Auxerre 2 – 0 Zenit St. Petersburg: Speed on the counter and defensive discipline

Zenit had a slight advantage heading into France but Auxerre were always going to have a good chance with their defensive record and all they theoretically needed was a single goal to go through. In the opening leg Zenit bombed midfielders forward so it would be interesting to see how Auxerre dealt with it. An interesting selection by Spalletti was to play the usually attack minded Semak in a holding role. Meanwhile Jean Fernandez brought in the right footed Contout for Birsa on the left wing.

Auxerre scored a quick goal, just eight minutes in when a quick ball out to the right earned them a corner. Pedretti flighted in a great ball where an unmarked Hengbart, who would go on to have a fantastic match, headed home powerfully. Questions will surely be asked of Zenit’s marking on the goal and their lack of men on posts although it was probably too high to be cleared.

Offensively Zenit were extremely fluid. Danny and Bystrov both played centrally when the Russians had the ball with Danny having license to roam wherever he wanted as the diagram shows. Bystrov usually chose a direct route to goal to help support Kerzhakov and Zyryanov, Shirokov, and at times even Semak burst forward to support the attack. The flip side of this is that when Zenit lost the ball it was difficult for them to get back in their defensive shape. Ideally it looked like Spalletti wanted his men to line up in a flat 4-1-4-1 when Auxerre had the ball but the home team countered, spraying the ball wide where Danny and Bystrov were supposed to be and where their quickest players, Contout, Oliech, and Jelen were.

In possession Le Tallec often found himself near Semak, and in truth the former Liverpool midfielder didn’t have a great offensive game and his best contribution was pressing the deep lying midfielder. Zenit had their players make unpredictable runs and as a Russian squad it is tempting to compare it to the organized disorder of Boris Arkadiev’s sides of the 30s and 40s. Players ran into zones you wouldn’t expect and suddenly Mignot found himself marking Danny or Pedretti would run into Semak. Jean Fernandez seemed to tell his team to keep their shape no matter what, so while Zenit were unable to drag defenders out of their zones this left Auxerre somewhat predictable and Danny was able to find space rather easily between the two bands of four. Zenit’s best chance of the first half came from a run from Semak, Le Tallec clearly not comfortable tracking him back into the Auxerre half, and the ball broke to Kerzhakov who probably should have had a penalty awarded to him.

Meanwhile Auxerre were intent to work the ball down the left flank. Whereas in the first leg Jelen drifted to the right in this leg he lingered to his left. This opened up space in the middle which Le Tallec failed to fill but the inverted Contout was more than happy to cut in. In truth Auxerre never really looked like they wanted to get the ball to Oliech out wide and Contout was having some degree of success on the left wing, but the second half showed Danny’s frailty in defense.

The second half actually started with a great chance from the visitors, it was again an unexpected run untracked by Auxerre that did the damage, Zyryanov overloading a zone usually inhabited only by Bystrov. This allowed Bystrov some space and he burst forward in a trademark direct run to goal only to be saved well by Sorin who had a confident match.

Auxerre answered back quickly, and the goal was very similar to their first. A quick counter down Auxerre’s right left Oliech one on one with Hubocan and the winger earned his side a corner. It is hard to blame Danny for not providing Hubocan with defensive help, he is after all the playmaker of the side given a free role, and with Semak and Shirokov the other two midfielders who are supposed to provide cover Hubocan was always going to be exposed. The corner was simple, Pedretti another fine delivery, Coulibaly rose to flick it on and the agile Jelen hit a smashing volley to give Auxerre the aggregate lead. Spalletti clearly needs to sort out his side on corners as it is one of the reasons they lost out on Champions League football.

Spalletti did decide to change things soon after, Danko Lazovic coming on for Zyryanov. It is a change this author agreed with, it moved Danny to the centre and Lazovic played wide left as Zenit lined up in what looked like a 4-2-3-1 shape. This put less defensive responsibility on Danny’s shoulders but we were unable to see the ramifications of the switch because of the red card to Malafeev.

It sounds like a broken record at this point but the move started off a counter attack down the right. Pedretti slipped a ball to Jelen down the right wing who had acres of space as Zenit pushed for the away goal. Oliech had made a fine run down the centre and Jelen played a superb ball to him. Anyukov and Malafeev rushed out to meet it and it seemed as if Malafeev was already sliding when Anyukov nudged it. The keeper made a fine save, the only problem was he was 20 yards outside his box. A legitimate red card for hand ball destroyed the tactics for Spalletti, but again Zenit’s backline was exposed as a quick pass to the wide area from deep caught them out. Zenit kept a sort of 4-2-2-1 after the red card as Birsa came on for Le Tallec. Birsa manned the left wing as Contout slipped in behind Jelen, but at this point the rest of the game was disjointed and predictable. Surprisingly Auxerre found it difficult to keep possession, even after Hubocan’s red card. In truth Hubocan didn’t do anything malicious all match but the two yellows show just how exposed he was. Zenit resorted to hitting high, hopeful balls into Auxerre’s area and actually had a couple decent half chances, but the confidence of Coulibaly and Sorin in the air was enough to see the stalwart French side through to the Champions League proper.

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One response to “Auxerre 2 – 0 Zenit St. Petersburg: Speed on the counter and defensive discipline

  1. Very well thoughtout argument.

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