Just a couple of days after his 55th birthday, Luciano Spalletti, he of back-to-back Russian title fame, was sacked by his employers. With their greatest rivals having a poor season, Zenit still found themselves trailing a team who nobody bar their most optimistic expected to be challenging for the title, and so saw fit to dispense with the Italian who had been in his post since the turn of the decade.
It came as a surprise to very few, in much the same way as Valeri Karpin’s subsequent dismissal from Spartak – sat in 3rd – came as no great shock to the footballing establishment. For over a year now, Zenit have been ridden with internal strife, with everything from wage packets to birthday parties seeming to cause a problem in Russia’s second city. The arrival of record signing Hulk was supposed to transform Zenit into a European powerhouse. Instead, the Brazilian forward has been the divisive influence that has ultimately cost his manager his job.
Off the field, the problems were numerous, whilst on them they were obvious. Boasting the most talented collection of individuals in the country, the title should been theirs once more after CSKA took it away last season. Instead, with Spartak, CSKA and Dinamo all scrapping for European spots, Zenit find themselves behind a Lokomotiv side who missed out on Europe altogether last time round. Defensive mishaps – Luis Neto has taken most of the blame – and a combination of Hulk’s selfishness, an over-reliance on the now loaned-out Roman Shirokov, and a failed adoption of a more possession-based game at the other end has seen them struggle. A somewhat fortunate goalless draw at home to struggling Tom Tomsk was the final straw for those in the seats of power.
Sergei Semak stepped in to take temporary charge, losing to CSKA – the club at which he enjoys legendary status – in the process, but Gazprom and their appointed board were not keen to allow such an inexperienced coach the reins. Instead, they simply went for the biggest name available – with Guus Hiddink announcing his intention to manage his native Netherlands once more, in came a certain Andre Villas-Boas.
A six-hour train ride away in Moscow, Spartak will almost certainly appoint a Russian in their bid to secure a first championship in over a decade. Experiments with foreign managers – Nevio Scala and more recently Unai Emery – have ended in failure, and the self-appointed ‘people’s club’ have a reputation to uphold as the centre of the Russian game. Stanislav Cherchesov, a man reforging a reputation at Terek and then Amkar, and who ticks the boxes as a former player for the capital club, is the early favourite and obvious choice.
Yet Zenit and Spartak are two very different clubs, and whilst neither Alexei Miller nor Leonid Fedun can claim to know as much about football as they would like, their approaches are markedly opposed. While Spartak seek to appease the fans and boost the team with an approved history and current success, Zenit have attempted to do so with money, glamour and big promises.
Andre Villas-Boas, or AVB as the media will have it, is a manager with a reputation to repair. The bright young thing of the managerial world at Porto, his successes earned him the Chelsea gig, where he was sacked less than a year into a four-year ‘project’ of a contract. He landed on his feet at Tottenham, inheriting a team on the cusp of the Champions League and with £100 million to spend after the sale of Gareth Bale, and improved them little before biting the bullet. At just 36, he is in danger of being seen as a failure.
But he is also one of the most marketable managers on the planet. Young, well-groomed and with an uncompromising philosophy of attractive football, he is on a one-man mission to personify the modern game. It is a game that Gazprom wish to shape, and by having the poster-boy for analytical, forward-thinking management in their corner, they are attempting to break through the myth of the backward Russian training method and outdated tactics, much as the likes of Viktor Maslov rubbished them decades ago.
So Zenit have gone for the highest profile, and at the highest price, if his €8.5 million per year salary is to be believed. What is also certain is that Villas-Boas will be given money to spend at the first opportunity, with a clear-out of some of the more regular trouble-causers and ageing veterans almost guaranteed to take place in the close season.
In terms of this season, it is now difficult to see Zenit taking the title. The gap is Lokomotiv at the top is surmountable, but their new manager is famed for his insistence on a high defensive line and aggressive pressing, something which Zenit have struggled to adopt in the past. With Shirokov in Krasnodar, Denisov in Moscow and Hulk attempting to win every game on his own, the squad both lack the midfield bite necessary to succeed, and the regular flow of goals – although Hulk is known to be a huge advocate of the new manager, and could well see a resurgence.
However, it is off the field that Villas-Boas faces his biggest challenge. At Chelsea he was brought in with a vision to transform the club into a modern sporting brand with his tactical acumen, but was dropped after nine months after failing to balance his plans with the need for instant gratification. At Zenit he will again be given the task of bringing the club in line with the giants of Europe, but at no instant cost – Gazprom and the expectant fans demand silverware on a regular basis, and anything less than the title will be seen as failure.
That the new manager’s contract lasts for just two years is hardly a ringing endorsement of the board’s selection, but in itself provides a picture of what is expected. While he will be given a sizeable war chest in the summer, Villas-Boas’ first challenge will be to do away with the hangers-on and problem players still int he squad. Shirokov, their key man and Russian World Cup lynchpin, would have to construct some apology to be allowed back despite Spalletti’s departure, with the Russian veterans who have brought Zenit this far – Alexander Kerzhakov, Alexander Anyukov, Andrei Arshavin, Vyacheslav Malafeev, Konstantin Zyryanov – have all found their usefulness limited in the current campaign, while retaining the magical feet of the injury-prone Miguel Danny should be his highest priority.
The decision then comes in who the build the core of the squad around, and the evidence would suggest a group of Portuguese and Spanish-speaking players. While Russian Premier League rules require five domestic players on the field – Oleg Shatov, Yuri Lodygin and Alexander Ryazantsev will provide three for now – it is likely that Villas-Boas will look to the likes of new signing Salomon Rondon, Hulk, Cristian Ansaldi, Danny and the much-maligned Neto to provide the leadership the club so desperately needs. Other technically-gifted talents will undoubtedly join, but it will be in his ability to turn those talents into a team that will determine Villas-Boas’ future at Zenit.
In many ways, it could be a combination of style over substance, money over matter and reputation over ability. On the other, it could be the ideal fusion of a modern, young manager and an ambitious club looking to make its mark. Almost certain is the fact there will be fireworks.