Russia face centre-back crisis just weeks before the World Cup finals
"We are starting everything from scratch again," Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov said of his defence after the World Cup hosts were thrashed 3-0 by Brazil in Moscow on Friday. Little more than 11 weeks before the opening game of the most important tournament in the country's history, Russia don't have a single decent centre-back to rely on.
Russia were announced as the World Cup hosts in December 2010, meanining that they had more than seven years to prepare. Apart from wasting outrageous amounts of money on building big stadiums in cities like Saransk and Kaliningrad that don't have Premier League clubs, there was an even more important issue to take care of. It was reasonable to assume that Russia would try to use the World Cup to raise a new generation of professional footballers. That just hasn't happened.
For years, the core of the defence was the most stable part of the national team. CSKA Moscow stalwarts Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutsky twins Vasily and Aleksey developed a phenomenal understanding between them in front of goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. They were crucial for club and country, and their partnership must be one of the longest running in the world. After all, they won the UEFA Cup together back in 2005.
The three of them competed for two places in the starting lineup, and thus Russia could tolerate an injury. Vasily missed Euro 2012, but Ignashevich and Aleksey were there. Aleksey was controversially left at home by Fabio Capello for the 2014 World Cup, but Vasily captained the national team alongside Ignashevich. That was the case again at Euro 2016, when Aleksey was the first available substitute. Vasily headed the dramatic late equaliser against England to bring Russia their only point in France.
The trio appeared to be eternal, and yet it was impossible to ignore their age. Everyone knew that Ignashevich would be 39 by the summer of 2018, while the Berezutskys would celebrate their 36th birthday during the World Cup. They were never quick anyway, as experience compensated for the lack of speed, but the problem got more and more serious with each passing year. Injuries took their toll as well and they eventually retired from the national team.
Ignashevich did so immediately after the disastrous Euro 2016 campaign. The Berezutsky twins waited until the 4-3 home defeat at the hands of Costa Rica a few months later. Suddenly, it became crystal clear that there were no alternatives. Heirs were not waiting to take their place.
The basic problem was that the top clubs, apart from CSKA, never really considered promoting homegrown centre-backs. Zenit St. Petersburg, Spartak Moscow, Lokomotiv Moscow, even Rubin Kazan and Krasnodar, all almost exclusively used foreigners in those positions for more than a decade. With the World Cup looming, nobody thought ahead. There was no backup plan, even though it was eminently predictable.
Cherchesov, who replaced Leonid Slutsky as coach after the Euros, realised that his options were limited in the extreme. He even managed to convince the Berezutsky twins to refrain from making their retirement official, but rather call it a "timeout."
Fans were waiting for the Berezutskys to change their minds and come back. In the meantime, the coach decided that two central defenders would be unable to do the job, and switched to a 3-5-2 formation ahead of the Confederations Cup. Viktor Vasin, Georgi Dzhikiya and Fyodor Kudryashov -- all very inexperienced -- were chosen to play together.
Vasin, a ball-playing defender -- sound technically but desperately error prone -- waited for years on the CSKA bench, but got his chance in 2017, and the national team gladly followed up. Dzhikiya, totally unknown just a year previously, burst onto the scene at Amkar Perm and was bought by Spartak that winter. Kudryashov, originally a limited left-back, flourished at Rostov under Kurban Berdyev's guidance.
None fully convinced, but at least they had the full backing of Cherchesov. Their mutual understanding improved during the Confederations Cup, and Dzhikiya in particular made remarkable progress at Spartak in 2017, developing into one of the best centre-backs in the league. There was some hope on the horizon. Then the disaster struck.
In January, Dzhikiya tore knee ligaments playing for Spartak in a friendly. In February, Vasin also tore knee ligaments when CSKA faced Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League. It looked like a vicious curse. Cherchesov was quick to contact the twins, who remained the only logical solution. He was left bitterly disappointed.
"With three months remaining until the World Cup, it is time to state clearly that myself and my brother have retired from the national team. Our health doesn't leave us any other option," Vasily announced at the beginning of March. That was that. Russia had no centre-backs left.
Some pundits assumed that returning to 4-4-2 would be reasonable in such circumstances, but Cherchesov didn't change the system against Brazil. Kudryashov, who lost form at Rubin Kazan this term, was accompanied by fellow Rubin journeyman, the 30-year-old Vladimir Granat, and the 24-year-old Ilya Kutepov, who is mostly a benchwarmer at Spartak. The coach also called up Roman Neustadter, the naturalised Ukraine-born German, who had a disastrous Euro 2016 in midfield and failed to convince in a friendly against Belgium a year ago. Another alternative was Andrey Semyonov of Akhmat Grozny, who lacks any international pedigree.
The situation is even worse because Russia play without a proper holding midfielder. The only man remotely capable of doing that job is the veteran troublemaker Igor Denisov, but he is not considered because of his longstanding conflict with Cherchesov.
The bottom line is that Russia don't have a defence, and Akinfeev prevented them from getting beaten by a shameful score against Brazil.
The same could be expected against France on Tuesday, but the biggest question is about the World Cup itself. Egypt and Uruguay, and even opening-game opponents Saudi Arabia, should be very optimistic ahead of facing the hosts in Group A, because Russia won't be able to find a solution. They should have thought about it a long time ago.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.