Never has striking your hands together to show appreciation been more apt for a football team than with Zenit St. Petersburg in 2007-08. On their way to winning the UEFA Cup in that season, they destroyed German clubs Bayer Leverkusen 4-1 before demolishing Bayern Munich 5-1 on aggregate displaying literally breathtaking football in the process. Zenit’s grace and ability in which they swept the playing field, exchanging quick, one and two touch football, evoked memories of Russia’s great ice-hockey teams of the past, where their “clap-clap” football mimicked the way the puck used to rebound from stick to stick.
In those two games and indeed the final against Rangers, Zenit were lightning quick in not only their technique but their thinking. Using the Andrey Arshavin, the playmaking enigma and Pavel Pogrebnyak, the deceptively nimble-footed forward as the two ‘points de fixation‘ (a forward who could dictate and orientate play under pressure, and give his wing backs or wingers time to rush down their respective flanks and overrun the opposition full-backs), the Russains were able to attack the overwhelm the opposition in seconds. The full-back, Aleksandr Anyukov bombed forward all day down the right, while Denisov and Zyryranov provided the support to the roaming Pogrebnyak and Arshavin.
Dick Advocaat set his team up in a curious, asymmetric fashion. Was it a 4-4-2 or were Zenit playing with three forwards? That was the beauty of the side as it allowed them to stick to the fundamentals of ‘Total Football’; the interchanging of positions, reliance on movement, quick one-touch football and stretching and squeezing play although a more suitable comparison may be with the Dinamo Moscow side of 1945 or Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv.
Arshavin was the brains of the bunch. He was instrumental in the defeat to Leverkusen before laying off Denisov with an eye of the needle pass in the final where Zenit produced wave after wave of attacks at the Rangers goal. But they proved they were not necessarily a one man team as they defeated Bayern without the soon to be departed conductor. (His influence was very apparent, however, in the following year’s Champions League campaign where Arshavin made the most key passes in the first group stage but was not enough for the Russian side despite out playing both Real Madrid and Juventus). It was Anatoliy Tymoshuk who was superb against the Bavarian club and who he later earned a move to. The sweeper role may have disappeared but the Shakespeare-quoting Ukrainian translated that role higher up the pitch and if Arshavin was the metronome, he was the ticker.
Zenit added the Super Cup in 2008 with a 2-1 win against Manchester but unrest in the camp meant they were not able to build on what was to be a promising period for Eastern European football with Zenit as the flag bearers. They have since hired Luciano Spalletti, the pioneer of ‘strikerless’ football to put the side back on track but for one and a half years, it was Dick Advocaat who was able to rekindle the dormant flame of Russian ‘Total Football’.
Defining moment: Zenit 2-0 Rangers (UEFA Cup final, 2008) Goals: Denisov 72, Zyryanov 90.
Zenit St Petersburg (4-3-3): Malafeev, Aniukov, Krizanac, Shirokov, Sirl, Tymoschuk, Zyryanov, Denisov, Faitzulin (Kim 90), Tekke, Arshavin.
Subs Not Used: Contofalsky, Radimov, Dominguez, Ricksen, Ionov, Gorshkov.
Arshavin was the hub of the side, just as Johan Cruyff was from the left hand side of the system.