Despite widespread pessimism across the nation, Russia opened the 2018 World Cup with a huge 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia in front of a packed Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Thursday.
It was a significant win for the Russians, who boosted their chances of progressing to the round of 16 with the lopsided victory.
Here are some winners and losers from the tournament’s opening game.
The Russian attack was unstoppable and Aleksandr Golovin was the main reason.
The 22-year-old attacker scored a delightful free kick and contributed two assists with a pair of wonderful crosses from either flank. Golovin was especially dominant on the left wing in the opening 25 minutes, as he consistently exploited the acres of open space behind the Saudi fullbacks.
— Mundo Hinchadas (@MundoHincha) June 14, 2018
However, when Alan Dzagoev exited with an injury, substitute Denis Cheryshev moved to the left and Golovin occupied the No. 10 role. That tactical switch gave him even more creative freedom.
Most impressively, Golovin was astute defensively. He tracked back to create two compact lines to restrict space, completing four tackles and three interceptions in the process.
Aleksandr Golovin (22) vs Saudi Arabia.
Key Passes: 5
Duels (won): 21 (7)
Dribbled past: 2
Accurate passes: 25 (71.4%)
Man of the match:
Ladies and Gentlemen Aleksandr Golovin. pic.twitter.com/MrZ1JsUjSv
— SidelineScouted (@SidelineScouted) June 14, 2018
The Russian pressing
That defensive commitment from the attackers exemplified Russia’s tactical game plan. One of the team’s supposed weaknesses entering the World Cup was its defence due to rampant injuries. The centre-back depth was so thin that 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich had to come out of international retirement.
However, thanks to the Russian’s pressing from the midfield and forwards, Ignashevich and Ilya Kutepov – who only has eight caps for Russia – were barely tested.
Saudi Arabia only completed 73 per cent of their passes and did not have a single shot on target. Russia won an astounding 80 duels, most of them in the middle third or final third. Those recoveries eventually led to the hosts’ first four goals.
It will be a much stiffer test against a taller side like Uruguay, who can beat that press with a more direct style of play. Saudi Arabia is the shortest team at the tournament, so it will be intriguing to see if it pays off against the Uruguayans.
The overall tournament atmosphere
Typically, when the host nation performs well and the fans are optimistic, the tournament benefits as a whole.
That’s why this win was vital for Russia. There was low confidence in the national team due to injuries and coach Stanislav Cherchesov experimenting with his tactics right before the tournament.
Even if Russia does not progress to the knockout stage, a win of this magnitude gives hope to the fans and improves the atmosphere across the host cities.
Juan Antonio Pizzi
Saudi Arabia is a side that, sometimes stubbornly, sticks to its attack-minded ways.
Thursday’s match would have been an ideal time to stray away from that style of play.
It was clear that Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side was disorganized positionally and engulfed by Russia’s intense pressing. The Argentine coach did very little to fix those issues during the game.
Fullbacks Mohammed Al-Burayk and Yasir Al-Shahrani were constantly pushed high up the pitch, which allowed the likes of Golovin, Cheryshev and Aleksandr Samedov to run in behind on the counter.
Additionally, the team was far too narrow and compact, which meant it was easier for the Russians to break up the passing sequences.
Pizzi has now coached 11 games for Saudi Arabia since taking over in Nov. 2017. He’s lost six of those matches, and the team is on a run of four straight defeats. The Argentine has to think of a more conservative approach if the Saudis hope to advance to the knockout stage.
Saudi ball movement
One way to penetrate compact defensive lines is to move into those pockets of space and quick decision-making.
Neither of those traits were present for Saudi Arabia.
Any time a player wanted to pass, no one was showing for it or making a run. For a side that is very technically gifted, it was an alarming trend throughout the game.
The players appeared overawed by the occasion, so perhaps they will be more settled against Uruguay.
Saudi Arabia’s knockout hopes
When a team loses its first match at a World Cup, it usually signifies a group stage exit.
Since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, there have been 60 losses for countries in their opening matches. Only seven of those sides advanced to the round of 16.
The fact Saudi Arabia lost by five goals also hurts its goal difference, the first tiebreaker in the group stage. Barring at least a four-point haul and a whack of goals, The Green Falcons might be staring at an early elimination at this World Cup.