United’s reward for overcoming St Etienne in the first knock-out round of this season’s Europa League is a trip to Russia and a tie against FC Rostov. Rostov are in the Europa League after their elimination from the pre-Christmas stages of the Campions League. The finished last season as Russian Premier League runners-up which earned them a place in the qualifying rounds where they won through two tricky rounds against Anderlecht and Ajax to secure a place in Champions’ League Group D, considered by some to be this years “Group of Death”. They were eliminated from that group having finished third behind Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich but they earned praise for some solid performances and despite losing 1-5 in Munich managed to beat Bayern in Russia 3-2. More of that result later.

Some History

FC Rostov were funded in 1930. There original name was Selmashstroy but they have had four other names during their history before settling on their current name. For most of the Soviet era the club played their football in lower Russian leagues although they did have a spell in the Soviet First League in the second half of the 1960’s having gained promotion to that senior level in 1964. They slip back into the lower leagues in the early 1970’s but managed to regain a place in the Soviet Premier League in 1985.

This was good timing and they were able to maintain this place until the disintegration of that league with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. A strong fourth place finish in the last Soviet season saw them awarded a place in the newly formed Russian Premier League for the 1992-93 season. They have been relegated twice from this division although have bounced back on both occasions at the first attempt.

Last year’s second place finish was their highest ever placing in the senior Russian league. The club has won one major honour in their history, the 2013-14 Russian Cup when they defeated FC Krasnodar 6-5 on penalties.

Strategic Approach

Current coach Ivan Daniliants took over from Kurban Berdyev in September. The two men had previously worked together at Rubam Kazan when that side won two Russian Premier Leagues in 2008 and 2009 under Berdyev’s stewardship. Berdyyev was appointed at Rostov in December 2014. He managed to keep the side in the Russian Premier League via a play-off victory in his first season and despite financial difficulties which saw the club struggle to pay players last season achieved the remarkable achievement of their runners-up finish. Currently he is not only  a Rostov’s coach but also their vice-president having been appointed to that role in September last year after returning to the club after resigning in August. Ivan Daniliants is now the head coach, assisted in effect by his vice-president!

Rostov's basic shape in their victory over Bayern Munich

Rostov’s basic shape in their victory over Bayern Munich

His side is a big, strong and well organised side although essentially a defensive side. There are three key features to their strategic approach. Firstly they adopt a 5-3-2 shape. This works in a number of ways but essentially in their defensive phase of play the midfield three will tend to stay compact and leave space in the wide areas. At all cost they will attempt to deny you space in the centre and an opportunity to attack through the spine or even the half spaces. Once you have pushed the ball wide, typically to your full backs they will then press you. This press will be carried out by the two forwards and the outer midfield player on the side of the pitch you have pushed the ball over to. These three players will attempt to create a rough triangle to isolate the ball carrier. The key to overcoming this is to switch the ball quickly or to triangulate passes between deep midfield players and centre backs in an attempt to draw Rostov into pressing in the centre. Rostov will not want to press in the centre as this would require the middle player in their midfield three moving forward and leaving a hole behind him.

The two other features of Rostov’s approach relate to the transitions. The first is the attacking transition. As their shape is essentially narrow they need to rely on their full backs to provide attacking width. When they win the ball one of their full backs will move forward and their defensive line will pivot, adjusting to maintain a four man defence. They generally look to break quickly with the two strikers making direct forward runs onto early vertical passes from the deep.

In their defensive transitions they try to win the ball back early. To use the fashionable language of the day they counter-press confident that they have maintained a strong four man defensive shape even as they attacked. If they don’t win the ball back quickly they will quickly drop back into their 5-3-2 defensive shape.

Current Season

The Russian Premier League only started up again last weekend after their winter break, but Rostov celebrated their return to football with a 6-0 away win at Tom Tomsk. They currently sit fifth in their domestic league and are unbeaten at home. They are in fact very strong at their own ground and only Atletico Madrid have managed to win at Rostov’s Olimp-2 stadium in the five European games played there this season.

Two games stand out from Rostov’s European campaign this year; a 4-0 home win against Ajax in the qualifying rounds and the aforementioned 3-2 victory against Bayern Munich on match day 5 of the group stage in late November. This second game is eye catching not only because of Bayern’s current status in the European game but also because Rostov had been beaten by the Germans 5-0 earlier in the group.

Rostov adopted their usual 5-3-2 shape for this game with Bayern set up in a 4-3-3 and despite only having 29% of possession over the course of the game and falling behind they somehow managed to win. Bayern had 23 goal attempts in the match to Rostov’s 7. Two of Rostov goal’ came from set pieces, the first a penalty and the second an excellent free kick by Christian Noboa.

Christian Noboa free-kick against Bayern

Christian Noboa free-kick against Bayern

For most of this game Rostov employed a low block in their basic shape and waited opportunities to counter-attack. You can see this clearly from the possession statistics, and their first goal was a classic break-away after a loose Bayern pass but they didn’t always stick to this approach. They alternated this approach with one where they pressed high. At those times their two forwards pushed onto the Bayern centre-backs and their three midfield players man-marked Bayern’s midfield three. With the Bayern central midfield man Alcantara dropping deep the Rostov central player, usually Gatskan simply followed him. This all meant space on the outside where Rostov were happy to see Bayern move the ball.

This did allow Bayern to move the ball forward on the flanks however with both Costa and Renato Sanchez making significant contributions in wide areas. Bayern’s created lots of good opportunities to deliver crosses from wide areas or low cut back passing opportunities, particularly after creating overloads on one side of the pitch before quickly switching play to the other side.

This should be an excellent tactical battle; the key to United’s progression is likely to be the first game in Russia. Rostov will set up to defend and hit United on the counter. We would expect Mourinho to be relatively cautious himself in not wanting to over-commit. No doubt he would like an away goal but may not want to leave himself vulnerable to a strike on the break.