Premier League exports to Russia

Alexander-Buttner-1 (1)Andrew Flint takes a look at the current Russian Premier League stars who have experienced life in England, and assesses their chances of playing time and success this season.

Dinamo Moscow

• Chris Samba (Blackburn Rovers 2007 – 2012 and QPR 2013)

• Alex Buttner (Manchester United 2012 – 2014)

• Yuriy Zhirkov (Chelsea 2009 – 2011)

Chris Samba arrived in the English Premiership as an unheralded £500,000 signing from unfashionable Hertha Berlin, and left England for the second time having to defend wages of £100,000 a week in a relegated QPR side. In fact, in the last two and a half years, he has commanded total transfer fees of around £50 million. It is safe to say his time in Russia has been equally eventful so far, having joined the crazy revolution at Anzhi Makhachkala, suffered from monkey chants and bananas thrown on the pitch, and sealed a move to Dinamo Moscow.

Samba has consolidated a partnership with Vladimir Granat at the heart of the Dinamo defence, and is dealing with the pressures of racist abuse. In the recent derby against Spartak, he responded to some choice words from some Spartak fans by ironically applauding them. That he is now in his fourth season in Russia is a testament to his mental strength, and with an exciting squad around him, could be set for a season chasing silverware. His place in the Dinamo side is solid, with the Brazilian-born Dutchman Douglas as his nearest challenger for a starting place.

Yuriy Zhirkov enjoyed less success in England than Samba, mostly sitting on the bench as a shrinking fish in the big pond of Roman Abramovich’s project at Chelsea. His move to Stamford Bridge was fully deserved on the back of an impressive Euro 2008 tournament, and consistent performances in the CSKA Moscow side that made waves in European competition at the end of the last decade. Despite clearly being a fabulously talented ball player, his attitude and work rate came into question, and perhaps it is of little surprise that his transfer value has halved in four years since his 21 million euro move to England.

He left the English Premiership for Anzhi but escaped to the capital when Suliyman Kerimov pulled the plug, just like Samba. It is not hard to imagine that Zhirkov felt more comfortable surrounded by marquee players such as Samuel Eto’o, Roberto Carlos and Willian, so who knows how Zhirkov’s career would have blossomed had Kerimov continued bankrolling the grand project? He has started the last two games having only previously started eight games since joining Dinamo this time last year, so his place is far from certain, especially with Dzsudzak and Buttner in front of him.

Alex Buttner could almost blame Marouane Fellaini for his failure to secure a long term future at Manchester United. The towering Belgian was signed as a panic buy in the closing stages of last summer’s transfer window by an inexperienced football negotiator in Ed Woodward, and his atrocious form made a complete mockery of his transfer fee. As a result, there was a determination to make some big-name signings this time round, in particular the long-term signing of fellow left back Luke Shaw. Patrice Evra was never likely to lose his place in the side as a long-standing servant of the club, so Buttner must have realised that he was being groomed to potentially take over in the future. When Evra left for Juventus, Buttner probably thought his time had finally come, only for a £27 million teenager to take his place.

The former Vitesse Arnhem man has rediscovered his love for the game in the open, fluid style of Dinamo’s play, and appears to have been given license to roam forward with the ball much more than under Sir Alex Ferguson or David Moyes. Ironically, he will experience European football this season while his former teammates will be free from the midweek distractions of continental competition. His lung-bursting displays will endear him to his new club’s fans, and barring a disastrous injury or misfortune, he should pick up where he left off in Holland’s Eredivisie.

Zenit St. Petersburg

• Andrey Arshavin (Arsenal 2009 – 2013)

• Javi Garcia (Manchester City 2012 – 2014)

• Andre Villas Boas (Tottenham Hotspur 2011 – 2012 and Chelsea 2012 – 2013)

Andrey Arshavin embodies Russian football in many ways, and not always positively. His phenomenal form circa 2008 for Zenit St Petersburg and the national team at Euro 2008 had the world’s top clubs salivating at the prospect of signing him, but despite flashes of brilliance at The Emirates he never convinced fans of his work ethic and determination. That magical night at Anfield where even he himself couldn’t believe it as he smashed four past Liverpool was an exception rather than the rule.

After becoming a bench warmer happy to simply pick up his salary, he returned to his alma mater as Zenit began hoovering up some of the world’s most promising talent, and has found himself left in the wake of hungrier players such as Danny, Hulk and Oleg Shatov. A YouTube video posted after Russia’s disastrous Euro 2012 campaign showed him barely shrug his shoulders when cornered by irate fans in the lobby of a hotel with some teammates. This season, he has managed 31 minutes on the pitch, and at the age of 33, it seems unlikely he will reclaim a place in the starting lineup. But for one last hurrah, an Indian summer to remind us of the immense talent he has. Or had.

