A little over two years ago, I wrote a post on how Valeri Karpin’s return to the manager’s seat at Spartak had done little to change the apparent downward course the club seemed to be on. While Karpin seems to be be discarded by the club for good after his most recent managerial endeavours, it would be no great to surprise to anyone if the Moscow giants were on the look-out for a new boss before too long.
The latest man to take possession of what is arguably the most toxic of the many poisoned chalices at the top level of the Russian game is Swiss boss Murat Yakin, who arrived with strong recommendations after enjoying a decent period of success with Basel in his homeland. The decision seemed to be a sensible one – after the decline of the Karpin years, a young, European manager with different techniques would be required to give the Spartak squad a much-needed overhaul to bring it back into title contention.
Initially, Leonid Fedun’s latest appointment seemed to have done the trick. On the opening day of the season, Spartak travelled to Kazan to take on a Rubin team notoriously difficult to break down, and hammered them 4-0. That was followed up with a defeat of fierce rivals Dinamo, and after a bump in the road at Krasnodar, they went to CSKA and won, albeit needing a very dubious penalty to take the three points. With three wins with four, all on the road due to the delay in the opening of the new Otkritie Arena, Spartak were being spoken of as title hopefuls once more.
However, a cursory glance at the current Premier League table tells a different story. After 18 games of the season, Spartak sit 15 points behind Andre Villas-Boas’ Zenit side at the top of the table, eight points behind second-place CSKA, and are in fact only six points ahead of midtable Mordovia Saransk, who are punching above their weight in 10th. At no point in the club’s history has 7th place been good enough for Spartak and their demanding fans, and if either of the upcoming derby games – at home to Dinamo and away at struggling Torpedo – Yakin may find himself without a job.
Tracing Spartak’s form throughout the season, the problem is evident. Of the 29 points they have managed to collect, they earned 15 of them in the first seven matches. Since 14th September, they have managed just three more victories, been beaten three times – including away at lowly Ural and most recently at home to Krasnodar – and have failed to earn back-to-back victories. Inconsistency has plagued the side, and they are far from where they should be.
Traditionally, Spartak have been seen as a club which can only be managed by a Russian – a theory owing to the success of Oleg Romantsev and his winning machine of the 1990s – that cannot be understood by an outsider. Their mantle of best-supported club is Russia is being threatened by the continuing successes of Zenit, but the pressure on the players and staff from the fans is unlike any other in the domestic game, and the issue of nationality seems to be play a part. Having a native in charge, a man they could be sat alongside in the stands, seems to earn the incumbent additional time.
Yakin does not have that luxury, and whereas the Russian league is more competitive than the Swiss equivalent whence he came, he will be unable to point to a CSKA side defending back-to-back titles, a Zenit team with resources limited only by FFP and the need for Champions League co-operation, and the billions behind Dinamo. While fans pressure him to give more playing time to the club’s brightest youth prospects, he is chastised if they make errors when he does so, and so the balancing act is a difficult one. Harsh as it may seem, unless Yakin’s plan is simply to buy time by blooding the likes of Denis Davydov and Alexander Zuev, Spartak’s season is all but over.
So, where does the finger of blame ultimately point? Should it be on Fedun, for refusing to splash the cash and compete with Zenit financially? Quincy Promes has been the only major purchase of the season, and has done well in a struggling team. On Karpin for failing to lead the team into Europe, making Spartak a less attractive prospect for overseas stars? Partially, but the bulk of the squad remains intact? On Yakin, for failing to control the egos in the Spartak dressing room and being unable to settle on a consistent first eleven? He is undoubtedly to blame, but should not be isolated. The fans, for being unrealistic in their expectations? Perhaps, but again, it would be foolish not to address the other issues.
Unless Spartak win every one of their remaining 12 games and Zenit suffer a spectacular collapse, they will not win the title. On this basis alone, the fans will be disappointed. Following an extra-time defeat to Rubin in the cup, it will be the 11th season without silverware, and the consolation of possibly entering the Europa League qualifying rounds will be nothing of the sort to those who follow the Muscovites. Unless the board had a remarkable change of policy, Yakin is unlikely to last beyond the end of the current season.
At which point the question turns to the future, and the search for a man able to reverse the fortunes of a club which would have once thought it impossible to finish 7th in their own league. Much like the England national team, following the failures of a foreigner there will be clamour for a native, a man who ‘understands’ the club and has a rapport with the fans. Karpin was one such man, but memories are short when it comes to heroes. In all likelihood, unless he rejects their offer, Arsenal Tula boss Dmitri Alenichev will be the next former player to take the reins at Spartak and be put under the same level of scrutiny.
So what must he do to ensure it is not his name being substituted into the same article in a year’s time? First of all, he must shore up a leaky defence, find a man to take charge in midfield, and acquire a striker capable of sharing responsibilities with the prolific but injury-prone Yura Movsisyan. With Dzyuba going to Zenit and Davydov still raw, a new recruit is likely.
Secondly, he must play to the fans’ desires to see youngsters come through, and incorporate a handful into the first-team squad. They may end up being the solutions to his problems, but they will at least earn favour from the stands.
Thirdly, he must urge his players to turn up to all their games – the long trips to Ekaterinburg and Perm as well as the fierce city derbies. Too often Spartak seem to play the occasion rather than the game, and as a consequence have left points across the vast Russian landscape which they should have claimed comfortably.
Finally, he will have to hope that one or more of Zenit, CSKA, Dinamo and Krasnodar have a poor season, are blighted by in-fighting, or implode financially. With all things taken into account, Spartak no longer have the divine right to a place in the top two or three, and have to fight their way back in to the elite. Unless Yakin can find the magic formula this season or Alenichev next, Spartak’s story is likely to keep on repeating for some time to come.