Five things we learned about the Russian Premier League in August

Alex Büttner is really quite good

Dinamo Moscow vs Hapoel Kiryat ShmonaWhen Sir Alex Ferguson raised a few eyebrows with the low-key signing of the relatively unheard of Alexander Büttner from Vitesse Arnhem, it was expected that he would serve as a back up to Patrice Evra, and that’s how his Old Trafford career panned out. His home debut produced a goal and an assist in what was a hint to his true ability; the truth is that when he is restricted to a rigid full back role in a flat back four, he looked limited to being an aggressive, tough tackling hard man but lacking in positional sense.

However, Stanislav Cherchesov has already managed to maximise Büttner’s ball carrying skills at Dinamo Moscow better than The Greatest Manager Of All Time™ by allowing him freedom to bring the ball out of defence and join attacks from a wide variety of angles. His first derby game against Spartak demonstrated both sides of the Büttner coin. Without question he captured the imagination of the Dinamo crowd with his commitment and aggression, and he was cruelly denied a fabulous 30 yard rocket of a goal by the fine print of the offside rule – Kevin Kuranyi was just about interfering with play, even if his back was turned to the keeper. Current Premier League top scorer Artem Dzyuba exposed Büttner’s lack of height and heading ability, however, by rising above the Dutchman to head against the post before poking home the winner from the rebound.

Some Manchester United fans may be surprised to hear about Büttner’s upturn in fortunes, but that would be short-sighted. All he needed was a trusting manager who would not reign in his attacking instincts, but allow him to get forward by using him in a more fluid system. The irony is, of course, that United’s new system under Louis van Gaal would be absolutely ideal for Büttner, it would have saved them £27 million, and he would have been playing under his fellow countryman. His celebration with Cherchesov after his first Dinamo goal rescued a 2-2 draw at home to Omonia Nicosia was telling – they warmly embraced each other in mutual recognition of the benefits of their new relationship, something that was lacking in his truncated time in Manchester.

The goal itself was marvellous; picking the ball up 50 yards from goal, he sped past two players before playing a one two with Kuranyi and smashing a low shot into the bottom right corner from the edge of the box. Cherchesov has tinkered with the formation to play three at the back with a four man midfield against Omonia, where he brought on Büttner for Ionov in an advanced position, so his place in the starting line-up still needs to be fought for, but odds are, he will win that scrap every day of the week.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Russian national team

Common consensus has it that the Russian national team is in dire straights. The generation that took Euro 2008 by storm is weary, but there haven’t been too many youngsters coming through in the set up to replace them. Confidence in Capello’s side is very low after the shambolic showing in Brazil, understandably so, and there were those videos leaked on YouTube with Arshavin, Zhirkov and co. after Euro 2012 that showed a total indifference when their commitment was questioned by a group of irate fans in a hotel lobby. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, however, typified none more so than by the emerging competition between Alexander Kokorin and Dzyuba.

They currently head the scoring charts with Spartak’s target man in the lead with six goals in five appearances, Kokorin just behind Hulk on four. Dinamo’s blonde youngster is in favour with Don Fabio as the main striker, having ousted Alexander Kerzhakov, the veteran of many campaigns, from the XI, but Dzyuba was oddly overlooked by the Italian taskmaster for the final World Cup squad despite an impressive return of 17 goals on loan for unfashionable Rostov. It will be impossible for Dzyuba to continue to be ignored if this form continues, and when he is brought into the fold, it will offer another option upfront, possibly even as a foil for Kokorin himself.

Alan Dzagoev has fallen from grace since he burst to prominence with CSKA and Russia a few years ago, but recently he has earned a couple of starts for his boyhood club, amid rumours of a move to Dynamo. If he can rediscover his electric form and force his way into the team again, he could be the answer to the problem of invention and creativity that has plagued the Russian side for while.

Igor Akinfeev has suffered a slight dip in form, possibly as a result of over confidence and a lack of serious competition in the national team. Joe Hart had a similar ‘crisis’ at Manchester City last season, and after Pellegrini skillfully challenged his position by giving Romanian giant Costel Pantilimon a run in the team, Hart came back stronger and hungrier than before. A current topic of heated debate in Russia at the moment is the possibility of a number of foreigners claiming citizenship and aiming to represent their adopted nation, and one such player to publicly announce this intention is Lokomotiv’s Brazilian-born keeper Guilherme.

In futsal there is already a whole host of Brazilians who have adopted Russian nationality, and some commentators are wary of a flood of foreigners distorting the identity of the national team, but perhaps it won’t be a bad thing if some young fresh talent challenges the status quo.

Forget the Bundesliga, Serie A or La Liga, this is where to find real entertainment

A record-breaking opening weekend of the Premier League season saw a mammoth 34 goals scored in just eight games, and that included one 0-0. Dynamo Moscow’s 7-3 annihilation of Rostov providing the highest scoring game in the Russian top flight in 15 years, with Kokorin notching a hat trick, and four teams registered a winning margin of four goals. This should not be mistaken as a sign of a lop-sided league – yes, the traditional powerhouses dominated in their games as Dynamo, Spartak, Zenit and CSKA all thrashed their opponents, but Europa League qualifiers Krasnodar then hammered Spartak 4-0 themselves. Terek Grozny, who won the Russian Cup two seasons ago, even went second in the table on Friday night before the other high-fliers played.

