After an excellent 2008 European Championship with Russia, Yury Zhirkov arrived in England as Carlo Ancelotti’s first major signing as Chelsea boss, joining for a fee of £18m. Comfortable being deployed anywhere on the left-hand side of the pitch, Zhirkov provided the strength in depth the Blues’ needed last term whilst Solomon Kalou was at the African Cup of Nations and Ashley Cole missed the latter stages of the campaign due to a fractured ankle.
The 27-year-old has been bound to the substitutes’ bench so far this season, particularly due to the form of Cole and Florent Malouda, who are both tuned into the same wavelength when venturing forward. Such a fluent understanding and balance on the left flank had to be worked at, but Zhirkov’s ability to stretch opposition full-backs remains an Ancelotti lifeline should events not go according to plan. Yet his finest moments for the double winners came when in tandem with Cole, linking effectively to dismantle both Aston Villa and Sunderland at home. Assistant manager Ray Wilkins reflected on the Russian’s first season at Stamford Bridge on the club’s official website: “It was important to us when Ashley Cole was injured that we had someone who could come in and fill that gap, and that’s what Yury did. The longer he spends in England the better he looks and the more comfortable he becomes. Simply excellent against Aston Villa in the 7-1 win.”
With the masses of experience within the Chelsea squad, many could be forgiven if they overlooked Zhirkov as one of the senior members. His six-year spell at CSKA Moscow was decorated with two league titles, four Russian Cup wins and UEFA Cup glory in 2005. Add to that his country’s third place finish in Euro 2008 and his selection in the team of the tournament, Zhirkov has thrived in high-pressure conditions. His ability to carry the ball out of defence has given his managers the option of utilising him as a left midfielder, but Zhirkov relishes breaking from deep to support attacks. Supplemented to his eagerness to foray forward, Zhirkov is aware of those around him and is tactically astute, further leading to him being deployed in more than one position.
Despite failing to feature thus far this season, the 35 times-capped Russian will know that as the squad again needs to be strong enough to compete for four trophies, he will get the opportunity to expand on his 27 appearances for the Blues in all competitions. Zhirkov’s cultured style provides an alternative to Chelsea’s other left-sided options but with that area of the team firing on all cylinders at present, Zhirkov has to be patient, before making the most of any chances that fall his way.