Javi Garcia was, to all intents and purposes, the poor man’s Javi Martinez. When City brought him over to England from Benfica, on couldn’t help feeling that of the two Spaniards who were signed by major European powers, Martinez was the one City wish they’d been able to attract to Eastlands. Due to the mercenary nature of his new club, there was simply too much competition for places for Garcia to really make an impression, with Yaya Toure, and Fernandinho ahead of him in the queue.

His move to Zenit last week made sense for both parties when you consider that Tymoschuk is now 35 years of age, even if the experienced Ukranian is getting his fair share of game time. After him, only Axel Witsel and Viktor Faizulin remained as senior central midfielders who can play as a ‘pivot’. After a brief substitute appearance in the solid 0-1 Champions League qualifier away leg against Standard Liege, Garcia made his full debut in Saturday’s comfortable 2-0 home win over relegation candidates Amkar Perm alongside his likely partner Witsel. A 16 million euro price tag should ensure early game time, although the ‘7 + 4’ foreigners rule may see Faizulin play some domestic games.

Andre Villas Boas is an extraordinary manager. From convincing Sir Bobby Robson to take him on as a researcher at Porto at the age of 16, where he would famously go on to become the youngest ever manager to win a European trophy 17 years later, to managing an international team, The British Virgin Islands, at 21, he has always studied furiously to improve himself. His strength may also be his weakness; he clearly did not have the full respect of the powerful ‘untouchables’ of Mourinho’s reign as he over analyzed opponents and made the team too restricted. Mourinho is famous for his single-mindedness, and as a former disciple of the current Chelsea manager, Villas-Boas will need the same qualities as he attempts to ressurect his reputation in St Petersburg.

After arriving at the Petrovsky Stadium in February, he smashed another record by becoming the first Russian Premier League manager ever to go six games unbeaten to start his Zenit career, but fell to CSKA by one point in the league. This season has started with a bang, as his side top the table with five wins from five, 17 goals scored and only two conceded. Despite a nervy second half in the previous round of Champions League qualifying against the ten men of AEL Limassol, his bold decision to change formation and partner Salomon Rondon with the experienced Alexander Kerzhakov eventually paid dividends as the substitute sealed their passage with a last minute penalty. After Wednesday’s first leg 1-0 win away to Standard Liege, AVB looks to have secured group stage football for his expensive and experienced squad, and can look forward to a season of rehabilitation.

Spartak Moscow

• Diniyar Bilyaletdinov (Everton 2009 – 2012)

• Kim Kallstrom (Arsenal 2014)

Diniyar Bilyaletdinov had a fairly inconsistent time at Goodison Park after arriving with a relatively hefty price tag of £10 million and an impossible name for English commentators to pronounce. He was brought in to add some creativity to Everton’s midfield, but he failed to dislodge Tim Cahill, Phil Neville and Mikel Arteta as he struggled to adapt to the English game and started almost twice as many games from the substitutes’ bench as he did in the starting eleven. However, he did show his goalscoring threat with some important strikes, most notably from outside the box against Manchester United.

His chances of regaining a spot in Spartak’s midfield after he returns from suspension are not looking great with Tino Costa, Kim Kallstrom and Denis Glushakov forming a formidable triumvirate. With Artyom Dzyuba and Tino Costa suffering minor injuries, there may be a slim chance of a reprieve for the former Lokomotiv Moscow man, but as things stand he is not a first choice starter for Murat Yakin.

Kim Kallstrom had a season to forget in 2013-2014. He only completed 90 minutes twice for Spartak before his winter transfer window move to Arsenal on loan, only to suffer a back injury that kept him out for two months before he finally made his Gunners debut. Arsene Wenger had brought him in after having a horrific injury list leaving his midfield threadbare; bringing in a vastly experienced midfielder in Kallstrom short-term was sensible planning, but bad luck intervened and he played a mere four times, starting once.

This season is a different story. He has been an ever-present for Spartak as they have been playing away from home while their new Otkritie stadium is being built, and has helped his side to impressive wins against Moscow rivals Dinamo and CSKA. He set up Denis Glushakov’s goal in the league-opening 4-0 rout of Rubin Kazan, but failed to prevent Krasnodar from returning the favouring with a thrashing of their own by the same scoreline. His role as a midfield anchor is deeper than his Olympique Lyonnais days, and as he is getting no younger, perhaps this will help improve his longevity and effectiveness in the twilight of his career.

Lokomotiv Moscow

• Lassana Diarra (Chelsea 2005 – 2007, Arsenal 2007 – 2008 and Portsmouth 2008 – 2009)

• Roman Pavlyuchenko (Tottenham Hotspur 2008 – 2012)

• Vedran Corluka (Manchester City 2007 – 2008 and Tottenham Hotspur 2008 – 2012)

Lassana Diarra had an unconventional start to his career in England; on the surface, he could count playing time for two of London’s biggest clubs in Arsenal and Chelsea, but in reality he never held down a regular position in the XI of either side. It was only once he made the switch to the south coast with Portsmouth that his reputation rose to the extent that Real Madrid snapped him up for 20 million euros, handed him the number six, and later the number ten shirt, and even a new nickname, Lass. Despite spending just over four seasons at the Spanish giants, he again only partly delivered on his promise, being named in a UEFA La Liga breakthrough team, but only managing to start about half the games during his stay.

