Sitting alone on his rocking chair, the room filling with smoke from his oversized Cuban cigar, Ruslan looked back on his first season in charge of Anzhi.
While he had many aims for the team, he knew this season would be all about surviving. No money, no transfers, no quality staff. His mark on Anzhi would not be made this year.
Ruslan’s preferred formation was a fairly attacking 4231 that he had played as a player at FC Vaduz, but he did not feel he had the players at the club to pull this off. He researched a number of other tactical styles, contacted his old manager Christophe Laurence, and learnt when best to employ each of them. He decided the best way to avoid relegation would be to utilise one he called the direct counter-attack in a 4141 formation.
The season started with Anzhi predicted to finish dead last, 1000-1 for the title. First up was a trip to Ufa where a credible draw was earned. It would take a further four matches before Ruslan tasted victory against Dinamo Moscow. The first five games yielded only three goals and already he was doubting himself. The fear of failure tangible. Anzhi were being dominated in almost every game and did not have the defensive backbone to keep out opposition attacks. Too often counters were rushed, or the first “pass” was a hurried clearance. A 2-1 defeat to league favourites Zenit illustrated this pretty well and will be this post’s match in focus (link will take you to another page where I discuss this match in greater detail). Another disappointing defeat to fellow strugglers Yenisey finally prompted a tactical rethink.
Ruslan decided to become even more defensive but not by dropping back further, but by keeping hold of the ball better. Tempo was lowered to minimum, time wasting was encouraged, and the team as a whole told to be even more cautious. Think Van Gaal at United only slower.
A handsome 3-1 win against local rivals Akhmat was followed up by two defeats, however, the manner of these defeats encouraged Ruslan that he was on the right path. A four-game winning streak was his reward for remaining steadfast. A surprising 3-1 reverse against Orenberg the only blot on the month. Anzhi were flying up the table and relegation worries were a distant memory.
The last five games before the winter break saw Anzhi win two (one against Spartak Moscow), draw one and lose two; fine mid-table form. Indeed, Ruslan even checked the Europa League qualification rules around this time, just in case.
During the winter break, all managers were called to a meeting with the Russian FA. Ruslan had been away on “business” and was forced to fly home quickly to attend.
At the meeting, the FA handed out a dossier of analysis from the first half of the season. Paragraph 19.2 piqued Ruslan’s interest the most, apparently, too many goals were coming from set pieces. According to the FA, this was due to too much holding and screening from the attacking side, especially at the far post where the official’s view was very often obscured. Referees would be on the lookout for this in the second half of the season with a view to stopping it.
Secondly, the offside rule, as interpreted by the Russian FA had meant strikers were making forward runs very early in moves and were not being flagged offside. Linesmen would be watching for this going into the second half of the season.
Ruslan couldn’t wait to get out of the room the heating was on full blast and he had a thirst to quench. The woman taking notes from the FA had the most fantastic nails.
Onto the second half of the season and Ruslan set his team up as before and was hopeful that +maybe they could push for a Europa League spot. Somethings are easier to explain visually.
A complete mess of a second half of the season. One win in eight and only three goals scored told it’s own story. Anzhi plunged down the division. A 3-0 defeat to relegation-threatened Krylja Sovetov left Anzhi still needing one point from three matches to avoid relegation.
Ruslan went back to the drawing board, adjustments were clearly required. He analysed his team’s performance through the first part of the season and was surprised to learn he had scored the vast majority of his goals from corners. His defensive mentality had meant opposition strikers struggled to create space and any meaningful chances. Games were being won by nicking a goal or two through set plays. It was abundantly clear that the new FA directives had an effect on his results.
Throughout history Russia, as a nation, has believed that the best form of defence is attack, it is one of the reasons the country is so massive. Ruslan decided if he was going down, he would go down swinging.
He decided to use his 4231 on a much more positive mentality, although he still wanted his side to be careful in possession and not give the ball away needlessly. A few player instructions were added, the three players in the AM strata were given a licence to roam from their positions. The deep lying playmaker encouraged to play more direct passes, this is a remnant from the idea of releasing a winger on attack in the space left behind an opposition full back. A complete wing back on attack was added Ruslan was concerned about being caught on the counter attack himself down this flank, so a watchful eye would still be required.
The effect was immediate, Anzhi blew Orenberg away 3-1 completely playing them off the park and securing top-flight football for another season. A 4-2 reverse to champions Spartak Moscow didn’t tell the whole story as Anzhi led 2-0 going into the final 15 minutes before a four-goal blitz from Brazilian Adriano consigned them to defeat.
Ural had already been relegated with a goal difference of minus 31 when Anzhi tore them a new one 8-1. These last three games convinced Ruslan that this was the path for him, this was the path for Anzhi.
A tenth place finish then for Anzhi exceeded expectations and they were duly awarded over-achievers of the season. Expectations for next season remain the same, however, Ruslan has half an eye on the Europa League spots. To take this club to the next level more income will need to be generated, European football is one sure way to do this.
I did have a section here about the performance of the club off the pitch but I shall save that for a separate post. In the meantime below is the team of the year. The top performer for me was easily left wing back Evengy Grapon, highest average rating (7.10), most assists (6), and runner-up in managers player of the year award. He is wanted by a few clubs so I expect to be forced to sell him during the offseason.
Comrade! If you have made it this far thanks very much for reading. If you haven’t clue what is going on you can read earlier posts here.
You can also follow Ruslan Chepiga on twitter.
Over and out FMEadster!