Going into Euro 2008, Guus Hiddink was under pressure in Russia. He had taken over the Sbornaya with an impressive reputation for making underdogs maximise their potential – first at South Korea for the 2004 World Cup then for Australia in Germany four years later – but, so far, not everything had quite gone to plan for the Dutch coach.
Truth be told, Russia were fortunate to be at the championships at all. Although they had completely destroyed England in Moscow, their equalising goal had been from a penalty that should have been a free-kick, and they had come undone by the reunited Emile Heskey-Michael Owen partnership at Wembley. Advantage was given to the wally with the brolly’s team after a 2:1 loss to Israel and qualification was only sealed with a measly 1:0 win over minnows Andorra in front of 200 people.
To make matters worse, Hiddink would have to go without star players Pavel Progrebnyak and Andrei Arshavin; Progrebnyak suffered a knee injury in a friendly against Serbia, while Arshavin was suspended for the first two games after being sent off late on against Andorra in qualifying. It also didn’t help that Igor Denisov refused to be considered for the squad, as he could have added some youth to an aging midfield.
With this in mind, it should come as little surprise that Russia grinded their way through the group stage. The 4:1 score in their opening tie against Spain was harsh but they were always second best. The game started slowly, with the referee giving free-kicks for any contact by either team, mostly against Russia seeing as Spain had the bulk of possession. Russia’s 4-3-3 allowed them to gain a foothold in midfield against a Spanish side struggling to fit both David Villa and Fernando Torres into the team and the groundwork of Hiddink’s Total Football philosophy could be seen: the passing was generally short although there was the occasional long ball towards Roman Pavlyuchenko to stretch play, the striker looked to move to the flanks, while Diniyar Bilyaletdinov in particular looked to come inside, the midfield trio were very fluid and the full-backs looked to get forward whenever possible.
The first goal came from a sloppy pass by Roman Shirokov but it was still unusual to see such an excellent first time ball by Joan Capdevila and the deflection off Denis Kolodin in Torres’ turn was unfortunate. Regardless, the game was a good lesson in the perils of playing a similar style to an opponent when they are better than you at it: Russia often looked dangerous but Spain caught them on the counter-attack to make it 2:0, although it still required a brilliant pass from Andres Iniesta and timed run from Villa beyond the abilities of many of Russia’s players. The remainder of the match was a standard affair with the last three goals coming in the last 20 minutes.
Next up was a ground out 1:0 win over Greece, then the return of Arshavin saw them partly sparkle in their last group game, a 2:0 win over Sweden. Still, it was fair to assume that the Netherlands would win their quarter-final match-up, having emerged from the group of death with a perfect record.
It was a bit of a shock to the system to not only see Russia dominating the Netherlands, but doing it using the same principles as the great Dutch sides of the seventies. Marco van Basten’s side had cultivated a style based around counter-attacking, so truthfully the group of death was perfectly suited to them (lesser teams than Italy and France would be less likely to attack, leaving less space for the Dutch to work their magic), probably making them look greater than they really were. Regardless, Russia’s fluidity and invention seemed to be mocking the Dutch’s abandoning of their traditions, just as Spain would do again two years later in the World Cup final.
The great secret of Hiddink’s success with smaller nations was in getting them to change their attitudes. Russian players had traditionally been plagued by fear of their coaches. To avoid getting yelled at, they would shuffle around, nudging sideways passes into the feet of their teammates. The game Hiddink wanted Russia to play required a greater level of risk, so he looked to relax them, making them comfortable enough to play his freer style. With that attitude change, Russia’s players could adapt to anything Hiddink wanted them to.
Arshavin’s return saw Hiddink drop the wide players to form a narrow-seeming 4-4-1-1, with Sergei Semak holding, Konstantin Zyryanov, Igor Semshov and Ivan Saenko ahead of him and, ahead of them, Arshavin tucking in behind Pavlyuchenko. With the Dutch deploying the aging Giovanni van Bronckhorst and natural centre-back Khalid Boulahrouz at full-back, the lack of a proper direct opponent to stop them getting forward wasn’t an issue, while the five men in central areas allowed them to control the midfield throughout the game.
The task of stretching play was generally left to Yuri Zhirkov and Aleksandr Anyukov advancing from full-back, but Pavlyuchenko’s willingness to run the line and the flexibility of the midfield meant there was always someone out wide if the full-backs were busy. The flexibility of the midfield was a major bonus defensively – generally Semak was deepest, but the other three would buzz around constantly, adapting to where the opposition were to squeeze play.
While the Netherlands had little space to create and Russia were in such firm control that counter-attacking was rarely an option, Russia were looking very threatening and certainly would have been a couple of goals up were it not for Pavlyuchenko’s awful finishing (he had an excellent tournament, but some of his shooting was truly abysmal).
The opening goal came when Arshavin slipped the ball wide for Semak to cross from wide left for Pavlyuchenko, who finally managed to finish correctly. A simple and obvious example of the midfield’s flexibility.
If the Netherlands were going to get a goal, it was going to come from a set-piece – the one area Russia looked weak. Time and again, the Dutch whipped in a free-kick for their teammates to stretch for, usually unopposed by Russia. It took 86 minutes, but finally Ruud van Nistelrooy managed to get on the end of one of the crosses to equalise.
