Heading into the World Cup, the Russians ranked 70th in the world, making them the worst ranked team in the tournament. They were also winless in seven friendlies leading up to the World Cup. Making them a long shot to advance out of the weakest group.
And this makes what they accomplished that much more impressive. Kick-starting the tournament with eight goals in two games instilled hope in the Russian squad. They were determined to prove the world wrong and their performances gave them a reason to believe.
How did they do it?
After beating Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Russia lost to Uruguay 3-0 in the last match of the group stage. Affirming what pundits had estimated weeks earlier: Russia simply can’t handle the big guns.
Granted they were resting some of their key players against Uruguay and went down to 10 men with 10 minutes left in the first half. Still, it was an underwhelming performance against a stronger opponent heading into the round of 16.
Just when most critics assumed Russia had come to the end of their Cinderella run, they defeated La Roja in penalties and dragged Croatia into another penalty shootout. In fact, some might argue they deserved a bit more after equalizing in the 115th minute.
The question is how? Exactly how did a team ranked below Guinea and Mali (and just one spot ahead of Macedonia!) come so close to reaching the World Cup’s Final Four?
First, Russia set up in a 4-2-3-1. It’s important to remember the significance placed on Alan Dzagoev as a key player in the #10 role before the tournament started. But ironically, if Dzagoev hadn’t limped off with a severe hamstring injury in the 22nd minute of the first match against Saudi Arabia, Russian manager Stanislav Cherchesov may not have made the strategic changes to his lineup — changes that proved to be pivotal in their success.
Denis Cheryshev, a La Liga player who’s naturally a winger, subbed on for Dzagoev after the injury. Cheryshev pushed out wide to the left with Aleksander Golovin tucking in to the #10 role.
That’s when Russia started to click
Cheryshev scored 20 minutes later, at the 43’, and again in the 91st. While Golovin got in on the act in the 94th after a brilliant free-kick to make it 5-0 vs the Saudis, who ranked just a few spots higher than the hosts heading into the World Cup.
Another key point in that first match was when 6-foot-4 Artem Dzyuba subbed on for Fedor Smolov in the 70th minute. Dubbed “The Russian Peter Crouch,” Dzyuba not only scored with his first touch of the ball one minute later in the 71st (assisted by Golovin), but he showed how important he was in hold-up play. His ability to hold the ball up then lay it off or knock balls down with his head provided Russia with a more direct style of play, which turned out to be their identity throughout the World Cup.
While it usually isn’t ideal, Russia were figuring out their best lineup on the go with the first match serving as a massive learning curve for everyone. But while the starting players weren’t etched in stone, the tactics implemented by Cherchesov were consistent
Russia’s 4-2-3-1 saw them attack on the wings while retaining their shape in the middle of the park. Going forward, the wing backs in Yury Zhirkov/Fedor Kudryashov (LB) and Mário Fernandes (RB) pushed high up the pitch, overlapping the wingers to offer attacking options while the two defensive midfielders stayed back for protection from counters.
The wingers would consistently pull inside underneath the striker (Dzyuba) to allow the wing backs to overlap while the attacking midfielder (Golovin) roamed the pitch, either peeling out wide to create space for the striker and putting crosses into the box, or tucking in centrally to serve as the stem for attacking chances and to receive any knockdowns.
Defense, defense, defense
Defensively, Russia prevented opponents from beating them centrally. They moved exceptionally well together as a unit, quickly closing any gaps in the middle. A tactic clearly seen in their match against Spain. Whenever the ball was switched to open up pockets of space in the midfield, Russia would quickly transition side to side to prevent any holes to pass through. This allowed them to win the ball on the wings and immediately get it to their target man, Dzyuba, to spark a counter attack.
This style of play required them to run, a lot. Just check out the distance covered, over 90 minutes, from each player. Over the first two games alone, three Russian players ran more than any other player in the World Cup. According to The Telegraph, Aleksandr Golovin, Alexander Samedov and Iury Gazinsky ran 11,853 (m), 11,679 (m) and 11,392 (m), respectively. Russia ran a combined 73 miles in their first match against Saudi Arabia, then 71 miles against Egypt, again, far more than anybody else.
They either based their World Cup preparation around fitness or adrenaline set in as they fed off the energy of the home crowds. Or, as some have suggested, was it something else?
Regardless, it’s clear that Russia formed an identity for themselves, making it extremely difficult for opponents to break them down and pouncing on every attacking opportunity. The result: They vaulted a whopping 47 spots in the world rankings — from 70th to 23rd — and surely made their fellow citizens proud.
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