Approaching the midway point of the Russian Premier League season one team sit pretty at the top, still unbeaten, having scored 21 goals and conceded just three. The team in question are Zenit, under the instruction of Roberto Mancini, who underwent a somewhat drastic restructuring following the departure of Mircea Lucescu in the summer. Their underwhelming league finish and increasingly stale squad required surgery, which resulted in a spinal adjustment heavily influenced by South America.
In a spending spree that cost upwards of £60m, Mancini opted to base his side around a core group of young Argentines, plying their trade both in Europe and in their native country. Leandro Paredes was arguably their most high-profile arrival, a Verratti-esque midfield metronome who found regular football hard to come by at Roma. Emanuel Mammana was signed shortly after having impressed for Lyon in Ligue 1 last season, before Sebastian Driussi, a highly rated striker, was brought in from River Plate.
Matias Kranevitter was signed later in the window from Atletico Madrid, and could prove to be their bargain of the summer despite losing himself in the Spanish capital. The defensive midfielder arrived with the ‘Simeone Seal of Approval’ having shared a similar playing style with his former coach. Four became five with tricky midfielder Emiliano Rigoni coming in from Independiente on deadline day to conclude their business. Their strategy was simple. Out with the old and in with the new.
The likes of Robert Mak, Luka Djordjevic, Hernani and Yohan Mollo quickly saw their places in the team threatened by the arrival of new players. Mak (PAOK), Hernani (Saint-Etienne) and Djordjevic (Arsenal Tula) all left the club on loan. Mancini recently told the media that he believes in Argentine players because “they adapt well to the Russian environment”, which has proven to be the case with three of his five new signings featuring in every game thus far.
Zenit’s “Argentine brand” means that they are in a strong position to fend off competition from other European clubs for the country’s finest talent. Manchester United wanted Paredes, Juventus wanted Driussi and Sevilla were interested in Rigoni, yet here they are playing in St Petersburg. Zenit of course have the financial power to pay competitive salaries, but they also have a reputation as an interesting career option for other emerging youngsters who wish to take that leap towards Europe.
Much like Shakhtar Donetsk who have clear links to Brazil, it is troubling for the Russian national team (who are already underachieving) that the nation’s dominant club invests so little in domestic talent. But for Argentina, the club has become a welcome reference point. It fixes a number of gaps the country has in its own coaching culture and offers players a different style of tactical education.
Zenit, like Villarreal, Udinese, FC Porto and Shakhtar before them, will effectively become a halfway house, gradually introducing young talent to the rigours and culture of European football, exposing them to the Europa and Champions League once they’ve settled. The latter is arguably most crucial, offering a stage that holds a global focus to prop up these assets for future sales.
It is a clear window into the modern game, that footballing philosophies have been reduced to thinly veiled business plans, but Zenit have adapted to the reality of their situation and gained an edge on competitors in their immediate market. Ideally their goal would be to conquer Europe but they must be realistic. Monopolising their domestic league whilst buying low and selling high makes plenty of sense, as others have shown.
The two countries couldn’t be any more different when talking culture, weather and language into account, but despite being over 10,000 km apart, Zenit are hoping to become Argentina’s golden bridge to Europe.