Cast your minds back to just over a week ago. Russia, who had come into the tournament on the back of a 16-game unbeaten run, had just beaten the Czech Republic 4-1 in an excellent display of attacking football, and to be honest; they could’ve and probably should’ve scored more. That performance made a lot of people sit up and take notice of Russia and some were talking about the Russians as a team that could go a long way in this tournament.
Last night, those voices were silenced as Russia exited EURO 2012 after a defeat to Greece. A campaign that began with a bang, ended with a whimper.
So, what happened? How did a team go from looking like contenders to going home early?
Russia were in the driving seat of Group A going into the final round of matches. If they avoided defeat against Greece, they were through. In fact, there was a plausible scenario which meant that even if Russia narrowly lost, they could have still gone through had the Czech Republic drawn with Poland, a scenario that nearly came off, with Michal Kadlec’s headed clearance preventing the Polish equaliser that would have seen Russia go through.
It is one of those truisms of football that when a team doesn’t have to win, it doesn’t. Teams can often fall into the trap of mentally setting themselves up to play for a draw, then they fall behind and can’t change to a more attacking mentality in order to get a goal back.
However, Russia had a huge incentive to win. A win would have secured top spot in Group A, which could have had huge implications on how far they progressed in the tournament. The Group A winner will play the runner-up in Group B, which turned out to be Portugal, but the Russians will have known that the likelihood was that winning the group would have meant avoiding Germany in the quarter-finals, which any team would want to do.
This might explain just why they came out swinging against a Greece team, which hasn’t looked capable of creating chances of their own accord, but had looked dangerous on the counter-attack in their previous games.
That insistence on attacking football would normally be applauded, but on reflection, it probably wasn’t the smartest tactic to employ as it played right into the strengths of their opponents.
Russia’s insistence on attacking was played a part in the goal they conceded. Greece had a throw-in just inside the Russian half in first-half stoppage time. There seemed little danger when the throw was taken, but Sergei Ignashevich put in an over-aggressive challenge on Giorgos Karagounis, and was out-muscled and knocked off-balance when he headed the ball straight into Karagounis’ path for him to run on to. Aleksandr Anyukov, the Russian right-back, had strayed way too far up the field to come back and help out and Russia were left with a 1v2 situation, which Karagounis duly punished. If Anyukov had been in his usual defensive position, the chances are that goals wouldn’t have been conceded, and there’s a chance Russia would still be in the tournament.
There’s maybe another explanation for Russia playing so aggressively. Dick Advocaat is a vastly experienced coach, and his time managing Zenit St. Petersburg means that he knows the strengths and weaknesses of his players better than most national team coaches do, so it may be that Advocaat didn’t believe that Russia could play in a calmer, more measured way and had to play an attacking game in order to be effective.
Maybe the Russians were guilty of hubris, totally underestimating a Greek side that had shown an amazing propensity for shooting themselves in the foot in their previous games, and believed that they could just turn up and win. Russia’s good play in the first game was interspersed with periods where they got complacent and looked really sloppy and disinterested, and the same happened against Poland, where Russia was in control at half-time, only to allow Poland back into the game, where eventually the Poles got a deserved equaliser.
Russia were guilty of not having a plan B all tournament, and in the games against Poland and Greece, ran out of ideas and were resorting to taking more and more ambitious shots as their desperation grew, and never really looked like scoring.
Russia had problems in attack. Aleksandr Kerzhakov was supposed to be the man who would score the goals for Russia, coming off the back of a very good domestic season, but despite all of his energy and enthusiasm, managed to not get any of the 14 shots he had in the tournament on target. Russia did look a far better side when Kerzhakov played as opposed to when Roman Pavlyuchenko played, as Pavlyuchenko is a player who doesn’t go looking for the ball, instead waiting for a teammate to find him.
One of the things Russia lacked was on-field leadership. They lacked cohesion and team spirit, which are things that Greece had in abundance, and too often looked like eleven individuals rather than a team. One of the roles of a captain is to instil team spirit and make sure all of the players are on the same page.
Russia’s captain in EURO 2012 was Andrey Arshavin. When he’s in the mood, Andrey Arshavin can be one of the best attacking players in world football. Unfortunately, he generally carries around an attitude on the pitch that he couldn’t care less and would rather be anywhere else, and this means that he can often be a drain on his teammates. In the opening game against the Czechs, Arshavin was excellent and an inspiration to his teammates. Last night, Arshavin was definitely not in the mood against Greece, and his attitude spread amongst his teammates.
There are (unsubstantiated at the time of writing) stories going round about an exchange that happened between Arshavin and a group of unhappy Russian fans at the airport following their exit from the tournament. Arshavin is reported to have said to the fans “It’s not our problem we didn’t meet your expectations, it’s your problem”. Charming.
Tiredness could also have been a contributing factor to Russia’s exit. Russia looked really sluggish against Greece, and this. Russia’s season used to run from March to November, but changed this season to run in line with other European leagues. This means that the Russian players have been playing for almost 18 months with little rest, and with only Pavel Pogrebnyak and Marat Izmailov being based outside of Russia, that must have taken its toll on the players’ fitness.
Dick Advocaat, who has left his post following Russia’s exit, to take over at PSV Eindhoven (a move which was announced long before the tournament began), is unrepentant about the way Russia approached the games saying "Did we not play that well? ... We went forward and the other team just defended. We should have won but we didn't. I suppose in some way I will be blamed for that, but I'm not too interested in what people say about me."
As the Russia players trudged dejectedly to their team bus Saturday night, the country's football federation chief, Sergei Fursenko, hinted that the post-Advocaat era could begin with a clean-out of the old guard.
"We have one of the oldest teams in the competition, and I think some of the younger players didn't get a proper chance to play," he said.
Russia will now have to reflect on a tournament that promised so much, but ultimately delivered little, and that the team ultimately made less of an impact in Poland than some of their fans did.