Zenit and the Winter Curse

The Zenit Arena on Krestosky Island looking resplendent at night with Sergei Kirov Statue overlooking it. Photo: James Nickels/RFN

CSKA Moscow have won three of the last four Russian championships, with Zenit St. Petersburg clinching the other. During these seasons, Zenit have been superior to CSKA, and everyone else, on the pitch in terms of quality, and this has shown in Europe especially where Zenit have outperformed the Army Men. Despite this however, CSKA ran away with the titles, with Zenit constantly falling short.

In the 2012/13 season CSKA finished two points above the St. Petersburg outfit, and the following season, the gap was narrowed down to one point. Last season CSKA finished six points ahead of Zenit. On average three points have divided the two sides in CSKA’s title-winning seasons, or just a single victory. Looking back, it is clear that Blue-White-Sky Blues have let the potential titles slip through their fingers in the months of November and December, which can also be seen on Table 1.

Table 1: Zenit's

Table 1: Zenit’s winning percentage in the different months over the previous four seasons.

When looking at Table 1, it is clear that November and December are Zenit’s least successful months, while it can also be deduced that they tend to struggle in September. It is however worth noting that the Blue-White-Sky Blues have only played 14 games in September over the past four seasons compared to 26 in November and December, meaning that more points have been dropped in the latter due to the higher number of games. Of the 26 games in November and December, Zenit have won just 14, thus losing 32 points, or an average of eight per season, which would comfortably have secured them the championships they have missed out on.

The problem lying behind the numbers

So what lies behind these numbers? It isn’t possible to pinpoint a single obvious reason, but there are a couple of factors that can help explain their curious nature.

Explanation A: A high number of foreigners combined with low temperatures.

Since Gazprom took over the club, Zenit have traditionally had many foreigners. This season, 11 of the 27 first team players come from countries south of Russia. Regularly six of these are on the pitch, seven before the number of allowed foreigners on the pitch was lowered before last season.

Zenit tend to perform well from the start of the season in July until the end of October, where the brutal Russian winter is yet to kick in, and temperatures remain like in the rest of Northern Europe. However, as soon as the temperatures start to decline, and the first snow falls, the foreigners find themselves in an unnatural habitat, which leads to their performances becoming more unstable.

This is especially the case against lower ranked teams with a more primitive and defensive playing style. In recent years, Zenit’s centerbacks have been, and still are, of a smaller stature and from warmer climates, most noteworthy Bruno Alves and Luis Neto from Portugal and Ezequiel Garay from Argentina, compared to CSKA’s more robust Russians. The problem are the same further up the pitch. Of Hulk’s 56 league goals for Zenit during his four seasons in Russia, he scored just five in November and December.

Explanation B: Boring domestic games compared to the Champions League.

Before this season, Zenit had been in the group stages of the Champions League the previous four campaigns in a row. Being in the Champions League group stages allowed them to play in some of Europe’s biggest and most prestigious arenas. Over the last few years, Zenit have played against teams such as AC Milan, Dortmund, Benfica, Atletico Madrid, Porto, Lyon, Valencia, and Liverpool. You could imagine coming from a huge Champions League win at the Mestalla against Valencia, to go and play in Saransk against Mordovia at an old outdated stadium with 4500 spectators in freezing temperatures could be quite demoralizing for star players such as Axel Witsel or Hulk. They were brought in to succeed in Europe, not to play Tom Tomsk in Siberia.

Explanation C: Full throttle in the summer equals bad performances in the winter.

Zenit are usually going full throttle from the beginning of the season, powering past everyone in the country and accumulating numerous large-margin victories. However, combining this with European and cup fixtures, it leaves a mark on the squad for the later part of the season. The players are simply exhausted.

Another reason for the exhaustion is the lack of rotation between the players. Despite having a complete squad with good depth, Luciano Spalletti and André Villas-Boas were both reluctant when it came to trying out reserve players, and they both drew heavily on the likes of Hulk, Witsel and Danny. This could also explain why the winning percentage goes down in May and June to 49.5. Zenit struggle in the last months of both halves of the season, maybe because of the lack of rotation on the pitch.

Explanation D: Bad winter pitches don’t favour Zenit’s style of play.

Zenit’s style of football, especially domestically, is possession oriented. They rarely get outdone possession-wise, and you are not likely to see them smash long balls forward from the back. Most of the time, Zenit like to keep it on the ground, in favor of their technically gifted attacking players.

However, the Russian winter is famous for its toughness, and the pitches around the country feel that. From around October, they lose ground to the standards in the warmer parts of Europe, and they no longer favour technical sides. This is particularly the case at many of the smaller clubs, who even benefit from the poor pitches with their defence-oriented playing style. Of course this also affects Zenit, as it becomes more difficult for them to create chances, and even hold on to the ball, making them unable to fulfill their potential and compromising the results.

What will happen this season?

November and December are Zenit’s Achilles’ heel, and they have ended up costing them three championships in the last four years. Only in the 2014/15 title-winning season did Zenit manage to win over half of their Premier League games in these months.

It could easily also become a problem this season. The 4-0 defeat to Anzhi in the Russian cup was not a promising sign ahead of the much-feared month of November. Luckily, it was the right game to lose for Zenit at this stage, as they are still unbeaten in the league, but have tasted defeat, and can now work on their mistakes from the Anzhi clash before the important November games.

Zenit face Terek Grozny away on the 6th of November and Krasnodar away on the 27th. Those two matches will be the hardest to get through for Lucescu’s men in November. Last season Zenit lost 4-1 in Grozny on November 28, and this has not been forgotten. I had the pleasure of speaking to Mauricio, Zenit’s Brazilian midfielder, who played for Terek then, and he kept reiterating how vital it was for Zenit to win there since it is such a difficult place to play; nor had he forgotten the hurtful 4-1 defeat.

If Lucescu can do what neither Spalletti nor Villas-Boas managed – to defeat the Russian winter – Zenit will be in a good position to break CSKA’s dominance and win back the Russian championship.

Follow Lukas on Twitter: @LukasMullerDK


Lukas Müller

Author: Lukas Müller

I caught up with Russian Football during the 2007-08 season. Zenit and the Russian National Team’s performances made me stick around. I am a Zenit-supporter and run the club’s Danish website dk.fc-zenit.ru and official Nordic Twitter account. I also do video-stuff at Denmark’s biggest club Brøndby IF. 18 y/o.

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