The setback seemed to really bother Russia, who suddenly struggled to maintain their control for the first time during the match until they finally managed to take the lead again. Van Nistelrooy, with little support, tried to do too much and was crowded out by three of Russia’s midfielders, Zhirkov playing the loose ball to Arshavin down the left.
Interestingly, although this game is often held up as the point that Arshavin first announced himself to the world, he was pretty average for most of it. Within the first five minutes, his only contributions had been to hopelessly overhit two passes, and truthfully he didn’t do a great deal more for most of the game, or at least until he was gifted more space by Van Basten’s removal of Orlando Engelaar for the more attacking Ibrahim Afellay. His best contribution was his willingness to fall over whenever the Dutch made contact with him, winning an impressive number of free-kicks.
The definition of mercurial, however, upon receiving the ball from Zhirkov, he, also having little support, managed to engineer himself enough space to send in a brilliant cross for Dmitri Torbinsky to tap in and give Russia the lead. He then sealed the win by dashing behind the defence during a throw-in, leaving himself free to smash the ball emphatically past the retiring Edwin van der Sar.
Hiddink had become the ultimate traitor to his homeland, crushing them using what was traditionally their own game. Next up, however, were an even trickier task in Spain, looking to conquer the Russians for the second time in five matches.
The major problem Hiddink faced was that the Spanish were better at playing the style Russia wanted to play. In terms of reputation and also generally the quality of their players, the Netherlands were superior to Russia. But they also played a primarily counter-attacking style, which meant it suited them to give Russia the initiative. Spain however would be the team looking to control the match, and since they had moulded a side talked about among the best of all time, it was fair to suggest that Russia were once again very much the underdogs.
It was also fair to say that they were in a better position than for their opener. The most obvious thing they had lacked first time round was Arshavin, but he probably wasn’t the most important addition to the side. The inclusion of Arshavin necessitated a change to a narrower 4-4-1-1 shape outlined above, which, given Spain were playing four central players in midfield, gave them a good footing in an important area.
The other improvement was a strong centre-back partnership. In the opening game Hiddink opted for Roman Shirokov and Denis Kolodin – the former having an absolute shocker. The choice was most likely partly to do with the pair’s ball-playing abilities: Shirokov is naturally a defensive midfielder, but was moved back for Zenit when Martin Skrtel left for Liverpool and Nicolas Lombaerts was injured and did well enough to earn himself a call-up to the national team, while Kolodin started his career as a striker and is nicknamed “The Cannon” for his impressive right foot. However, while their long-range passing was useful, Shirokov’s defending was not, with Hiddink criticising the defence post-game and dropping him for the rest of the tournament. Kolodin had done well but a couple of silly fouls against the Netherlands meant he was suspended for the semi-final.
The original pair were replaced by Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski, who, although cumbersome, are good defenders and did well against the Spanish strikers. As underdogs, the pair’s defensive solidity was needed more than their technical ability, but it was a shame they couldn’t pass long to Pavlyuchenko as Kolodin often did given the lack of pressure from the Spanish – instead, they looked to play simple short balls to the full-backs and midfield.
Going in at half time, both sides were evenly matched. The narrowness of the formation created a problem in combatting the forward surges of Sergio Ramos – against the Netherlands this had not been an issue with Boulahrouz at right-back, but the Real Madrid man was more confident and had more quality in attack – with Zhirkov forced into stepping up to meet him, leaving space which Torres would take advantage of to pull wide right, but luckily Zhirkov was having an excellent game and it was rarely a huge issue.
Possession was about even, as were the chances. With the gap in quality between the two sides (not to say that the Russians weren’t very good players, just that the Spanish were incredible), this was a victory in itself. However, the turning point of the game came at the half hour mark: Villa injured himself taking a freekick and had to be replaced by Cesc Fabregas, adding another man to that crowded midfield area. Initially a touch overexcited, Fabregas frequently gave the ball away in the 15 minutes leading up to half time, but in the second half, with the extra man, Spain took control of that crucial midfield zone.
Less than five minutes into the half, Xavi found himself free in space between the lines, slid the ball out wide for Iniesta to cross, picking out the still unmarked Xavi to finish emphatically. Now with the lead and an extra midfielder to make it easier, Spain’s play was much closer to the ultra-patient tiki-taka they would display two years later. Back and forth, back and forth, Spain were able to manipulate the playhowever they wished, constantly able to cut through Russia by finding a free man, while Russia could barely get or keep the ball at all.
After lots of toying with the Russians, Fabregas flicked a ball over the top of the defence for substitute Dani Guiza to flick past Igor Akinfeev, then Silva got another on the counter. It was a disappointing end to the tournament for Hiddink’s men, but they had still caught the attention of the world with their stylish and impressive play. It’s just a shame they couldn’t build on it, missing out on the 2010 World Cup after losing on the away goals rule to Slovenia.
Perhaps the funniest thing to emerge from the tournament was the hype around Arshavin. Although brilliant in flashes, he was by and large average for the majority of the games, which isn’t too rare for an attacking midfielder, but, still, you would expect more from the summer’s new star than less than ten minutes of top quality play.