Russian sides have been various shades of interesting over the past decade. The group that they sent to the 2008 Euros had Yuri Zhirkov bombing forward from left back and Andrei Arshavin impishly darting around as a roaming second forward behind a more permanent central striker (in qualification, Pavel Pogrebnyak, and in the tournament itself Roman Pavlyuchenko). Igor Akinfeev was a young prodigy in goal. These were all genuinely talented players and the team as a whole defeated the Netherlands in a highly memorable game in the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champions Spain in the semis.
The 2012 Euro squad called on the core of the excellent Zenit St. Petersburg side of the time, including Aleksandr Kerzhakov up front and the fluid midfield of Igor Denisov, Konstanin Zyryanov, and Roman Shirokov behind. That team thrived on space and counterattacks. Kerzhakov was built more like a traditional winger than a front man and pulled wide into the channels and even all the way out to the flanks rather than waiting up front for service or dropping deeper to connect midfield to attack. This, in turn, opened up central areas for attacking midfielders to charge into, especially Shirokov and Alan Dzagoev, who was earmarked for bigger and better things after netting four goals at the tournament. Their utter destruction of the Czech Republic was one of the best displays by any team. Their loss to Greece, where they struggled to break down a more resolute side willing to play without the ball, one of the more abject. Both games were symbolic of their identity: Russia were usually tactically interesting, though struggled to break down defensive teams because of their reliance on the counterattack. The loss to Greece caused them to limp out of the tournament rather sadly, given the spectacular start.
The 2014 World Cup squad was basically the 2012 Euro squad with a little less fluidity and joy. They were more one paced, with fewer players capable of dribbling past an opponent or making quick darts to open up space. The 2012 team had been coached by the former Zenit head man Dick Advocaat. He and the majority of the team knew each other. They fit together. The attack was largely Zenit based and the defense was largely from CSKA Moscow. In 2014, the Zenit core was fractured. Getting older. Roman Shirokov, and his ability to make excellently timed goalscoring runs from deep, was missing due to injury. Advocaat had been replaced by highly priced Fabio Capello. Kerzhakov was just a little slower and less lively in his false nine role. Aleksandr Kokorin and Alexandr Samedov were less dangerous as the goalscoring wide players than Arshavin and Dzagoev had been in the Euro 2012 side. The team bowed out meekly at the group stage, looking rather similar to Japan. Decent quality on the ball – no cutting edge.
All of this is to say that this Russia side is in a similar vein, though it is also in a bit of a state of arrested development. There is no longer a club side like those previous Zenit teams to base the national team around. Akinfeev’s long promised move to a higher profile club outside Russia never materialized – the once young prodigy is now an old veteran. Alan Dzagoev never became a worldwide sensation. And so on and so forth. Russia may even very well trot out a near 40 year old at center back. They are still decently tactically interesting – largely in the way that they have attempted to make use of three relatively similar players in Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Golovin, and Alexei Miranchuk (filling in for the injured Aleksandr Kokorin) all in the same lineup. All are attacking midfielders that are skillful on the ball and all would prefer to operate in central areas of the pitch, because each is a little too slow to make a living out wide. In the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, Russia have settled on a 5-3-2 or 5-1-2-2 shape that is rigid in defense and fluid in attack and allows them to use all of their more offensive players close to their preferred positions. Fedor Smolov is a prolific striker up front who likes to run the channels and is more of a poacher than a target man or a false nine, making runs primarily to get himself into goalscoring positions (and only tangentially distracting the defense for the positive trio behind). Of that trio, Dzagoev and Golovin are given the responsibility of falling back into the midfield line to screen the defense and Miranchuk is given the responsibility of tracking the opposition’s holding midfielder before becoming a second forward when the team is in possession. Gazinsky will probably be the sole holding midfielder. The three central defenders will be functional and solid in the air but will be rather lacking in pace and occasionally understanding with each other, regardless of which three Russia end up settling on.
This Russia will want to counterattack. They may occasionally do so well, though the loss of Kokorin has hampered this aspect of their game in recent matches and left them more pedestrian. They will attempt to defend solidly (but might not be very good at it). They will be dangerous at set pieces. They will struggle to break down defensive opposition and be vulnerable to counterattacks behind their aging defense. They will almost certainly benefit from a few absurd refereeing decisions. And they just might make it out of the group stage.
Key Players – Fedor Smolov. He has to continue his excellent national team goalscoring record and be the focal point of the attack.
Key Tactical Question – Will they allow their fullbacks/wingbacks to push forward more against the likes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Otherwise, the team will lack attacking width against sides that it wishes to break down and will fail in a similar manner to previous Russian teams.