Leonid Slutsky sat on the bench, agitated. His rocking movement in the dugout, though, was not a novelty. It’s a disposition that comes naturally to him, irrespective of his team’s situation. Not much can be deduced from his demeanour, which was a shame. For his Russia side had laboured for the most part of its Group B contest against Slovakia in Lille.
Against England, the Russians were expected to come second best and so they were. Yet, a late equaliser had rescued the team from a defeat in the opening match. Against Slovakia, however, Russia was supposed to come out and take control of the proceedings. But the result turned out to be even worse — a 1-2 loss that has now left Slutsky’s team on the verge of a group stage exit. Perhaps, those rioting fans in Marseille had sensed the disappointment that was set in store for them. If Russia fail to progress to the round of 16, a disqualification on account of unacceptable fan behaviour might be seen as a more honourable exit.
Yet, Slutsky cannot be expected to bear the blame. The loss of Alan Dzagoev, Igor Denisov and Roman Shirokov (he’s limited to the role of a substitute) to injuries demolished his midfield and left the manager with few choices. Young and stop-gap measures followed but clearly they do not bring the same quality. It was not a surprise on Wednesday when Slutsky replaced his holding midfielders Roman Neustädter and Alexander Golovin at half-time. This is where Dzagoev and Denisov would have played if not for their absence.
The changes helped to an extent as substitutes Pavel Mamaev and Denis Glushakov improved the side in the final third. Glushakov scored Russia’s only goal of the afternoon while Mamaev was instrumental in spreading the ball quickly to his more attacking compatriots. However, Russia found it difficult to distort a defence that sat deep. Glushakov’s goal, following Oleg Shatov’s brilliant cutback, pushed Slovakia further back but the comeback had begun too late.
It was a surprise that Shatov could not be an influential force in the match. The playmaker is known for his skillful touches, which are a result of his futsal-playing days as a teenager, but he failed to provide the final ball that could dislodge the Slovakians.
Instead, the first half saw an attempt to utilise striker Artem Dzyuba’s knock-ons from long passes. The tall and physical forward tried to bring his teammates into play but could not cause any damage as the Slovakians were able to compete with him in air. The quality of crossing left much to be desired as well. In the end, only six of Russia’s 28 crosses found their target (FourFourTwo Stats Zone).
The timing of Slovakia’s goals only made the situation worse for Slutsky’s side. After a tepid opening, Russia was growing into the game when its opponents took the lead. It was not a surprise that it came from the left as full-back Igor Smolnikov had positioned himself too high on the wing throughout the match. Spotting an opportunity to play the ball behind Smolnikov in the massive space available, Marek Hamšík put Vladimír Weiss through with a sumptuous cross. As Weiss bore down on goal, Smolnikov made his second mistake in seconds by showing the winger on his outside foot. The result was a curled shot into the goal.
On the stroke of half-time, Russia received a double whammy. Still recovering from a quick corner taken by the Slovakians, Slutsky’s charges had little time to respond to an excellent turn by Hamšík, who then went on to hit a rocket shot. It was one of those rare strikes that shook the post on one side and then boomed its way to the net on the other. A special, special goal. One that eventually turned out to be enough for Slovakia to win the game.
Thanks to the changed format that allows four of the six third-placed teams to participate in the round-of-16, Russia could still qualify by defeating Wales. However, there’s little to suggest that the transformation is near. Slutsky possesses very few options if he seeks to change his team around. A lot of work needs to be done before the 2018 World Cup, not just for the game coming up.
Of course, Russia would have been a much better outfit if it had its best players at disposal. However, the defence remains a major issue. Sergei Ignashevich and stand-in skipper Vasili Berezutski are not getting any younger and their lack of pace is a serious issue. Gareth Bale is going to be a major challenge for the centre-back pairing when the two sides meet on Monday. Wales is likely to sit deep, like Slovakia, and will seek to hit Russia on the counter. To unpick the well-drilled three-man Welsh defence, the Russians will need the inventiveness and relentless pressure they demonstrated a bit too late against the Slovakians.
Slutksy has reasons to remain agitated.