Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
“I like to press high up the pitch, and put the opponents under pressure,” said Juan Antonio Pizzi, espousing his footballing philosophy in a recent chinwag with Arab News. Yet, in an ironic twist, the Argentinian was beaten at his own game here, by a rampant host nation determined to defy all expectations.
Organised pressing is rarely seen at international level, where coaches have far less contact time with their charges. Few expected Russia, then, considered a rabble by all and sundry, to join the likes of Spain and Germany in that regard. But join them they did; and Saudi Arabia’s technically limited defence had no answer.
Some brilliant midfield pressing — exemplified by the irrepressible Roman Zobnin — cut off the Green Falcons’ passing options. Left-sided centre-back Omar Hawsawi and his colleagues were duly forced into countless cheap turnovers. Were it not for the last-ditch defending of the other Hawsawi, Osama, the Saudis could — and should — have been two down inside 10 minutes.
Pizzi’s central midfield, meanwhile, looked anything but organised. The ex-Chile boss had somewhat lost his nerve in recent weeks, reverting to a more reserved system with three staffing the engine-room. As such, the man Saudi legend Sami al-Jaber dubbed “our Messi”, Fahad al-Muwallad, started only on the bench.
Clearly, Pizzi’s concerns were well founded, however, as anchorman Abdullah Otayf demonstrated precisely zero positional sense throughout a woeful individual display. Alan Dzagoev, fielded as a second-striker, enjoyed perennial freedom, using it to win the corner-kick from which surprise inclusion Yuri Gazinksiy headed the opener.
Neither Saudi number-10 did enough to track their full-backs in the defensive phase either; Yahya al-Shehri and Salem al-Dawsari the culprits. Mario Fernandes, the Brazilian-born right-back, attempted two byline cut-backs in the first-half, one of which should have been netted by striker Fedor Smolov. Smolov, hapless here, will surely make way for the bustling Artem Dzyuba against Egypt.
Meanwhile, in contrast to the Saudi’s nonexistent shape, Russia transitioned fantastically well into defence throughout. Notwithstanding their initial high press, Stanislav Cherchesov’s men funneled back into a rough, ultra-compact, 4-4-2-ish shape when the Saudis managed to play through. Counterattack, and direct passes into the channels, were very much the order of the day; even before Gazinksiy’s opener.
With space at a premium, the likes of al-Shehri and al-Dawsari were duly crowded out in their zones of influence, coughing up a whopping 16 turnovers between them. Striker Mohammed al-Sahlawi, therefore, might as well have stayed at home; touching the ball only 17 times in his 85 minutes of playing time.
Crowded out in both halves, and playing into Russian hands with a narrow 4-3-2-1 system, Pizzi needed a big contribution from his full-backs. Al-Shahrani, on the left, certainly showed up in patches early on, creating the Green Falcon’s only first-half chance (so to speak) with a counterattacking scamper and cross. That was the only time Russia’s transitions failed them, and callow centre-back Ilya Kutepov almost headed into his own net.
Alas for Pizzi, right-back Mohammed al-Breik proved decidedly less useful on the ball; with only the aforementioned Omar Hawsawi looking more out of his depth. The solid if unspectacular full-back did, however, deliver a dangerous cross just before the hour-mark; Kutepov again erring, failing to narrow the gap between he and Sergei Ignashevich. Fortunately for the oft-maligned Spartak centre-back, al-Sahlawi wasn’t on the near-post scene quickly enough.
Even against also-rans like the Saudis, therefore, Russia’s centre-back crisis looks anything but resolved. Cherchesov is actually a big back-three advocate, but injuries to both Georgy Dzhikiya and Viktor Vasin — and poor friendly showings from both Vladimir Granat and converted left-back Fyodor Kudryashov — have forced the manager’s hand. Time may yet bear out his justification for switching to a three-man defence: “We have not achieved anything with four at the back.”
Dzagoev’s injury seemed like the latest horrible twist of fate to befall the former Legia Warsaw boss. But, as luck would have it, the arrival of Denis Cheryshev actually improved the balance of the Russian side. A left-footed, out-and-out left-winger, Cheryshev is seen as something of an anachronism these days.
But the ex-Real Madrid man, along with Fernandes on the opposite flank, helped to stretch the Saudis further and extend the Russian lead. By half-time, Russia were two goals to the good, courtesy of the Villareal winger putting both Omar Hawsawi and al-Breik on their backs.
Cheryshev was assisted by Zobnin, who along with Aleksandr Golovin was allowed to run free by the Saudi midfield. Indeed, all five host goals could be chalked up to woeful midfield marking: substitute Dyzuba’s instantaneous goal — Russia’s third — resulted from a throw-in, at which Taisir al-Jassim lost Golovin.
And for Russia’s injury-time fourth, Dzyuba isolated right-back al-Breik in the air, allowing Cheryshev — free as a bird between the lines — to beautifully net the second ball. Pizzi, incidentally, had removed one of his central midfielders by that point, switching to a 4-2-3-1 upon al-Muwallad’s belated arrival. Meaning that, for the fifth goal, a Golovin free-kick, al-Jassim felt compelled to chop the CSKA starlet down and concede it.
Striking no shots on target here, against the lowest-ranked side in the competition, Pizzi can have absolutely no complaints. Attractive in the middle third, with three nice passers on show, the Saudis were otherwise putrid in all other aspects of their game.
Russia, meanwhile, will take great heart from this. There are still unresolved issues in defence, not least Kutepov’s inexperience and a left-side whose ages sum to 72. But the disciplined combination of Gazinskiy and Zobnin, facilitating the ingenuity of Golovin — who should play centrally in Dzagoev’s unfortunate absence — looks very promising indeed.
Cherysev, too, will stretch defences and provide a threat on the break if he remains in the side. A touchline-hugging winger providing crosses for the hulking Dzyuba sounds great in theory, doesn’t it? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: Cherchesov’s boys did not beat much here.
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