There is the glamour of high-spending Zenit St Petersburg, with £20million+ marquee signings such as Hulk, Witsel, Danny, and Salomon Rondon. After Torpedo earned promotion from the FNL, there are now five Moscow clubs in the Premier League, meaning almost a guaranteed derby every week, not to mention the intra-city rivalry of Kuban and Krasnodar. With the advent of the World Cup in four years’ time, some stadia are already being completed, such as the Kazan Arena and the Otkritie Stadium housing Rubin and Spartak respectively, and as a result there has been a spike in attendances which hopefully can be built on to improve interest in the domestic game.

Matthieu Valbuena has commented on the pace and quality of play after his explosive debut for Dinamo, and this is coming from a man who is a regular in the French setup and has played in European competition for years. Refereeing is, on the whole, more accommodating of tough but fair challenges than most continental leagues, which allows for a free-flowing pace to league games, but also throws in some controversial moments.

You don’t need to break the bank to get quality

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 20.20.34In the days of £70 million+ transfer fees, it is refreshing to see clubs not resort to ludicrous sums to find quality. Granted, Zenit recently spent €16 million on Manchester City misfit Javi Garcia when they already have three players in his position, but if you look a little harder you can find some real bargains. Krasnodar have kept four clean sheets in their six league games, and central to this tightness at the back has been former Wigan centre-half Andreas Granqvist.

The Swede has formed a solid partnership with Icelandic international Ragnar Sigurðsson that had only conceded once in the league before last weekend’s first domestic defeat of the season to Dynamo, but they were only signed for a combined total of 8 million euros. As they faced a crucial return leg at home against Real Sociedad in the Europa League playoffs without an away goal to defend, their mettle was tested, but they passed with flying colours, keeping a cleen sheet, and Granqvist even provided an assist for the second goal.

Across the city at Kuban, the counterpart central defensive duo of Xandao and Toni Sunjic only cost a total of 3 million euros in transfer fees as they have risen to similar heights as their neighbours. Yes, they have played four of their six league games at home, all of which were against teams in the bottom half of the table – well Lokomotiv are 8th out of 16, but you get the picture – and the away games were against minnows Mordovia Saransk and rock bottom Arsenal Tula, but they are getting the most out of inexpensive players.

Spartak’s Sokolniki youth academy has produced current star centre forward Artem Dzyuba who is scoring for fun, as well as bringing through young Georgian winger Jano Ananidze, who has had a handful of European experience already. Surely the best value signing so far has been Matthieu Valbuena, however. Dynamo Moscow paid a mere seven million euros for a man who has performed in Europe for Marseille for many years, and has become a fixture in the rejuvenated French national squad. He has shown a real tenacity since his arrival, which bodes well for his ability to deal with a new footballing culture, and in his first seven games have supplied a goal and five assists already. Throw in the aforementioned Alex Büttner for 5.5 million euros, and Dinamo have done some good business.

Unlike Brazil, (most) Russian World Cup venues should be ready on time – but will they be worth it?

Whether or not the stadia due to be used for the World Cup are being redeveloped or built from scratch, there appears to be a structured timetable for their opening. The Kazan Arena has already hosted its opening match as Rubin drew 1-1 with Lokomotiv two weeks ago, with an impressive attendance of 36,850. Moscow’s Otkritie Arena is set to host its opening match with new tenants Spartak entertaining Czech side Crvena Zvezda next week, while work on the historic Luzhniki began earlier this year.

The average attendance of Premier League matches is among the lowest in Europe’s top flights though, so justifying the expenditure in terms of Lord Sebastian Coe’s favourite word – legacy – is a serious challenge for Russia. Reports claim that stadia in Kaliningrad, Saransk, Ekaterinburg, Sochi (the redeveloped Olympic Stadium), Samara, Rostov, Volgograd and Nizhny Novgorod are due to be reduced in capacity to in the region of 25,000 after the World Cup; this is a sensible move, as the league-wide average attendance over the last three seasons is just under 12,000, so it would be nonsensical to force teams to play in quarter-filled stadia.

This disparity between the FIFA-enforced 40,000 minimum capacity and the regular attendance figures for clubs that occupy the venues is not unique to Russia. Manaus hosted England’s first match of this year’s World Cup against Italy, but before moving into the 41,000 capacity Arena Amazonia, the local club side Nacional had played in a stadium holding only 5,000 without major problems. The BBC’s South American correspondent Tim Vickery has reported how attendances often don’t reach four figures for state league matches across the country. The attendance figure for the Kazan Arena’s opening fixture was undoubtedly inflated by the occasion, but at least it is an indication that construction work for four years’ time is progressing.

The Author

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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