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Putting the ID in Leonid

Putting the ID in Leonid

James Appell on 20 October 2011

CSKA coach Leonid Slutsky is a rare and complicated character as football managers go, but after a bad start to the season he finds himself under pressure.

One of the great comic works of Russian literature - despite the fact that Russian authors tend to do torment far better than comedy - is a 19th-century play by Nikolay Gogol entitled Revizor, often translated as The Government Inspector.

The play revolves around a stranger, Khlestyakov, who arrives in a small Russian town and whom the inhabitants assume to be an inspector from St Petersburg. Each resident tries to outdo the next in cosying up to the visitor, who gladly joins in with the whole charade. Only when the real government inspector arrives do the townspeople realise they have been duped - by which point our hero is long gone and the town is in total disarray.

Mistaken identity isn’t often an issue in football - the curious case of Ali Dia notwithstanding - but there are some in Russia who feel that CSKA head coach Leonid Slutsky, like Gogol’s character Khlestakov, is one man who isn’t entirely as he seems.

Since arriving at CSKA in October 2009, Slutsky has presided over a serious improvement in results at the Army club. Not that he had a difficult act to follow - Juande Ramos managed just six weeks in the hot seat, and Ramos’ predecessor Zico fared only marginally better when given nine months. CSKA finished the 2009 season fifth in the league and mired in mediocrity.

But after a second-place finish in 2010, and a hugely impressive start to the 2011-12 season in which CSKA topped the standings going into the summer recess, Slutsky was the toast of Russia. Already considered one of (if not the) most promising coaches in Russia, many were already anointing him as the first in a generation of Russian coaches who might be considered for top jobs outside their country of birth.

Fast forward to today, however, and with the onset of winter in Moscow opinion concerning Slutsky’s achievements has chilled somewhat.

Knocked off the top of the league by Zenit, CSKA have just two wins in their last nine games in all competitions, stretching back to the end of August. The reverberations from a 4-0 home reverse against city rivals Dinamo last month can still be felt, with confidence at the club looking fragile. Only this weekend, the team contrived to throw away a 2-0 home lead over struggling Terek to draw 2-2.

Even scratching beneath the surface of an apparently comprehensive 3-0 win over Trabzonspor in the Champions League on Wednesday you see some of the cracks. The Turkish side enjoyed 57% of possession in Moscow, enjoyed as many shots on goal as their hosts, and were hard done by the scoreline. It’s a truism, but had Trabzonspor possessed a strike partnership the likes of CSKA’s Seydou Doumbia and Vagner Love, this would have been as comprehensive an away win.

Admittedly injuries have decimated the club. Igor Akinfeev, Keisuke Honda and Tomas Necid have all suffered long-term knee injuries. At right-back Slutsky has acute selection problems, with Georgi Shchennikov only just returning from a long lay-off, and Kirill Nababkin out injured. Against Trabzonspor 19-year-old Semen Fedotov deputised, starting his first ever Champions League match.

But the criticism goes further than mere results. The treatment room at CSKA is a cause for concern, but Slutsky’s problems might have been tempered a little had the coach not totally frozen out Chidi Odiah, an able deputy on the right of defence or midfield, who has been told he should look for a new club, despite the January transfer window being more than a month away.

Meanwhile a number of internal disputes at the club - and Slutsky’s handling of them - have raised questions about the coach’s mettle. It began with the Russian Cup Final in May, when Slutsky substituted midfielder Alan Dzagoev with an hour gone, only to find himself on the end of a verbal tirade from the player. The coach sent Dzagoev to train with the youth team, but things were quickly patched up and the player returned, apparently with greater motivation.

Next to cross the disciplinary boundary was midfielder Pavel Mamaev, who was sent to the reserves for a reason as yet unspecificed by Slutsky. Suddenly, though, he was back, starting the match against Trabzonspor as if nothing untoward had occurred.

Add to this a number of outbursts from another midfielder, Keisuke Honda, who for much of last season repeatedly voiced his unhappiness about the system he was forced to play in by Slutsky, and the perennial sulking of Vagner Love (who, president Evgeny Giner confirmed, is to leave the club this winter), and you get the impression of a man who lacks control over his dressing-room.

Rumours abound that CSKA’s senior players - Akinfeev, the Berezutsky twins, Sergey Ignashevich - hold the power within the club, and that Slutsky is a mere figurehead. His success, many are now arguing, is down to a combination of good players and good luck rather than good managerial skills. Others suggest that, because of his mishandling of the dressing-room, he is heading for the sack.

So which is the real Leonid Slutsky - the talented young manager, or the paper tiger?

Truthfully, Slutsky isn’t quite as he seems. His job title may be head coach of one of Europe’s biggest clubs (CSKA are 20th in the latest UEFA rankings), but he doesn’t look or act like one. Unlike the suave confidence of Spartak’s Valery Karpin or Zenit’s Luciano Spalletti, Slutsky appears to have no airs and graces. He is nervous in front of the camera, he rocks back and forth on the bench during matches - in short, he reminds fans of themselves.

Journalists also see something of themselves in him - not least because, after leaving school with excellent qualifications, he briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a hack. But he is also frank and honest in interviews, and doesn’t deal in the snide cynicism of many of his peers.

Much of this is probably down to his path into coaching. A promising youth footballer, his career was ruined when, aged 19, he offered to help a neighbour retrieve her cat from a tree (“that’s another one of my problems, I find it hard to say no,” he admitted when talking about the incident). He fell, suffered a serious leg break, and would never play again. (The cat was fine, incidentally.)

From there he went into youth coaching, an arena far-removed from the hard-headedness of the Russian Premier League. Perhaps that explains his amiability. It may also mean that, having spent years dealing with children, Slutsky finds it difficult to deal with the much more complex personalities of adult footballers. In a recent interview for Russian television, Slutsky himself alluded to this difference.

“For me, my work isn’t just a crude profession, it comes from the heart,” he said. “Naturally in a big club, where everything is more professional, things work differently.

“For example, I had a conversation with [Milos] Krasic, who left us to go to Juventus. He told me a story about how he didn’t know the language when he first arrived. He called [Hasan] Salihamadzic from a restaurant, told him he couldn’t order anything and asked him to speak to the waitress and order for him.

“Salihamadzic told him: ‘Listen mate, when we’re on the training ground I’m happy to help you. But not now. Sort it out yourself.’ That’s professionalism - in our club there is a good atmosphere, but this kind of warm, family environment just can’t happen in a big club.”

All of which suggests that, while Slutsky is certainly no imposter - far from it, for he remains, to my estimation, the brightest coach in Russia today - his personality doesn’t quite fit with that of his peers, many of whom graduated from multi-millionaire player to multi-millionaire coach.

For all that, let’s not be too harsh on him. Few teams could cope with the number of injuries to important players which CSKA have had to endure. And every club has its disciplinary issues - only recently, for example, midfielder Aleksey Ionov gave the lie to Zenit’s image as a tight ship when he was photographed, cigarette in hand, at a nightclub.

Besides which, CSKA are still just two points behind Zenit in the title race, and are well-placed to progress in Europe. Fans should consider the consequences of heaping pressure on Slutsky to leave. After all, in Gogol’s The Government Inspector, it is the townspeople who end up in a mess - while Khlestakov walks happily off into the sunset.

James Appell is a respected member of's football writing team and has a penchant for all things Eastern European.


Good reading. One thing that springs out of the article: stats aside, what kind of standard is Chidi Odiah? Is he the kind of player mid-ranking Premier League clubs should be having a sniff around?
by mintness on 21 October 2011 at 03:34 AM

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