7th July 2017. By Edward Stratmann.
Having missed out on Champions League qualification for a second year running, Zenit FC's busy summer has given a strong indication that they don't want this worrying trend to continue for a third consecutive time.

Bringing in the highly experienced Roberto Mancini as manager, who's held the post at some of Europe's biggest clubs including Inter Milan, Manchester City, Lazio and Galatasaray was indeed a fine capture to signal their intent. While bringing in such a respected tactician like Mancini was an inspired selection, another component as to why the club's hierachy were so keen to secure his services was his reputation, which they believed would be crucial in attracting some star talent.

This was certainly the case in their acquisition of the exceptionally talented Leandro Paredes, who joined for an initial €23 million plus a potential four million in bonuses from AS Roma. "The coach was very important for my choice to come here," Paredes divulged to Zenit's official website.

"After speaking with Mancini, that really pushed me towards this decision and helped convince me the most."

Two of Zenit's four signings from FK Rostov in Christian Noboa and Dmitiry Poloz also echoed Paredes' sentiment when stating what an integral factor Mancini was in their decision to join the Russian giants. Signing exciting 21-year-old forward Sebastian Driussi from River Plate for €15 million is another coup for the club, and a deal that Mancini's hiring would've keenly influenced.

As a result of their nifty transfer dealings, expectations are high that the Lions can propel themselves back into the Champions League and that they can once again be Russian champions. Despite their season opening victory over SKA-Khabarovsk not being perfect to get the ball rolling, there was still plenty of positives to be drawn from the 2-0 win.

Some of their attacking structures and methods were especially interesting, with Mancini clearly already stamping his mark here. Whenever Zenit were building out from the back, Paredes and Aleksandr Erokhin would alternate who dropped deep to form a three chain nearby the two central defenders to ensure they could outnumber their opposition in the first line 3v1. This made for smooth progressions into their attacking half, as the home team's passivity and desire to fall back into a mid-low block also contributed to Zenit's success.

Once in midfield, their formation essentially morphed into a 2-3-4-1, as Zenit focused heavily on pushing men into the final third to unlock the deep sitting SKA backline. They particularly looked to use towering centre-forward, Artem Dzyuba as a target man and play the ball into his feet so he could link play. Key to this being effective was the positioning of his fellow attackers as the likes of Giuliano, Oleg Shatov and Aleksandr Kokorin would occupy and overload the 10 spaces to give Dzyuba an excellent support structure to work with.

They complimented the ensuing slick combination play with some buzzing movement and by pushing the fullbacks right up, in order to pull apart and horizontally stretch the defense to manipulate their backline to create openings.

With so many players in advanced areas, this assisted their counter pressing efforts once they lost possession nicely, as they had immediate access to the player who won back possession. It must be said, however, if SKA got beyond their instant harrying, though, this left Zenit rather exposed in transitions by virtue of them having so many men still situated upfield.

By regularly positioning their central midfield pairing of Paredes and Erokhin in the left and right half spaces, some protection was importantly offered to protect their defensive unit. The manner in which this was done undoubtedly resembled how Real Madrid deploy Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in similar areas to provide vital structural security plus assist in deep circulation phases.

All things considered, Mancini was rightfully pleased with what he saw from his team in his Russian Premier League debut, saying: "It was a difficult match and I'm pleased with all of my men's performance.

"For us it was important to open the championship with a win. We have played few warm-up games in our training camp and it was vital for us to take the winning start into the new season.

"Khabarovsk are famous for their fighting spirit, they're a well-balanced squad and always battle up to the very end in every game."

Zenit will now quickly switch their attention to their tough fixture against Rubin Kazan on the weekend, who'll provide a very stern examination for the St. Petersburg outfit. Although they're still a long way from fulfilling their aspirations for the upcoming term, the early signs from the Mancini era are very positive indeed.

The challenge is to remain consistent and keep picking up crucial wins to get through what looms as a hugely vigorous campaign. If Zenit can do this, then there's every chance they'll be well on their way to enjoying a fruitful 2017/2018 crusade.

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