On Sunday, Russia secured their place in the last eight with a dramatic penalty shootout win over 2010 winners Spain.
During the 90 minutes, Artem Dzyuba’s normal time penalty cancelled out Sergei Ignashevich’s own goal and the Russians dug in to keep the Spanish at bay until time was up.
Igor Akinfeev emerged as the hero in the penalty shootout, saving from Koke and Iago Aspas but the entire team should be proud of their work in the second half. They frustrated Spain, who looked bereft of ideas, and even though their football was not enticing, were good value for their win.
At the heart of everything creative, they have a young starlet by the name of Aleksandr Golovin. The CSKA Moscow midfielder has been one of the breakout players of this World Cup and has already been linked with the likes of Chelsea, Juventus and others.
If Russia are to progress any further in the tournament this summer, Golovin will need to sustain his great form.
Russia’s different styles
Russia have two distinctly different ways of playing, both defined by their choice of centre-forward. To understand how Golovin can best serve Russia, we need to see how the different styles operate and how he fits into them.
In Russia’s opening game against Saudi Arabia, Fedor Smolov started in attack. His strengths lie in quick interchanges with his midfield and involving the other forwards in his team.
Smolov is also a hard runner and will latch onto through balls. For Krasnodar during the domestic season in Russia, he is their main striker but varies his on field position. He can often be seen coming short to pick up the ball, although he can also occupy a wide position and drive at defenders.
Russia’s other choice in attack is Dzyuba. The mountainous Zenit St Petersburg man stands at 1.94 metres and ranks among the heaviest outfield players at the World Cup. He represents the polar opposite to Smolov. Dzyuba is the definition of a target man and Russia use him as such.
Dzyuba excels in a combative environment, being given his first start against an Egypt side who boasted strength at the back with Ahmed Hegazi. The Russian colossus bullied his markers for his entire time on the pitch and was rewarded with a goal.
After chesting down a long ball from the back, Dzyuba showed that he was not just a brute up front. He used his feet to nick the ball past an onrushing defender from close range and finish past the helpless goalkeeper.
How Golovin fits in
Golovin is key to the entire Russian attack as he can fit both centre-forwards and their respective strengths.
In the more direct approach with Dzyuba, Golovin has fantastic delivery from crosses and set pieces which are the Zenit striker’s bread and butter. He can play accurate long balls from deep to Dzyuba, too, making him a good relief option when under pressure.
When working with Smolov, Golovin will get more involved in the goal threat himself, as he can receive the ball from the striker in central areas, rather than crossing a ball which will never find its way back to him.
Smolov’s hard running and pressing also lifts some defensive responsibility off the other attacking players. Against Spain, when Russia were digging in and looking to shut up shop, Smolov came on for Dzyuba and harassed the Spain backline relentlessly, something Dzyuba is just not capable of.
Russia’s whole team can accommodate the two strikers but Golovin is the one whose role changes the most in the side. He acts as the main creator in both scenarios and gives life to any Russian offensive.
His versatility means he can play wide for Dzyuba to supply the crosses or central for Smolov to engage in closer play with the striker.
For a side like Russia, who are not among the favourites for the World Cup, it is vital that everyone on the pitch can work hard defensively. Some players nowadays have such creative talent that their coaches will overlook their lack of defensive output, but in a side like Russia, this could not happen.
Golovin is a technically gifted player but that is not his only talent. He remained very disciplined towards the end of the Round of 16 match against Spain, holding his position when the Spanish onslaught was in full swing.
A yellow card would have ruled him out of their quarter-final and he did well to escape going into the referee’s book.
In the latter stages of the match, a ball over the top from the Spaniards looked like it would be latched onto by the recently introduced Rodrigo, only for Golovin to race past the Valencia striker and retrieve the ball for his team.
That Aleksandr Golovin has already been linked with top European clubs tells you all you need to know about his pedigree. He is certain to move on from the Russian Premier League this summer already thanks to his performances at the World Cup.
For now, he has to keep focused on the immediate challenge. Russia have seen off previous world champions in their round of 16 and face a tricky task in their quarter-final against Croatia. It’s a match they can win; Denmark took Modric and Co. to penalties as Croatia eventually snuck into the last eight.
Aleksandr Golovin has the potential to write himself into Russian footballing history if he can lead the host nation to the semi-finals and beyond.
It’s not an easy ask but, if he can perform as he has done, it’s well within reach.
What do you think? Will Golovin carry Russia to the World Cup final? Let us know by commenting below.