I have to admit that I'm fond of Yuri Zhirkov for more than just footballing reasons. In the main, I like Yuri because he is the spitting image of my friend Eric and I find that amusing (hi Eric). The fact he's also quite a good player helps, as does the fact that he's Russian and a left-back, but looking like Eric is the highest on the long list of "things I like about Yuri." Until recently, however, his actual contributions to the team were fairly low on that same list - aside from a handful of appearances last season when he did an adequate job covering for an injured Ashley Cole. Thanks to a raft of injuries and a lack of standout performances, Zhirkov's Chelsea career to date might be charitably described as a minor disappointment after an £18M move from CSKA Moscow.
So how did our reserve left back end up as the driving force behind Chelsea's win in Moscow yesterday, scoring the opener with a majestic strike and routinely demolishing Spartak's defence with fine runs and passes? How did the half-time introduction of someone who ostensibly plays as a defender have such a big impact on Chelsea's play against Aston Villa?
In order to understand Zhirkov, we must first recognise his creator - none other than our very own Ashley Cole. Cole's ability to bomb down the flank and serve as an auxiliary winger with his team on the attack used to be virtually unheard of from a European left back, who were expected to support the attack rather than commit themselves so thoroughly to the fray. Cole's success led to frantic attempts to build attacking left backs, typically by finding wingers with any shred of defensive ability and deploying them in the back. One such winger was Yuri Zhirkov.
Zhirkov was an attacking marvel, one of the few Russians who could compare with diminutive playmaker Andrey Arshavin. He scored 26 goals in two years with his first side, Spartak Tambov, earning him a big money move to CSKA as well as catching the eye of the Russian national team selectors. Eventually, he was converted to left-back at the behest of once-and-future Chelsea coach Guus Hiddink, a role in which he excelled, dazzling the rest of the world with a superlative performance in the 2008 European Championship Finals.
However, he's never seemed entirely comfortable with his defensive duties. Where Cole knows exactly what to do with the ball in his defensive third, Zhirkov waffles, commits himself to unnecessary tackles, and finds himself out of position much more often than we're used to out of our wide defenders. His increased defensive responsibilities also took some attack verve out of his game, leaving at least one Russian legend fuming.
"As a player, Zhirkov was broken by Hiddink, and it’s important to say this loudly as previously Yuri played tremendously as a left attacking midfielder. But Hiddink decided to invent some revolutionary system so that one player was the left back and the attacking winger. But for that it was necessary to insert four hearts in Zhirkov. He has a left leg as if he were holding a spoon in his hand to eat borscht [a variety of beetroot soup] from a cup."
Leaving aside the bizarre metaphor, it's clear that Ponedelnik feels that Zhirkov is better fielded as an attacking player. Thanks to injuries across Chelsea's two attacking bands, we're finding out why. Zhirkov - now healthy for the first time in his career with the Blues - has been a major force whenever he's played in the midfield, and he even featured as a forward against Aston Villa. While he still has things to learn about the dark arts of striking (e.g. when to make runs into the box), Zhirkov is rapidly turning into an excellent left-sided utility player for Ancelotti and his side.
This is probably why the club is so adamant that Zhirkov will play a major part in Chelsea's future. They have quite literally nobody else who can handle as many positions and remain a major attacking threat, and now that the shackles are off, Zhirkov is beginning to excel with the team that paid so much for him two summers ago. There had been talk of Zhirkov being unsatisfied with the lack of playing time at Stamford Bridge, but such talk is slowly evaporating after a series of excellent performances from the midfield and attack.
It's nice to see a player I'm fond of for non-footballing reasons start to turn his Chelsea career around. It seems pretty likely that soon Zhirkov's contributions to Chelsea Blue will outweigh 'looks like Eric.' Go ahead and have some borsch, Yuri.