With these the two stand-out teams early on in the Russian Premier League season, this was sure to be an important clash to sort out the hierarchy among the title challengers. Moneyed Zenit looked the favourites going into the match, having seemingly shrugged off the slump that has seen them finish runners-up to CSKA Moscow for the past two seasons as they look to really establish themselves as a European heavyweight, yet the arrival of Mathieu Valbuena at Dinamo has given them a new creative spark to go with their steel.
It would be typical for this sort of game to be nervy as both teams to try and cancel the other out, yet with five goals scored this obviously wasn’t the case. Some of the alterations to the starting line-ups hinted that both coaches had attempted to tailor their teams to stop the other, but in changing their team had rendered the other’s changes futile.
Stanislav Cherchesov changed to a 4-4-2, moving Valbuena from his central position behind the strikers out to the left as Dinamo sat back in two banks of four. With Zenit usually lining up in a 4-2-3-1, the idea seemed to be to stop them from playing it into their midfield, with Kevin Kuranyi and Aleksandr Kokorin conscious of their positioning in front of the midfield. The issue with this was Andre Villas-Boas’ reshaping of his midfield: rather than going with the usual double pivot, they shifted to a 4-3-3 that should have had Javi Garcia lining up against Valbuena had Dinamo stuck with their usual 4-2-3-1.
The two changes ruled the other’s out and it made for a muddled beginning. With two men on Javi Garcia, it was obviously difficult for Zenit to move the ball through the middle, Dinamo forcing them to go out wide, yet equally Dinamo were essentially overstocked in this area defensively (Kokorin recognised the pointlessness of having him and Kuranyi on Garcia part way through the first half and started pressing the Zenit defence while Kuranyi sat) and found it difficult to create when they had the ball themselves. The attackers around Valbuena usually have to push back the defence to open up space for him to work in but out on the left, he often wasn’t in this space when Dinamo tried to break or would have to sprint cross-field to reach it.
The opening goal was arguably an example of this working well, with Valbuena clearly operating much deeper before moving forward to shoot, but his exquisite lob was far more about Valbuena’s brilliance than strategy and perhaps made a greater argument for why he should have been starting centrally.
Likewise, Zenit’s equaliser, although coming from the wide area Dinamo had forced them into, had little to do with their strategy. If Valbuena’s dink over Yuri Lodygin was nearing footballing perfection, the deflection off Douglas was its antithesis.
Neither team really took control of the match, although Zenit looked brighter. Danny was his usual influential self, drifting infield and deeper, while they also had a number of good breakaways when Andrei Arshavin pulled out to the left, giving Hulk lots of room to burst into. Attacks would frequently break down when the ball reached Arshavin, either bouncing off or rolling under his foot, making it abundantly clear why this was his first start of the season. Their more proactive approach to defending, that saw Alex Witsel regularly step up alongside Arshavin to push up against Dinamo’s defence, paid off when Hulk caught William Vainqueur on the ball just outside his area and played in Arshavin to take the lead.
Dinamo reshuffled at half-time and moved Valbeuna into the centre in a 4-3-1-2. The change gave them more attacking threat, but opened them up defensively and much of the second half went from end to end. Dinamo were rewarded with a goal from a set-piece.
The game looked to be heading to a draw until Danny slid a through ball into Igor Smolnikov for Zenit to take it at the death. Either result would have been justified: the game was even, but Zenit were a shade ahead of Dinamo at every step, and it’s little surprise they have taken their early lead at the top of the Russian Premier League.