Wednesday, 19 March 2014

AVB to ZSP: the size of the job facing Villas-Boas at Zenit

Former Porto, Chelsea and Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas has been announced as the manager of Russian club Zenit St Petersburg on a two year contract. AVB, who has been out of work since his sacking from Spurs in late 2013, will take charge of the Russian club on 20th March, following their Champions League tie away at Dortmund.

Since the return from the lengthy winter break in Russia, Zenit are without a win. A draw at home to relegation threatened Tom Tomsk and 1-0 defeat at the hands of 5th place CSKA Moscow has seen Zenit relinquish first place to Lokomotiv. Lokomotiv are now 3 points clear of Zenit with the other 3 Moscow clubs right behind them, Spartak are on 40 points just 1 behind Zenit and Dinamo Moscow have 39 points. Zenit cannot afford anymore slip ups if they wish to be playing Champions League football next season, with only the top two clubs qualifying in the Russian Premier League.

With a 4-2 deficit to overturn it is likely that Villas-Boas will not have to worry about fixture congestion as a result of European competition, but given the lengthy winter break fixture congestion will be inevitable in the coming months. 

Given the importance of qualifying for the Champions League and winning the Premier League it is perhaps not surprising that Zenit chose to part company with former manager Spalleti, who had been in charge since 2009. It does seem like a snap decision given the relatively strong position Zenit are in and given that a period of adjustment would be expected following AVB’s arrival.

Zenit’s squad boasts the attacking talents of Hulk, who Villas-Boas worked with at Porto, Danny and Kerzhakov. As well as former Arsenal player Arshavin, highly rated Belgian Axel Witsel, and a handful of Russian internationals.

Hulk is without a doubt Zenit’s biggest star and it could be said there is a sense of pandering to him in appointing a coach he worked so well under at Porto. If Zenit don’t qualify for the Champions League, then there’ll be no shortage of suitors for the Brazilian, particularly if he has a good World Cup.

Hulk has 9 goals in 15 games, a total only surpassed by Portugese international Danny who has managed 10 in one game more. Danny also has more assists (7) than Hulk, he has the highest in the squad and second highest in the league. As Hulk is generally the focal point of the attack that could explain why he has less assists. Hulk has the most shots per game, with 4.2, not only in the Zenit team but in the league as well. That illustrates the point, Hulk can at some times be selfish, but his technical ability does merit it.

Their problem this season has not been offensively, scoring 40 goals in 21 games, the highest in the league by 1 goal, but defensively. Zenit have conceded 21 goals, an average of one per game, league leaders Lokomotiv have conceded 4 less. Zenit concede 13 shots per game, so it’s hardly surprising that they are conceding quite a lot of goals. This brings more clarity to the decision to point Villas-Boas, given his reputation for making his teams defensively solid and relying on moments of brilliance to win games.

However, defensively there is a lack of strength of depth in the Zenit squad. Only the experienced Belgian Nicolas Lombaerts has played more than 15 games (18) and no defender has been ever present so far. A consistent back four would be a considerable advantage in adding some much needed solidity and would go a long way to stopping some of Zenit’s frailties.

Andre Villas-Boas has a chance to rebuild his reputation in Russia away from the prying eyes of Europe’s elite. If he can stop the poor form that Zenit are currently experiencing and get them back to winning ways, a title could well follow. If not and the poor form continues AVB will be hard pressed to find such a good job again, hopefully though he can turn things around.

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