In the 12th minute in the opening match of the 2018 World Cup, Russia’s Aleksandr Golovin received the ball just above Saudi Arabia’s penalty box and sent in a far post cross resulting in the first goal of the tournament. Then, three minutes before half, the midfielder tracked down a hopeful long ball, dribbled inside the penalty area and paused before switching play leading to Russia’s second goal. After adding one more back post cross for an assist, Golovin displayed his touch and capped off the match with a free kick goal in the 94th minute. His all around performance of passing and incisive movement from both left and right half spaces lead to a near perfect 9.9 match rating.
His opening match breakthrough was reminiscent of Dimitri Payet’s performance for France in the 2016 European Championship opening match - except Golovin is still just 22 years old. With attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev injured, Golovin followed up his started the match behind the striker and lead Russia to a 3-1 win over Egypt that clinched their place in the knockout rounds. Six points and eight goals through two matches was a surprise for a Russian side “doomed to fail” with fears that they would lose all three group stage matches. Manager Stanislav Cherchesov took a zen approach to the scrutiny, saying only that he hoped to turn the criticism into positive feedback.
Perhaps Cherchesov’s calmness came from trusting his young playmaker. Golovin had been highlighted in Russian football circles since former Hull City manager Leonid Slutsky gave him his debut for both CSKA Moscow and Russia in 2015 (Slutsky called him up to the national side before playing a single match for his club). Playing in the left side of a midfield three for club, his combination of athleticism and creativity in tight spaces made him an essential part of CSKA’s - and now Russia’s - buildup play. Most comfortable starting left and cutting inside onto his right foot, his positional versatility is essential for the modern game both in Europe and internationally.
Golovin was on a shortlist of players tabbed to be this tournament’s James Rodriguez in breaking out on an international stage. But in playing for CSKA Moscow, he’d only come across a larger audience during Champions League matches. We’d seen other young stars like Sergej Milinkovic-Savic weekend after weekend in Serie A, and even Hakim Ziyech highlights at Ajax would come across the timeline. Golovin was something of an anomaly in the video and analysis obsessed social media world: an unknown. It was one thing to read of Golovin’s quality from second hand reports, another to experience his drive and skill on the world’s biggest stage. We’ve seen him play for 180 minutes; we can imagine Golovin dribbling, turning, and passing at Stamford Bridge or Juventus Stadium.
His performances have firmly put him into the circus of the summer transfer window, where no detail or rumor - such as the one of him currently learning English - slips through overanalysis. With Max Allegri admitting to being impressed by performances, Juventus were rumored before to World Cup to having come to an agreement on personal terms with Golovin, but not over a transfer fee with CSKA Moscow. Arsenal were also rumored to be adding Golovin next to Lucas Torreira in completely restructuring their midfield. Chelsea, especially if they name Maurizio Sarri as manager, are rumored to compete with Juventus. To round out the Premier League competition, Manchester United’s Jose Mourinho described Golovin as the player who “gives the dynamic of the team.”
Andrei Arshavin used the 2008 Euros as his stepping stone to the Premier League, although his Russian side got knocked out 3-0 by Spain in the semifinals. As it currently stands, Russia would avoid the rematch and play Portugal in the round of 16. Regardless, this time around, they have the energy of the home crowd with momentum for the side growing with every match. Cherchesov implored that their two wins were no accident. And with Golovin developed by Slutsky to add creativity to the national side as a teenager, he could have been describing his star player’s influence over the World Cup well.