It was that crusty elder statesman, Winston Churchill, who described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” In many respects, he could have been talking about CSKA Moscow’s up-and- coming talent, Aleksandr Golovin.
Born twenty-one years ago in a godforsaken oblast in the middle of the West Siberian Plain, Golovin arrived at the VEB Arena to play for CSKA’s youth team in 2012 at the age of fifteen, having previously been involved in the youth set-ups at the quixotically-
named sides of DYuSSh Kaltan and Metallurg Novokuznetsk. Beyond these few specifics, though, we know very little of the background of the youngster, who quickly made his way into the highest echelons of Russian football in a relatively short amount of time.
Once at CSKA, Golovin wasted little time in bringing himself into consideration. A debut on March 14, 2015 was followed by a subsequent six appearances in the Russian Premier League and, since then, there has been little stopping him on his upward trajectory: seventeen league appearances the following season were improved upon last season, with Golovin becoming an integral member of the squad, eventually making thirty appearances for the Red-Blues.
So impressive has Golovin been for his club that he attracted the attention of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona and
Arsenal during the most recent transfer window. This meteoric rise has not gone unnoticed by the Russian Football Union, who have fast-tracked him on the way to eventually become a key player for the national team. Having won the UEFA European Under-17 Championship with Russia in 2013 and impressed when he competed in the European Under-19 Championship two years later, Golovin made his full debut that same year, coming on to replace Roman Shirokov in a friendly match against Belarus. Within sixteen minutes, he had scored the second of Russia’s goals and set the team on their way to a 4-2 victory. Now, while it wouldn’t be fair to describe him as a regular for the national team, Golovin has certainly cemented himself as a regular squad member, picking up fifteen caps for Russia in the wake of Alan Dzgoev’s recent injury woes.
It is on the pitch, though, where the enigmatic nature of Aleksandr Golovin is most apparent. Domestically, the rapid rise of the Russian youngster has been compounded by events off the field. Despite having been one of the richest clubs in Russia at one point, CSKA have been experiencing financial difficulties ever since their owner, Evgenii Giner, saw his investments in the Crimean Peninsula plummet in the aftermath of the recent events in Ukraine. As a result, CSKA’s young coach Viktor Goncharenko has had to make do with the players at his disposal, a fact which accelerated Golovin’s entry into the first team.
Even with the recent rumours of a takeover of the club by Roman Abramovich’s son, Arkardy, there is no guarantee that any transfer funds will be made available in the near future. This financial peculiarity makes Aleksandr Golovin one of Viktor Goncharenko’s most valuable players going forward into this season. The question is: what is Golovin’s best position within the team?
Playing as one of the forward pair in a 3-5- 2 system, Golovin can play as a false nine behind an out-and-out striker, but he also has the ability to play a little further back in the field, having been used as an attacking midfielder in a 3-5-2 formation as well. At times, he has even functioned as a playmaker in a traditional 4-2-3-1, although he does not play the position as a classic number 10.
Stylistically, he plays in a manner similar to Kevin De Bruyne, but with an injection of pace. In effect, then, he would be much better suited to playing a role somewhat between an attacking midfielder and a striker who can drop into deeper positions. At this stage, though, it is not easy to define within any sort of precision what his best his role would be within the current CSKA team.
For Russia, this identity crisis leads to a few problems. Those instances in which Golovin was used in the number 10 position in the 4-2-3-1 came as the result of Stanislav Cherchesov’s decision to push Alan Dzagoev further back on the field. In reality, however, Dzagoev is a much better playmaker than Golovin, who would be best used to play together with an out-and-out striker like Artem Dzyuba or Fyodor Smolov. Nonetheless, Cherchesov is obsessed with trying to make Dzyuba and Smolov work together, an approach which simply doesn’t seem to work. To accommodate this, Golovin has been used as one of three central midfielders in Cherchesov’s more recently favoured 3-5-2 formation and, whilst this isn’t the worst position to play him in, his speed is somewhat wasted there.
Aleksandr Golovin is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” He burst onto the scene of Russian football seemingly from nowhere, but looks destined to become an integral part of CSKA’s future as well as that of the Russian National Team itself. But what precise form will this future take? At this point in time, it seems as though a clear answer cannot be given until it can be decided what his best position should be. But when that position is finally found: expect him to fly.
*Thanks to Manu Veth, who helped me solidify my ideas about Golovin.
By: Jon Mackenzie/@Jon_Mackenzie