After leaving Anzhi like so many other highly paid stars last year, he arrived at Lokomotiv and has looked to cement his place with a reasonable run of form. This term he hasn’t had any game time, however, after a major falling out with manager Leonid Kuchuk in the summer. With Manuel Fernandes in imperious form in the heart of the midfield, and even right back Roman Shishkin utilised succesfully in a defensive midfield role it is debatable whether he would have reclaimed his place anyway. With a rumoured move back to London with QPR on the cards, we may see Diarra have one last shot at redemption, but time is running out for him.

Vedran Corluka was brought in on the first wave of foreign imports after Manchester City’s Thai takeover by Thaksin Shinawatra, and his versatility saw him become a regular mostly at right back, or occasionally in the centre of defence. A move to Tottenham followed the season after he had helped Croatia humiliate England by beating them at Wembley and dumping them out of Euro 2008, and after a couple of regular seasons, he eventually lost his place to Kyle Walker, and went on loan to Bayer Leverkusen before moving to Russia.

He has been a regular for Lokomotiv since his arrival after only failing to complete 90 minutes in the league once in his first two seasons. He is currently suspended after being sent off against Rostov, but he should find his way back into the first team lineup when he returns. He has been used primarily as a centre back alongside Slovakian Jan Durica, and it would be strange if Leonid Kuchuk disrupted their solid partnership.

Roman Pavlyuchenko lasted three and a half years in north London, and while he registered 35 goals in his time at Tottenham, he never made more than nine in a league campaign. His physical presence and sure touch seemed well suited to the English Premier League, and should have provided an ideal foil for the diminutive livewire Jermain Defoe, but he never fully convinced as he battled for a starting place of his own. In the end, he only completed the equivalent number of minutes on the pitch for one league season, and was sold for just over half his 17 million euro fee to Lokomotiv.

In fact, he hasn’t truly claimed a regular spot since his Spartak days. In the two and a half seasons since his return to Russia, he has started fewer games than he has been on the substitutes’ bench and has only scored 12 goals in the league. This season his main competition is with Senegalese hitman Diam N’Doye, who has been rotated with Pavlyuchenko for each game, but N’Doye has a far superior scoring record over the past three seasons. Time is not on his side, and as Lokomotiv have mainly been playing with one target man up front, opportunities will depend on his early season form.

CSKA Moscow

• Zoran Tosic (Manchester United 2008 – 2010)

Zoran Tosic joined Manchester United at the same time as fellow Serbian youngster Adem Ljajic to great fanfare as a potential successor to the legendary Ryan Giggs, but was never given a starting position. He clearly had the ball skills to create opportunities, but in the end, after less than 90 minutes playing time in a season and a half, made the wise decision to move on. Somehow United managed to sell him on for a profit of 2.5 million euros, which at the time seemed like good business for the Old Trafford club, but Tosic has not looked back.

At CSKA he has become a key element of the Army Men’s attacking arsenal, weighing in with 34 goals in four and a bit seasons from the wing. His fellow countryman Ljajic has similarly enjoyed greater success in Italy with Fiorentina where his value has skyrocketed to 20 million euros which begs the question why United were unable to harness their collective talents. After the departure of Keisuke Honda to AC Milan and the demise of Alan Dzagoev, he has become the fulcrum of CSKA’s attacking play, and has made the left wing his own.

Krasnodar

• Andreas Granqvist (Wigan Athletic 2007 – 2008)

Andreas Granqvist’s short time in England was not a complete disaster, as he became part of a defence that managed a credible nine clean sheets and went unbeaten against teams outside the top eight at home, but he was sent back to his home country on loan before a succesful move to Holland. At Groningen he was an ever-present, scoring a phenomenal 21 goals in three seasons for a centre back, while his subsequent transfer to Genoa in Serie A gave him more solid game time against higher quality opposition.

At Krasnodar Granqvist has become part of a solid defensive unit, and has again made a starting place his own, completing a full 90 minutes in all but three of his matches since his arrival. Krasnodar’s impressive unbeaten start to this domestic season has seen them keep six clean sheets and concede only two goals, thanks in no small part to the Swede’s partnership at the back with Icelandic international Ragnar Sigurdsson, which has been unbroken in the league. Granqvist is a shoo in for the season, and if his side keep up their early form, could be playing regular European football once the small matter of a 1-0 playoff deficit against Real Sociedad has been negotiated.

Author Details

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Andrew Flint

Freelance journalist and English teacher living in Siberia. Married father of two football-playing girls. Former neighbour of Roy Keane (before Triggs became a figure of fun). Manchester United will always be my first love, but I have been following FK Tyumen as my now local team for three years. I also write for thesefootballtimes.net, fourfourtwo.com and russianfootballnews.com. Main objective: to spread the word about the criminally under-reported Russian lower league and beyond.

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