocre in European play.
But in a league with a foreign limit requirement and lack of attacking quality in domestic players, teams are over-reliant on a few key foreigners to offer the attacking prowess.
5) Poor pitch:
As detailed on this site a few weeks ago, there is the pitch quality problem. Perhaps this will be alleviated with new stadiums built for the world cup, but until then teams will be playing on “potato fields” which will hinder scoring. The rough winter and lack of finances of course playing a part in this issue.