Not for the first time this season, Lokomotiv Moscow have parted company with their manager. After a 3-1 home defeat to city rivals CSKA, Miodrag Bozovic stepped down from his position at the head of the Railwaymen, leading to speculation about who the next manager might be. Should they appoint before the end of the season, the new boss would be Loko’s third of the campaign, following both Bozovic and Leonid Kuchuk before him – prospective candidates will probably not be viewing the post as one with any form of job security.
At first glance, Bozovic’s decision – easily seen as one to jump before being pushed by a famously impatient board – is understandable. Defeat to CSKA leaves Lokomotiv in 7th place in the Premier League, four points behind Spartak in 6th and a further four points behind Rubin and the final Europa League qualification place. Last season, under the guidance of the aforementioned Kuchuk, Loko claim as close to the title as they have been since Yuri Semin’s golden team of the early 2000s, remaining in with a chance of glory on the final day. That side too lost out to CSKA and finished third, missing out not only on the title but on the prospect of lucrative Champions League football. Kuchuk’s team were so close, and yet so very, very far – the consequences have been far-reaching.
Firstly, the manager’s own job security was severely affected by the lack of silverware. Within months of the new season starting, the Belarusian’s team proved unable to meet the heightened expectation of Olga Smorodskaya and her board. Strained relationships with Lassana Diarra – who ended up leaving the club – and Mbark Boussoufa, who ultimately stayed, robbed the club of two of their most influential players for several weeks of the season, while the lack of money from the Champions League campaign that never was meant that Kuchuk and Bozovic were unable to strengthen the Loko side as he would perhaps have liked.
Indeed, the opposite eventually proved to be true, with star striker Dame N’Doye departing for the somewhat less glamorous but wealtheir climes of Hull City, leaving Bozovic with just an ageing Roman Pavlyuchenko, an out-of-sorts Maicon and the raw Petar Skuletic to rely on for goals. With Alexander Samedov struggling for the form he produced last year, Lokomotiv have proven a stunted attacking force following their Senegalese star’s departure, and have failed to compensate with a sturdier defence.
By comparison, of the sides above them in the table it is arguably only Rubin who are in the same financial league. Spartak have had another poor year under the new management of Hakan Yakim, with their own star striker Yura Movsisyan reduced to the substitute’s bench as young Russian talent is blooded. Dinamo spent again as the billions of the Rotenbergs begin to take effect, while CSKA have chosen instead to invest in their wage bill, recruiting the former Rubin pair of Bibras Natkho and Roman Eremenko to add creativity and goals to their midfield. The top two are again varied in their approach – Zenit’s international stars carrying bigger reputations and salaries than Krasnodar’s developing side – but both clubs now both significantly greater resources thanks to the Gazprom and Sergei Galitsky respectively.
On the face of things, Bozovic has perhaps been hard done by. While 7th place may not be the greatest follow-up to a genuine title challenge, the limitations at Cherkizovo are plenty. Furthermore, the former Rostov boss succeeded in guiding his side to the final of the domestic cup, in which victory over Kuban will ensure the Railwaymen the European football they look unlikely to achieve through the league. Silverware of any variety is limited in the Russian game, and the cup is not to be sniffed at.
However, the facts of the matter must be considered. Loko required penalties to overcome second tier Gazovik Orenberg in their semi-final, penalties in the previous round to see off Rubin, and scraped by Ufa with a 1-0 win in their only other victory over a Premier League side. The Russian Cup, whilst a trophy, is becoming increasingly devalued by the nation’s elite sides, and even victory is no guarantee of a run in the Europa League – as Rostov proved this season.
Added to just two league wins since the turn of the year, an embarrassing home defeat to Arsenal Tula and a squad which seems permanently on the brink of rebellion, it is perhaps clearer as to why Bozovic chose to tender his resignation when he did. the club round out their league campaign with a tough home game against Rubin, a repeat of the cup final with Kuban, and a final-day trip to the champions in St Petersburg. Fans may expect at least six points, it is entirely possible that they may end the season with no points and runners-up medals, such is their poor form at the moment.
So what then must the next manager do to improve the fortunes of Moscow’s fourth club? Striking problems aside – and the club must surely do away with the strange unwritten policy of offering an ageing Russian striker one last chance each season – age is a concern. The promising Miranchuk brothers, Arseny Logashov, Maxim Belyaev and Omar Baye Niasse aside, the vast majority of the first team squad is 28 or over, with several key players now the wrong side of 30. With young Russian talent a little thin on the ground, Loko may be forced to look abroad if they are to strengthen, and so need a new man in charge quickly if their transfer dealings are to bear maximum fruit.
The other aspects which need improvement – realistic expectations, patience with managerial teams, making the most of their top-level facilities and evolving a style of play which uses their theoretically strong defence as a counter-attacking base – will all take time, and depend entirely on who the polarising Smorodskaya chooses to put in the top job. Former Tajik international and 100-time Loko player Ivan Cherevchenko may be thinking about taking the role long-term having been placed in caretaker charge for the second time in a year, but in reality the club’s fans will be eyeing a bigger name rather than a man who knows the club well. Whoever ends up in charge, the chances are they will not stay there for long unless major changes are made – and there are plenty of fans who would rather that change came even higher up than Kuchuk, Bozovic and Cherevchenko.