FC Zenit St. Petersburg have just been crowned the Russian Premier League 2018/2019 champions after several seasons without doing so. Their last title had been in the 2014/2015 season and the drought finally ended. The last coach to win the championship with Zenit had been Portugal’s André Villas-Boas. Then there were Mircea Lucescu and Roberto Mancini and neither of them were able to achieve the expected successes.
After several failures, the management finally pointed to a man of the house: Sergéi Semak. The results were seen immediately and Zenit’s style of play this season has attracted attention. Out of a total of 30 games played, Zenit won 20, drew four and only lost six. In addition, Zenit was the team that scored the most goals. This is thanks, in part, to Semak’s great work and offensive football idea.
In the following head coach tactical analysis we will review the main and most important aspects of Zenit this season with some statistics including how and why they became champions by playing good football and with a good methodology from Semak.
Schemes and roles
Sergei Semak relied on two schemes in most matches throughout the 2018/2019 season. The 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 formations were the most used by Zenit’s coach regardless of the opponent, as the style of play was defined.
The goalkeeper who played all season was Andrey Lunev. In both systems, Semak used a line of four defenders that almost never changed. The usual back-line were Igor Smolnikov at right-back, Branislav Ivanović, and Yaroslav Rakitskiy at centre-back and Yuri Zhirkov at left-back.
The midfield zone is the one that Sergéi Semak changed the most during the season but always starting from the base of a 4-4-2 system. The most used midfielders were Emiliano Rigoni on the right, Magomed Ozdoev and Wílmar Barrios in the middle and Sebastian Driussi on the left. The strikers were Artem Dzyuba and Sardar Azmoun, who scored 13 goals this season.
With a 4-4-2 formation what Sergéi Semak proposes is a solid team, with two lines of four players. The idea is to occupy most of the pitch with two midfielders on the wings and two interior midfielders. The midfielders on the right and on the left have the function of generating two-on-one situations with the full-backs. The interior midfielders have to cover both rights and left.
The Argentinians Rigoni and Driussi are in charge of this function on the wings, as they have good physical abilities to perform the task. They are free to attack, becoming almost strikers by their arrival at goal positions. The wingers are constantly deployed to the attack generating amplitude and depth.
The full-backs of Zenit are a particular case since both pass the 30 years of age. At the beginning of the season, it was doubtful that Smolnikov and Zhirkov could do what Semak asked them to do, but with the good preseason, both players fulfilled.
In some matches, Sergéi Semak changed to a 4-2-3-1 formation with two defensive midfielders, two wingers, an attacking midfielder and a striker. The back-line was the same regardless of the system. The two defensive midfielders were the same, in this case, the Colombian Wílmar Barrios and Magomed Ozdoev.
From the attacking midfielders was that the team changed. Oleg Shátov alternated the position with Rigoni on the right and the Brazilian Hernani alternated with Driussi on the left. The attacking midfielder switched between Dale Kuznyev and Leon Musaev. The only striker in this formation varied between Azmoun and Dzyuba.
The first characteristic of a 4-2-3-1 formation is the importance given to defensive midfielders. In this case, there are two different qualities, which make the team balanced in that area. Barrios is a very physical player who recovers the ball often. While Ozdoev is a more technical player and fulfils the function of defending and attacking.
From there the midfielders on the wings have the same function of attacking next to the full-backs. But in addition, the offensive midfielder has total freedom to attack and free himself from defensive tasks. Musaev or Kuziáyev have good vision and agility to assist the striker and generate goal opportunities.
Style of play
The first thing Zenit is based on is the possession of the ball. Sergéi Semak made Zenit a team that proposed and had the initiative of the match from the first to the last minute. Zenit tries to locate their centre-backs as far as possible from their own goal and from there rely on the mobility of other players to generate and find spaces.
In addition, the wingers must always be very open to generate amplitude. What Sergéi Semak wanted with this disposition was to generate amplitude to free and clear the internal lanes of the pitch. To do this, the full-backs must be close to the wingers to generate situations of numerical superiority in the wings and be very close to the sideline.
The next important role for advancing on the pitch is that of the defensive midfielders. Barrios and Ozdoev were in charge during the whole season of receiving the ball from the centre-backs. They constantly had to drop deeper and generate a clean exit. In addition, they had to make the first pass for the attacking midfielders, so their task is remarkable.
In both systems used by Sergei Semak throughout the season, Zenit attacked in the same way: with many players and generating attacking moves by the flanks. This is why Semak made special emphasis on the full-backs and wingers, the fundamental pillars of this Zenit.
Generally, the wingers or the full-backs reach goal position, generating a line of four attacking players. This makes the opposing team have to expand its coverage area to occupy the entire width of the pitch, thus freeing spaces for Zenit. In addition, an offensive midfielder would stand behind that line of attackers to create goalscoring chances.
Taking as reference the last three games of Zenit in the season we can observe that in the heat maps the right side was the most used by the team to attack. This is also reflected in the percentage of Zenit’s attacks. By the right side of the pitch, 40% of the attack plays in the whole season were generated. 33% of the attack plays were generated by the left side. Only 27% of the attacks were in the centre lane.
Regardless of Sergéi Semak’s 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 system, Zenit showed the same defensive structure throughout the season. Semak’s idea when defending was for players to quickly pass the ball line and move into defensive positions. Again, you need an important physical ability to do this. Also, a good tactical disposition.
Zenit used a 5-3-2 formation to defend for most of the season. Barrios, one of the defensive midfielders, was in the middle of the two centre-backs. This formed a line of five players in defence. Ozdoev was the only defensive midfielder and the wingers Rigoni and Driussi were closed towards the middle of the pitch to play as interior midfielders.
Sergéi Semak more than fulfilled the expectations as a coach. He retired as a footballer in 2013 at Zenit and has been linked to the first team since then. He went through the whole process in the club’s lower divisions until he made it to the first team. In his first experience as a coach of the professional team, he was champion dominating the Russian Premier League from start to finish.
In addition, what stands out most apart from the title was the style of play that Semak gave to his team. The players understood perfectly what Sergéi Semak wanted to achieve and transferred it from training to matches. Possession of the ball, proposing, triangulations, amplitude, depth, pressure, attacking with several men and good football were some of the characteristics of Sergéi Semak’s Zenit.
Perhaps the only failure during the 2018/2019 season was the elimination in the Round of 16 of the Europa League by Spain’s Villarreal, a team that had a very bad season and was close to relegation to the second division. Sergéi Semak’s team was the favorite to pass in that series, but played the worst two games of the season and was eliminated with an overall score of 5-2.
The goal now for Semak and Zenit is to retain the Russian Premier League title and have a good Champions League presentation. For that, they will have to reinforce some lines of the team, because another failure in Europe is not allowed for a club that has invested a lot of money in the last years.
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