Qualifying as hosts of the tournament makes this the second World Cup appearance in a row for Russia, something that they haven’t done in the post-Soviet Union era.
Barring a run to the semi-finals of Euro 2008, their performance at major tournaments has been consistently poor, going out at the group stage in three World Cups and four European Championships.
They’re not necessarily expected to do better than that this time around either, and manager Stanislav Cherchesov has had to deal with major injuries as well as a relatively weak squad.
Road to the World Cup
As hosts, Russia got to the World Cup automatically, and just as well. The friendlies they played since Euro 2016 finished suggest they may not have qualified if they had needed to.
Discounting the Confederations Cup held last June, they have played 17 times, winning just four and drawing six. That would leave them with 18 points, enough for a third-place finish in most of the actual European qualifying groups.
In fairness to them, they played plenty of good teams during this period. Belgium, Chile, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, and France all travelled to Russia to play friendlies, as well as other strong nations; Ghana, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, South Korea and Austria are hardly pushovers.
Still, their showing at the Confederations Cup was relatively disappointing. There were rumours Cherchesov would be sacked after their elimination in the group stage after losing to Portugal and Mexico.
They beat New Zealand 2-0 – although that was a New Zealand side who failed to make it to the World Cup – while their defeats were only be a single goal.
Since the tournament, they’ve only won one game, a friendly welcoming South Korea in early October that finished 4-2. A 3-3 draw to Spain is the other highlight of their pre-tournament matches.
More worrying are 1-1 draws against Iran and Turkey, a recent 1-0 defeat to Austria, and a spate of injuries to key players. Defenders Viktor Vasin and Georgiy Dzhikiya and forward Alexandr Kokorin will miss the tournament, and stalwarts the Berezutski twins have retired.
Russia got in automatically, but their road to the World Cup has not been smooth.
A lack of striking options, besides West Ham transfer target Fedor Smolov, limits the number of systems Russia can deploy. They tend towards three centre-backs, and whether this is a back-three or back-five will depend on who they’re playing.
A flat back-five in the curtain-raiser against Saudi Arabia would surely be embarrassing, but a more conservative formation might well be seen against Egypt and Uruguay.
The team is not necessarily well-balanced. The one area of the pitch Russia has some consistent talent is in attacking midfield with the Miranchuk twins Aleksey and Anton, Alan Dzagoev, and Aleksandr Golovin who is a Manchester United transfer target.
Trying to get enough of these in the side to provide an attacking threat as well as playing a back five means large spaces can open up between the midfield and defensive lines.
The back line backs off to absorb pressure, which trades off the opponent getting closer to goal with the bodies put between the ball and the goal. However, it can leave the defence vulnerable to opposing players joining the attack and receiving cut-backs, seen in Austria’s goal at the end of May.
The lack of midfield defensive presence in order to get the talented young attacking players close to the striker does yield some benefits in attack though.
Closer together, the players are able to combine nicely, such as Russia’s first goal in the friendly against Spain, which genuinely bamboozled the opposing defence. Whether these attacking benefits are enough to outweigh the defensive vulnerabilities remains to be seen.
Expect there to be at least some goals in Russia’s matches. In their 20 international matches since Euro 2016 they scored 26 and conceded 30, the crowds seeing an average of 2.8 goals per game. Only one of those games finished in a goalless draw, and that was the very first against Turkey in August 2016.
In fact, seven of their games finished with at least one of the teams scoring three or more goals. That’s just under a third of the matches, so it could well happen at least once in Group A – Russia will just be hoping that they’re on the right side of it.
Captain Smolov leads the line and scored six goals in the two-year period pre-World Cup, keeping up his form in the Russian Premier League. He was the division’s second-highest scorer last season, with 14 goals in the equivalent of 21.2 matches (1,911 minutes).
He was also one of the most creative strikers in the league, making 1.5 open play key passes per 90 minutes, the thirteenth-best rate among forwards, and this contributed to six assists.
Star player: Aleksandr Golovin
Smolov could be called Russia’s star player, but the one with the most potential is Golovin. The 21-year-old is reportedly a Barcelona transfer target, and scored five goals in the league this past season.
Despite his age, the midfielder is a key player for his club side CSKA Moscow. His 43 passes per game is the fourth highest number for attackers in the league, pointing to an involvement in build-up play that few forward-minded players engage in.
The fact that he’s played so many minutes for CSKA at such a young age is impressive in itself. Last season he made 27 appearances, playing for 2,283 minutes or the equivalent of 25.4 full games in a league campaign that’s just 30 matches long.
That’s 85 per cent of available minutes Golovin is featuring in (not to mention playing in all but three minutes of CSKA’s six Champions League group games). For an attacking-midfielder, a position more often rotated than defensive players, to feature so regularly is a clear sign of his quality.
Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov
Russian Cherchesov took over after Leonid Slutsky could only lead Russia to a last-place finish in their Euro 2016 group. He knows World Cups well, having played in goal for the country during the 1994 and 2002 tournaments.
Injuries have made his time in charge difficult, and it’s not just the ones missing for this summer that have been a problem. Playing a back-three/five increases the chances of this, but during his two-year stint in charge he’s used ten different centre-backs. Cherchesov isn’t using the injuries as an excuse though.
“We’ve especially had to ring the changes defensively and may even change our system somewhat,” he told World Soccer. “It’s up to me, to draw the appropriate conclusions.”
“I never have worries,” he continued, “Football without injuries is not football. We have to make the best situation and put together the right squad.”
He’s an experienced coach, managing Spartak and Dynamo Moscow as well as winning a domestic double in Poland with Legia Warsaw.
Experience perhaps leads him to acknowledge his difficult situation. As the hosts, pressure is on, and yet there’s a good chance that they might fail to make it into the knockout rounds. As such, when asked about his objectives for the tournament, he has been somewhat diplomatic in his answers
“Every coach will be aiming for the same sort of steady progress,” he has said. “Step-by-step going from group stage to the knockout rounds.
“A football World Cup is like a weightlifting competition. You don’t start with the heaviest bar. First of all, you have to make sure you stay in the tournament.”
Whether Russia are expected to make it out of the group will probably depend a lot on how fit Mohamed Salah is for Egypt. Uruguay are favourites to top Group A, but second place is a tight call.
Former USSR defender Alexander Bubnov told World Soccer that “qualifying from the group will be a success, a good result. I do not feel optimistic after the Confederations Cup and the friendlies that followed.”
He also called the current side “our weakest national team in history”, so Russia don’t seem to be suffering from over-the-top expectations.
As Bubnov says, getting out of the group would be a good result, but failing to do so on their home turf will surely be a large humiliation.