There are few things that offer you comfort and warmth like a mother’s embrace. It gives you reassurance that everything will be alright and no matter what others say, you feel safe and calm regardless of the pressures that life brings.
Mother Russia embraced a philosophy. A philosophy that is as simple aesthetically as it is complex in its execution; with concentration and sacrifice required to eke out the necessary result. But her sons felt comfortable in that embrace. They felt no real danger. And it is because of this why the hosts of an increasingly entertaining yet unpredictable World Cup are in the quarterfinals. Against Spain, no less!
Russia’s greatest footballing achievement in international football really doesn’t need any great summation. They possessed the ball a whopping 26% of the time, with Spain completing more than five times as many passes. Before a ball was kicked, you knew exactly what Russia’s game plan would be without the need for analysis. They were going to put 10 behind the ball, keep their shape, expose the 2010 world champions’ lack of width and hope to get a golden chance or two to make their leaky defence pay.
That’s kind of what happened. Truth be told, Spain did nothing to break down Russia’s staunch rearguard until extra time. Lots of sideways passes, no one other than Isco trying to open up lanes for his forward line to exploit, no penetration from deep-lying positions, nothing. Russia didn’t even seem too exhausted by the time the penalty shootout came around. The game was played into their hands, partially due to their dedication and hard work, but also because of Spain’s lack of ideas and ingenuity. Golovin’s lung-busting effort on both sides of the ball, Sergei Ignashevich bouncing back from an unfortunate own goal and everyone’s favourite goalkeeper in Football Manager, Igor Akinfeev, putting forth one of his best international performances were notable markers of their strong work behind the halfway line.
Aleksandr Golovin vs Spain
82% pass accuracy
2 dribbles won
6 tackles won
Amazing amount of defensive work – complete player. 🇷🇺 pic.twitter.com/stH84yXImb
— FootballTalentScout (@FTalentScout) July 1, 2018
However, in spite of the communication needed for this defence to stay so disciplined throughout, it was a man of few words that was Russia’s standout player. Brazilian-born CSKA Moscow right back, Mario Fernandes, has lived in Russia since 2012, yet only knows how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ in his adopted tongue. The world has certainly been getting a taste of just how talented the 27-year-old is with his smart overlapping runs and game-reading abilities making him a strong contender to make the team of the tournament. His work in this game was admirable and may win him a few eyeballs from scouts at bigger European clubs.
Russia is quite restricted in terms of what the can offer going forward. Yet they have netted nine times in four games, so something must be working.
Aside from Denis Cheryshev – who surprisingly didn’t start this game – the hosts have little-resembling versatility or agility in their forward line. Arsenal (Tula not London) striker, Artem Dzyuba, personifies this to a tee. His soldier’s salute after each of his three goals this campaign is fitting given the fact he goes to war everytime he steps on the field. The former Zenit St. Petersburg frontman is a battering ram who uses his obvious physical traits to win long balls, lay those balls off to supporting runners with his head or chest and makes himself a nuisance in the penalty box. He gave Pique and Ramos fits in the air when he could and was key in winning the spot-kick he would convert at the end of the first half.
Russia’s strikers over the years have been more about spells than consistency like Pavlyuchenko and Salenko before him. They will need the good bits of the 29-year-old Dzyuba to shine through if this fairytale is to continue.
Icing on the Cake
Let’s face it. Anything on top of this achievement for Russia is a bonus. Many were expecting this team’s journey to begin and end in the first round, let alone lose to Spain. Now that they’re here, and backed by vociferous home support, they might as well make the best of it. Especially when you consider they’re on the far more palatable side of the bracket.
Next up is Croatia, who needed Danijel Subašić‘s heroics to pull them out of the fire against a stubborn Denmark side. Of course, you’d still favour the Croats. But if Russia can devise another defensive masterclass while muzzling Modrić and Rakitić like the Danes did for the most part on Sunday, they have a chance. Unlike Spain though, expect Croatia to be more direct. Stanislav Cherchesov‘s side will need to make their counterattack count and get Golovin up the pitch in dangerous positions as often as they can during their limited spells with the ball.
After battering the Saudis and Egyptians with aplomb, Mother Russia has embraced a much more rugged style that’s got them to unchartered territory. Just maybe, if they keep this up, there will be a lot more hugs coming for her children on Saturday.