The occasional hat-trick notwithstanding, Arsenal fans could have been forgiven for wondering in recent years why their club had made Russian captain Andrei Arshavin its most expensive ever signing in 2009. Fans of North London neighbors Tottenham Hotspur may have puzzled over just what their owners saw in striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, while Chelsea fans might struggle to remember that left-back Yuri Zhirkov had ever been a Chelsea player, so limited was his impact during two years at the London club. Having failed to set the English Premiership alight, all three are now back at Russian clubs. But Euro 2012 — which gets underway on Friday with Russia facing the Czech Republic in the second game (U.S. audiences can watch the game on ESPN, 2.30pm EST) — could serve up a reminder of just why English clubs were scrambling to sign Russian players in 2008/9: Russia had been the surprise standout team of Euro 2008, falling only in the semifinal to the unstoppable Spanish but famously defeating the fancied Holland along the way. And they may yet cause a few surprises at Euro 2012.
Anyone watching last Friday’s warmup match in Italy would have seen a Russian side brimming with with confidence and creativity, making light work of the Azzurri, 3-0. The key to their prospects is cohesion. Most international sides are composed of players assembled from a diversity of clubs, hastily thrown together for a tournament and forced to quickly forge and learn a style of play that might be quite different from the game they play for their clubs, and to rapidly develop the kind of intuitive understanding that allows one player to anticipate the runs, passing choices and positioning of another to create decisive breakthroughs.
For most, that’s a tall order, which is why players on international duty for sides like England are invariably less effective in the national shirt than they are in their club strip. By contrast, Spain, which has been the dominant team on the international stage for the past four years, is a model of cohesion. That’s because Spain’s national side has been based on players from Barcelona FC throughout that time, and on that club’s progressive-possession model of play. Even if new players are brought in, they will be integrated into an established and coherent system of play — they know what to expect from their teammates, and what is expected of them. And, of course, for the Barca players in particular, there’s the advantage of playing alongside so many of the same players they play and train with all year round in the Spanish league.
That cohesion is most important in the midfield, the engine room of any team, where the ball is won, kept, used defensively to reestablish the team’s shape and creatively to breach the opponent’s defenses. The fact that Spain’s midfield is built on the Barcelona trio of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta (and more recently, also Fabregas) means that the footballing heart and brain of the dominant club team in Spain and Europe over the past four years is simply transplanted into the national team, giving Spain a tremendous advantage over most rivals. Spain’s cohesion is helped by the fact that many of the players alongside them are also a settled unit (four or five of them from Real Madrid), with the squad traveling to Euro 2012 still containing 12 players from the one that won Euro 2008 and 16 of the squad that won the 2010 World Cup.
So what’s any of this got to do with Russia?
Well, not only are 11 players from the impressive 2008 squad still in place — and supplemented by the emergence of such sumptuous talents as Alan Dzagoev — but just like Spain’s Euro and World Cup winning teams, Russia 2012 is dominated by players from just two clubs: Six of Russia’s likely outfield starters are from Zenit St. Petersburg. And just as Barca’s model is Spain’s game plan, so does Russia’s Dutch coach Dick Advocaat rely on the attacking 4-3-3 formation he built while coaching Zenit. The defense is based on another successful Russian club, CSKA Moscow, which provides the ‘keeper and two centerbacks. (Left back Zhirkov, although currently at Anzi Makhachkala, spent five years at CSKA, and knows his defensive teammates well.)
The excellent midfield trio of Shirokov, Zyryanov and Denisov are all from Zenit, as are Arshavin and striker Kerzhakov (if he’s preferred to Pavlyuchenko). Dzagoev is a CSKA man. The Russians goal threats come from Dzagoev and Arshavin cutting inside from the flanks, and from Shirokov breaking into the area from midfield, while Zhirkov is once again providing those raiding runs up the left that persuaded Chelsea to spend $20 million on him in 2009.
Their shock failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup left the Russians among the forgotten men of international football, and this tournament may well be the last chance at redemption for Arshavin and some of his comrades. They remain a long shot, to say the least, anyone who likes wagering on a dark horse might be tempted. No matter how well the Russians do, however, don’t expect to see a new influx of their players into the Premier League. There’s so much money in Russia’s domestic league today that the top Russian players, like their Brazilian counterparts, no longer automatically move abroad once Europe’s bigger clubs coming calling.