Zenit St Petersburg: Is An Argentine Revolution The answer?

Alex Caple

It’s quite a long time now since Zenit became relevant in European football, by football standards anyway. Gazprom took over the club in 2005, injected more money than sense, and Zenit were suddenly something of a threat. While it’s a nice change of pace that the mountains of cash were from natural gas and not oil (although admittedly that’s trying very hard to find a change of pace), they’re still a club with a heavily manufactured appeal – like a PSG-lite. Their latest plan, however, comes from a little further afield – 8,000 miles further to be precise.

It’s easy to see the growth of Zenit after Gazprom got involved. By the time the company took over, Zenit had one league title (won as a Soviet Top Division) in 1984, and the biggest impact they’d had internationally was an Intertoto Cup runner-up finish in 2000. Just three years with Gazprom had them showing off a Russian Premier League and UEFA Cup in their trophy cabinet. And more has followed, naturally, with Russian Cups and three more league titles.

Those all came with money being spent, as we know – not too much at first, but by 2012 the club was spending big to attract in-demand players like Axel Witsel and Hulk. Still, the elite status that was craved has never come. Multiple managers have tried – Dick Advocaat, Luciano Spalletti, Andres Villas-Boas and Mircea Lucescu to be precise – but they’ve sat and watched while the likes of PSG and Man City spent bigger and gained relevancy. Now they’ll try something different.

The new manager in charge is Roberto Mancini, someone who certainly knows all about spending large amounts of money and finding success, but Zenit are spending big in a different way. Rather than dangling money in front of the eyes of an expensive prospect in Europe, Zenit have instead invested young and Argentine. It’s a move that comes a little out of left-field, with there not being any real reputation for Argentine’s in Russia, nor is there an Argentine running things. Mancini believes, for whatever reason, that players from the River Plate suit Russian football.

And maybe he’s right. Argentine’s have quite a unique reputation in the world game for creating players who are skillful but resolute, willing to fight and do what it takes to succeed. That’s in contrast to the usual method of buying South Americans that sees Brazilians flock to a club en masse and then perhaps not all having the right attitude for it – Brazilians have a different philosophy about winning, after all.

It’s obviously quite a risk to spend a considerable amount of money on young players, but then a proper contingent of one nationality should, in theory, help them all settle and develop. And there’s an incredible amount of potential there.

Leandro Peredes joined for what might become €27m from Roma, Matías Kranevitter for an undisclosed fee from Atletico Madrid, and Emanuel Mammana for €16m from Lyon. That’s three players with experience in three of Europe’s biggest leagues, none of whom are over 24. It’s interesting business, and seems sensible enough, with all three being rated highly enough that Roma, Lyon, and Atletico thought to bring them over. The most interesting, however, are the next two.

Independiente, one of the five Grandes of Argentina, have enjoyed a revival in recent years. Their performances last season saw them finish just one point short of qualification for the Copa Libertadores, and that was largely down to the performances in midfield of Emiliano Rigoni. Rigoni is slightly older than the usual South American export, being 24 already, but 11 goals from midfield saw Independiente eager to get him to sign a new deal. Rigoni had deliberately put off the talks, however, knowing that a pay rise would come with a larger release clause. He bet on himself and won – securing a move to Zenit for just €9.5m.

The highlight of Zenit’s Argentines is undoubtedly Sebastián Driussi. The striker was the second top scorer in Argentina last season, scoring 17 goals at just 21 years old. But that’s half the story. He’s been in River Plate’s first team for years now, and has already tasted success in the Argentina League, Copa Argentina, Copa Sudamericana, Copa Libertadores, and Recopa Sudamericana – again, he’s just 21. To pick that kind of potential up for €15m is quite simply staggering in a world where Gylfi Sigurðsson costs £45m.

Time will tell whether Zenit have invested well. It’s been apparent for years that there is no sure thing when signing young players from South America, and even talent like Javier Saviola can end up not quite succeeding. It’s certainly a much more interesting philosophy than the one usually taken by resource-rich clubs, though, and one that may see Zenit finally join the elite in five years time. It’ll bring in a stylish brand of football, too, and that’s something that Zenit are hoping will attract more Russian fans – South American flair with Russian doggedness, what’s not to love?

Not that everyone is happy about it. Some people would prefer something a little closer to home.

“You’ve got eight foreigners running across the pitch, playing for Zenit in the Europa League, well done,”

Vladimir Putin

Maybe it’s not a long-term strategy then.

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