- Gazinskiy (12)
- Cheryshev (43, 90+1)
- Dzyuba (71)
- Golovin (90+4)
World Cup – Group A, June 14 2018
Russia recorded the biggest host-nation victory in the opening game of a World Cup since 1934 by thrashing Saudi Arabia in front of president Vladimir Putin at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. It had been seven games since Stanislav Cherchesov’s team had tasted victory, but the pressure didn’t get to a set of players rarely tested by a largely hopeless Saudi Arabia side. Here, our professional coaches analyse the tactics and key moments as this summer’s tournament got under way.
Shots / On target
Passes / Accurate
Fouls / Yellow / Red
Host nation Russia began the game in a frantic manner, desperately trying to impress the home crowd – including president Vladimir Putin – and the entire nation watching at home.
It was evident from the start that Russia would look to exploit Saudi Arabia with direct long balls into their lone striker, Fyodor Smolov. Despite losing out to many of the initial first headers, Smolov often regained the ball during the second phase. The Saudi defensive and midfield lines were too far apart, which created ample space in which to regain control of the loose ball.
Russia’s directness and vertical passing created various half-chances in the opening 10 minutes, as they looked for an early goal – and it didn’t take long before the home crowd were on their feet.
A routine corner wasn’t effectively cleared by the Saudi back line, and a return chip into the penalty area found midfielder Yuri Gazinskiy, who had steered clear of his defensive marker. A powerful header back across goal put the hosts ahead just after the 10-minute mark.
Russia’s long balls continued to cause havoc, as their three midfield runners managed to claim the majority of the second balls across the Saudi midfield. Defensively, they set up using a mid-block, which foiled any attempts of progression from the visitors.
Alan Dzagoev was forced off with a suspected hamstring injury and his replacement, Denis Cheryshev, added more directness and penetration to the Russia attack. Just before half-time, it was Cheryshev who doubled their lead.
A direct ball in behind for Smolov was poorly dealt with by the Saudi back line. The defenders seemed unaware that Cheryshev was patiently waiting on the edge of the penalty area. As the ball was slid across, a beautiful feint sold the onrushing Saudi defenders. Cheryshev faced up the goalkeeper and smashed the ball home, giving Russia a healthy half-time lead.
Throughout the second half, Russia saw much less of the ball, but were equally comfortable in defence. There was some confusion for a brief period, as they looked unsure whether to convert into a 4-2-3-1 shape or a traditional 4-4-2 when they lost possession. This temporarily enabled Saudi Arabia to build in wide areas and deliver low crosses across goal.
Powerful substitute Artem Dzyuba added a third with a well-timed header – his first touch after coming on to the field. Dzyuba also enabled Russia to slow down the tempo of the game, holding the ball away from defenders and subsequently running down the clock by drawing needless fouls.
Russia added their fourth and fifth goals in added time. Cheryshev got his second with the pick of the goals, latching on to a Dzyuba flick on and expertly guiding the ball home with the outside of his boot. The impressive Aleksandr Golovin completed the rout with a well-placed free-kick.
A perfect start for the hosts, and with a solid goal difference after only one game, they look in pole position to grab either of the two qualifying spots.
Russia alternated between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 defensive shape. An early injury to Alan Dzagoev forced the host nation to edit their shape, as Aleksandr Golovin moved into a central position when out of possession.
Russia used a 4-2-3-1 structure when attacking the Saudi Arabia defence. Utilising long balls forward, they had three runners from midfield to support lone striker Fyodor Smolov.
In possession, Saudi Arabia tried to push their full-backs high, with various midfielders running in behind. They struggled to find these runs, however, as they couldn’t penetrate Russia’s congested block.
Key spaces in between Saudi Arabia’s defensive lines were not well protected. The direct balls forward worked so well for Russia, as they had large spaces in which to win the majority of the loose second balls.
When defending, Saudi Arabia used a 4-1-4-1 shape. Defensive midfielder Abdullah Ateef often found himself having to cover large spaces, as the Russian forward line easily penetrated the midfield line.
A key difference between the two sides was the effectiveness during attacking transitions. Unlike Russia, Saudi Arabia were lethargic and ill-timed, and too often passed the ball backwards or sideways. Russia were able to recover back into their block all too easily.
Analysis: Saudi Arabia
Having only won two World Cup matches in their history, Saudi Arabia faced the daunting task of dealing with the host nation on the opening night.
Despite having a fair share of possession throughout the first half, the Saudi midfield lacked inventiveness, creativity and any real spark to ignite their attacking front line.
They couldn’t break down the Russian defensive block, and therefore looked to build using the wide areas. Both full-backs sporadically adventured forward, but with a lack of penetrative passing from the midfield they often found themselves desperately recovering back to halt the menacing Russian counter-attack.
To their credit, they tried to build possession from deep, aiming to lure Russian players out of their solid defensive structure. However, with two central defenders unable to accurately pass the ball into a congested area, progress was limited at best.
Their possession, although consistent, ultimately achieved nothing. In the end, the goalkeeper resorted to longer and more direct balls from deep, which the Russian back line comfortably dealt with.
The visitors’ misery continued in the second half, as the Russian forwards began to anticipate Saudi Arabia’s short build-up play. The hosts applied more pressure when the back line were in possession, which again forced the goalkeeper into longer, meaningless balls forward.
As Russia gradually backed off – sensing they should protect what they have – Saudi Arabia’s possession began to move up the pitch. However, their lack of disguise, deception and trickery in possession was again evident. In a desperate plea to attack, multiple central midfielders made penetrating runs forward from deep, hoping to receive in behind the Russian block. The balls never came, however.
Even when the visitors had the opportunity to counter-attack from deep, they were lethargic, often bouncing the ball backwards with minimal efforts to vertically penetrate. The Saudi front line rarely attempted to roll or spin their marker, or even excite with dribbles and runs forward with the ball.
Constant sideways and backwards passes from the midfield unit nullified their own attacks – often without even realising it. With central defenders uncomfortable in possession, Saudi Arabia couldn’t penetrate with accurate long balls either – the Russian defensive block was patient and ready to pounce when the Saudi back line inevitably gave away possession.
Russia’s third goal killed off any dwindling hopes of a dramatic late comeback, and the two goals conceded in injury time only damaged morale further.