Andrey Arshavin was amazing last night. But then when you give Andrey Arshavin space, that should be surprising to no-one. What’s worth looking at is the hopeless state of what the Czech Republic turned up to try and achieve.
Michel Bilek set the Czechs up as an attack-minded 3-5-1-1 with two wing backs and Rosicky in the hole behind Baros, and they started off well enough, finding space down the wings. The Czechs supplied 16 crosses with a one in four accuracy rate, compared to Russia’s 9 with a one in nine accuracy rate (ironically, the only successful one supplied the second goal).
This might have been enough had this been the days of Jan Koller terrorising centre backs - but the miscalculated risks taken by the two wing backs (Michal Kadlec on the left and Theodor Gebre-Selassie on the right) to supply this kind of concerted service turned out to have lost the Czechs the game before half time. It’s a basic requirement of the wing backs in a 3-5-2 that they are athletic enough to quickly revert to a 5-3-2 and kill the possibility of counter attacks getting into space in behind , but against Russia’s dynamic attacking four, what repeatedly happened was Kadlec and Gebre-Selassie being caught hopelessly far up the park, resulting in countless situations when the Russians got in behind the midfield line and exploited it painfully. The situation was so obvious, so uncomplicated to fix, that it was painful to watch the inevitability of the simple, slicing Russian moves that created chance after chance. This was the first goal -
Russia were allowed to get into a 4 on 4 situation which quickly and easily turned into a 2-on-1 at the back post - the overlap on the right resulted in a perfect cross from Zyryanov which should have been converted in the first place, and the Czechs, caught on the back foot, had no hope of defending the second phase of the attack. Alan Dzagoev scored ridiculously easily from the rebound off the post.
The second goal was much the same -
This time it was 4-on-3, and as long as Arshavin opted to switch the play from left to the far right to meet Shirokov’s well-timed run, unseen, the goal was a formality.
The Czechs did eventually pull a goal back and started vaguely threatening an equaliser, but the isolation of the strikers meant that they were incapable of applying any concerted pressure through the middle of the Russian defence. This was especially ironic as the goal came from a precise Rosicky through ball that split the back four and found Vaclav Pilar in space who rounded Malafeev and finished really well. The only time the Czechs tested the centre halves directly with simple passing and well-timed running, they scored.
Unfortunately, the all-too-rare risk-taking of the Czechs wasn’t matched with any sort of dynamism or invention coming in off the wings to support Rosicky’s mainly fruitless attempts to draw defenders out of the back line, and in any case, the Russians proved equally adept at simply splitting the Czech back line and finishing the game off with an embarrassingly straight through ball finding Dzagoev, being played haplessly and inexplicably onside by Hubnik.
The Czech reliance on wing backs driving forward resulted in a lot of room in the middle of the park, the flat defensive three were exposed time and again, and Russia ran riot. This was not the Andrei Arshavin I’m used to being infuriated by - but then this was not at all the same footballing context as the Premier League, and very few teams come out as badly drilled while trying to play a fluid, expressive system as the Czechs did last night. They got it badly, painfully, and fundamentally wrong, and when the problem of the AWOL wing backs was addressed, Russia had an equally simple plan B. I don’t expect this kind of winning margin very often in this tournament, but Russia were worth it and more.