Hiddink at Anzhi: The story so far

When Anzhi Makhachaka were taken over by local billionaire Suleyman Kerimov, it was only a matter of time before their endless resources brought in a top class manager. Plenty of names were bandied about, but there would only ever be one winner – a man adored by the Russian public and with a track record second to none in the footballing world. It may have taken the best part of a year to get him onboard, but when Guus Hiddink finally signed on the dotted line, it looked like a partnership made in Dagestani heaven.

This was, after all, a man who had taken the Russian national side to the final four of Euro 2008, South Korea and his native Netherlands to the semi finals of consecutive World Cups, and wrapped up six Eredivisie titles during his time with PSV. The 1988 European Cup merely cemented his position as one of the legends of the game. Despite failing to lead Russia to South Africa in 2010, a brief spell in charge of Chelsea yielded FA Cup success, proving to the doubters that his best days as a club boss were far from behind him.

Samuel Eto'o and Anzhi were far too strong for AZ in the Europa League this season. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Samuel Eto’o and Anzhi were far too strong for AZ in the Europa League this season. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Yet, as the 2012-13 campaign – his first full season in Makhachkala – draws to a close, all that Hiddink has to show for his efforts are a series of conflicting statements regarding his retirement, a run to the Europa League quarter finals, and a Russian Cup final. In the league, the clichéd ‘bread and butter’ of any manager, his efforts in the final third of last season resulted in Anzhi scraping into Europe in 5th place, whilst this season they are by no means guaranteed even to match that – sitting in 3rd, but with no fewer than six teams sat within six points of them heading into the final two games. For a team with such a wealthy backer, being chased down by Kuban Krasnodar and a Dinamo Moscow side that took three points from their first seven games is not acceptable.

It is not as if the Dutchman has been denied access to Kerimov’s millions, either. During his first transfer window he splashed out Christopher Samba, Georgi Gabulov and Oleg Shatov, combining young Russian talent with overseas signings. Over the summer he was backed to the hilt, with a steady stream of players arriving at Russia’s richest club. Lacina Traore, Lassana Diarra, Ewerton and Andrei Eshchenko all joined the first team squad, with a number of young Russians joining from Premier League competitors. As if that was not enough, a €35m deal for Shakhtar Donetsk star Willian over the winter ensured that Anzhi would not stay out of the headlines.

Perhaps another area in which Hiddink has failed to bring the rags-to-riches story to life has been in the style of play down in Dagestan. With an attacking line-up featuring the likes of Mbark Boussoufa, Yuri Zhirkov, Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez, Samuel Eto’o and the aforementioned Willian, you would expect Anzhi to be consistently amongst the goals. Not so – as it stands they are merely the fifth-highest scorers in a generally low-scoring competition, often having to grind out results and failing to break teams down, particularly away from home. In their Europa League group stage games against Liverpool, the club finally had a chance to show themselves on the continental stage, to prove themselves as bright young upstarts with title-winning potential. The result? Two turgid 1-0 wins, one for each team, which did nothing for Anzhi’s reputation overseas.

So, if Anzhi’s performances on the field have provided Hiddink with a less than resounding success, are there any redeeming features to his tenure? Well, yes. Whilst many of the ‘young Russian talents’ mentioned in previous paragraphs will never make the Anzhi starting line-up – Gabulov in particular being sold back to Alania just a year after his first move – Hiddink has been quick to redress the Russian/foreigner balance on the fringes of the squad. The likes of Benoit Angbwa, Jan Holenda and Arafat Djako have left the club, replaced by Serder Serderov and youth team graduate Sharif Mukhammed. With Russian sides obliged to field four natives at any one time, removing foreign deadwood is a key step in preparing for the future.

Furthermore, the development of Mukhammed, rise to prominence of new Russian international Arseny Logashov and regular games afforded to Shatov are a sign of a new approach from Anzhi, and one arguably at odds with the instant success plan expected by fans of the club and observers alike. How much Hiddink has had to do with its development is as yet unknown, but if his post-signing comments are anything to go by, it is a philosophy the Dutchman had certainly bought into. According to Kerimov’s lofty vision, Anzhi’s first team is the end rather than the means of the football club, which he intends to use as a vehicle for social development and mobility in his native and impoverished Dagestan.

Hiddink talking to the press.

Guus Hiddink talking to the press.

It is a philosophy that highlights the benefits of having a local backer rather than one located half way across the world, and one which is to be admired for its principles. Its foundation lie in the academy which the club has recently constructed, with a host of Russian and Dutch coaches brought in to give local youngsters the best possible education – both footballing and academic – in a region ravaged in recent years by religious and ethnic tensions, so much so that even relocating the training base from Moscow will be a huge achievement. How many of the current academy crop go on to appear for Anzhi is largely irrelevant at this stage – it is the opportunity which is valuable – but there is every chance that the improved training facilities currently being developed in Makhachkala could one day produce the Russian internationals of the future, and Hiddink’s input in coach selection and training techniques will be invaluable in doing so.

Guus Hiddink’s contribution to Anzhi may not yet be measured in terms of silverware, a sure-fire disappointment for the thousands of Dagestanis expecting instant domestic domination. However, what he has provided is the big name manager necessary to earn the respect of the club’s international stars, the profile required to attract more top names to Makhachkala, and the knowledge and insight to turn Suleyman Kerimov’s dream into something far closer to reality. He is unlikely to earn legendary status at Anzhi on the basis of his results thus far, but the foundations laid during his tenure could well pave the way for future successes. For a high-profile manager on a short-term contract it would be an exception to the ever-changing rules, but not an entirely regrettable one.

Written By Rob Dillon. Rob Dillon is a freelance journalist and author of  the fabulous ‘More Than Arshavin’, a blog specialized in Russian football. Furthermore, he has contributed regularly to In Bed With Maradona. He is active on the Twitter (RobDillonMTA), a highly recommended follow on anything related to Russian football.

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