Russia once again fell short of expectations when they met England at the Stade Véllodrome in Marseille last weekend, a match which revealed the tactical chaos the team has been slowly drowning in. Russia’s head coach, Leonid Slutsky, is fairly conservative when it comes to implementing changes to his usual 4-2-3-1 style of play, and not even the fact of having at his disposal top quality centre forwards such as Artem Dzyuba, Aleksandr Kokorin and Fyodor Smolov can make him change his mind. Smolov, this season’s Russian Premier League top scorer (netting 20 goals in 29 matches), is probably the player that suffers the most with Slutsky’s tactical limitations, since he is forced to act as some sort of left winger (or wide midfielder in the team’s defensive process) instead of playing up front alongside Artem Dzyuba.
Not long ago, Smolov’s former head coach at FC Ural, Aleksandr Tarkhanov, told Russian website www.championat.com that one can only get the best from the 26-year old forward by fielding him as a centre forward or as a shadow striker. When Smolov arrived at Yekaterinburg to play for FC Ural back in 2014, his career was a complete wreck, but he made a strong stand and still managed to score eight goals that season. After failing to impress at FC Dynamo Moscow, Fyodor was constantly on loan, but for some reason, he always failed to revive the spectacular player he was back in his days with the Russian U-21 team.
Tarkhanov, a former Soviet international and an extremely experienced manager, explained in the aforementioned interview how he and his assistants recovered Smolov and helped him learn to play as a centre forward once again. In 2015, after Smolov’s contract with FC Dynamo Moscow came to an end, the 26-year-old forward joined FC Krasnodar, and much has been said about his move to Oleg Kononov’s team. The Russian-born Belorussian head coach trusted Smolov from day one, but has once again opted to place him as a winger in support of the Brazilian sharpshooter Ari, who was the team’s centre forward early in the season.
After watching Smolov struggling in the goalscoring department once again, Oleg Kononov understood that he needed to field him as a centre forward in order to get the best from the Saratov-born footballer. The result of this positional change was simply fantastic, with Smolov starting to score on a regular basis soon after he assumed the this role in his team.
Soviet old fox, Aleksandr Tarkhanov, was right from day one, and this season Smolov proved once again to be one of the most impressive forwards in Russian football. He is a fairly intelligent player in the field and combines excellent finishing, technique and passing skills, something that allows him to assume different roles up front, whether by playing as a centre forward or even as a deep-lying forward in support of the team’s poacher.
Smolov would, for the reasons mentioned above, be a perfect fit in a 4-4-2 formation, but the current Russian boss Leonid Slutsky fails to understand that. Smolov’s performance on the left side of the attack was particularly ineffective, as one was able to witness in the match against England last time out, but a tactical readjustment would not only benefit the Saratov-born striker but also the Russian National Team as well, since they would gain more creativity up front that together with Dzyuba’s physical presence would certainly cause plenty more problems to the opposition’s defensive line.
Slutsky’s Russia urgently need to improve, however if the current CSKA Moscow manager continues to push forward his melancholic 4-2-3-1 system, the chances of Russia walking through to the next stage of the tournament are extremely scarce.