When faced with the proposition of selecting the most important man in Russia, there’s only one name that rides, topless on a horse, into the picture. Since the turn of the century, Vladimir Putin has transcended the values of his 144.4million compatriots, sitting imperiously at the top of the Russian hierarchy just as Sir Alex Ferguson did for 26 years at Old Trafford. Football is a powerful thing, though, and if anybody is to possess the minds of the Russian people more than their leader, it is someone who can lead the national team to global success. Enter Aleksandr Golovin.
Written by Jack Colman (@JColman95)
Standing over a free-kick in the fourth minute of stoppage time in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, a 22-year-old playmaker knew the job was already done. Contrary to pre-tournament sceptics, the Russians had cruised into a 4-0 lead over an abysmal Saudi Arabia side with a pick-and-mix combination of headers, skilful play and individual stunners. Whilst Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba were set to receive the acclaim, Golovin had provided two assists and five key passes. With seconds left, the metronome curled a beautiful free-kick past Abdullah Al-Mayouf and ensured that his name was firmly in the spotlights. Putin applauded.
Another impressive performance from Golovin inspired a 3-1 win against Mohamed Salah’s Egypt, as Russia made the best start of any World Cup hosts in history. The CSKA Moscow midfielder showed more than just creative guile, covering more distance in the first rounds of matches than anyone else in the tournament with 12.7km, compared to the 8.72km run by Cristiano Ronaldo against Spain. However, whilst Golovin’s presence was impressive, his absence against Uruguay increased the magnitude of his importance to Russia. A rotated eleven fell flat against Luis Suarez and co, losing 3-0 in a limp and lifeless performance. The hosts suddenly looked very average without their midfield conductor.
The best moment was yet to come, however. Golovin’s return to the Russian line-up made the impossible possible, as the hosts did the unthinkable and knocked out Spain on penalties after grinding out a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes. Whilst he was unable to control the game as he had against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Golovin still managed to shine. His 82% pass accuracy was far superior to any of his teammates and he ran 15.96km over the whole match. What particularly stood out was a recovery run the star made in the 119th-minute of the match, blitzing the fresh legs of Rodrigo to stifle another Spanish attack. If that wasn’t enough, he stood up and buried his penalty in the shoot-out. His performance will live long into the ages of Russian football.
Whatever happens now, the young gem has seemingly done enough to earn a big move away from Russia. Despite reported interest from Juventus and Barcelona, Gianluca Di Marzio reported on Thursday night that Chelsea have jumped to the head of the queue and are likely to seal a £27million move for the playmaker.
Before anyone starts to berate Chelsea for paying such a fee for a player based on two World Cup matches, this is certainly not the case. Whilst nothing is yet confirmed, prospective new Blues manager Maurizio Sarri has previously tried to sign Golovin for Napoli and Roman Abramovich’s friendship with the hierarchy at CSKA Moscow has led to frequent speculation that the 22-year-old would eventually end up in SW6. Golovin’s performances against Manchester United, Arsenal and Lyon last season also caught the eye; his showing at the World Cup is no flash in the pan.
So what player are Chelsea getting their hands on if they do indeed seal a £27million move this summer? As aforementioned, Golovin is a metronome in the midfield and keeps his side ticking over in the middle of the park. For CSKA, Alan Dzagoev often retains the more creative role in the midfield and subsequently Golovin often plays deeper as a ‘number 8’ as opposed to a ‘number 10’. That being said, Dzagoev’s injury in the World Cup opener has opened the door for Golovin to play in a more advanced role and, well, the rest is history. Despite contrasting physiques, similarities can certainly be made between Golovin and current Chelsea starlet Ruben Loftus-Cheek: both players enjoy carrying the ball, drawing fouls and dictating interplay, whilst leaving room for improvement with their final ball and defensive ability. With that in mind, is Golovin needed at Stamford Bridge?
If Sarri does in fact end up in London, it’s no secret that the Chelsea squad will experience another seismic shift in their playing style. The Italian’s ‘Sarriball’ is a hipster’s wet dream, and relies on intelligent, quick midfield interchanging and distribution. If Golovin was to fit into the starting XI straight away, which will initially be unlikely, he will assume the role of the ageing Cesc Fabregas in the Blues’ midfield. Whilst still some distance from reaching the quality of the Spaniard, the opportunity to learn from him will be invaluable for Golovin. If that wasn’t enough, Sarri’s coaching should push him onto the next level, in the manner that he did in Naples with Piotr Zielinski and Jorginho.
This is certainly the profile of signing that will let Chelsea fans rest easy at night. Twelve months ago, the board were sweating under the berating pressure of Antonio Conte and found themselves paying £35million for Danny Drinkwater and £22million for Davide Zappacosta, among other recruitment failures. At £27million, in the modern market, Golovin represents value as a raw talent that can be moulded into a star worth double that price in the next two years. Either way, it’s a low-risk, high-reward signing by the Blues and signals the beginning of a much-needed ‘new era’ at SW6.
Saying this, Golovin cannot afford to be thinking blue right now, as the hopes of a nation rest on his shoulders as Russia move into a quarter-final tie against dark horses Croatia. Having fought of the likes of Isco, David Silva, Koke and Andres Iniesta, the Croatian midfielder will test Golovin further as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic await the 22-year-old, but if you want to be the best you have to face them first. In 2008, Andrey Arshavin destroyed Holland in the knock-out stages to make himself a star and earn himself a move to London; now it’s time for Golovin to become a tsar.