Fedor Smolov – Russia’s Brightest Star

Fyodor Smolov during Russia's Confederations Cup game against New Zealand. Photo: Кирилл Венедиктов/Soccer.ru

Fedor Smolov during Russia’s Confederations Cup game against New Zealand. Photo: Кирилл Венедиктов/Soccer.ru

Fedor Smolov’s rise to stardom has been anything but conventional. His unique resume includes multiple unsuccessful loan spells, as well as a season spent on the edge of Siberia, and yet today the striker stands as the back-to-back scoring champion of the Russian Football Premier League, and arguably Russia’s brightest star, something he also proved at the recently finished Confederations Cup. While he was always recognized as having vast potential, it took Smolov more time than most to fulfill that promise- but he has fulfilled it and then some.

Smolov began his career at a small football academy before joining the academy of Dinamo Moscow at 18 years old. Here he spent two years with the club’s second team, where he showed enough promise to earn a loan move to Dutch side Feyenoord. However, all did not go according to plan. During his season long loan, Smolov was given 12 league appearances, but failed to find the net in any of them, and picked up a hamstring injury along the way. The failure of Smolov’s loan move was so complete that he was recalled by home club Dinamo at the winter break.

Despite the categorical failure that was Smolov’s Feyenoord loan, Dinamo decided to give him a run in the team upon his return to Russia. The following season, Smolov was given ample opportunity to prove his worth to the club, primarily in the role of a substitute. While he did manage to make 23 appearances for Dinamo, Smolov only managed two goals and one assist for the Moscow outfit, which paved the way for the next loan in the young striker’s career.

After his unspectacular season at Dinamo, Smolov spent the next two seasons bouncing back and forth between Anzhi Makhachkala on loan and his parent club Dinamo. In following with the rest of his career to this point, neither the loans at Anzhi nor the time he spent at Dinamo during this period, proved to be successful. Over the two seasons Smolov spent at these clubs, he amassed 2,221 minutes of game time, while producing a grand total of two goals. Up until this point in Smolov’s career, there’d be no use in classifying it as anything but a massive failure, especially for a player who was earmarked with potential. But that is exactly what makes Smolov’s turn around so remarkable.

READ MORE: Kokorin and Smolov – The Tale of Dinamo’s Two Jewels

The rejuvenation of Smolov’s career began during his next loan spell, at FC Ural, located in Ekaterinburg by the Ural Mountains on the edge of Siberia. At the age of 24, he joined the struggling outfit for what was predicted to be a season of battling relegation, and to nobody’s surprise, that is exactly what happened. What did surprise people, however, were Smolov’s performances, as the beleaguered striker played a key role in saving Ural’s season. His pace on the break played perfectly with Ural’s counter-attacking style, and his eight goals proved to be the difference between relegation and safety in the Russian top flight. His performances were impressive enough that he was voted Ural’s Player of the Season by a comfortable margin, and earned him some recognition across the country. Enough recognition to catch the eye of some bigger Russian sides.

Smolov’s contract ran out with Dinamo upon his return to the club after the season, and it was FC Krasnodar who picked him up on a free transfer in the summer of 2015. The Southern Russian club proved to be an ideal fit for a few reasons. For one, given that Krasnodar is a provincial city much smaller than Moscow, there was much less pressure for Smolov to succeed than there had been at Dinamo. Additionally, Krasnodar’s fast and fluid attacking style facilitated by coach Oleg Kononov suited Smolov’s skillset rather well: his pace proved invaluable on the counter, and the skill around him ensured that he had ample opportunity to score goals. All of these elements worked together to create the perfect storm, and Smolov had what can only be described as a spectacular breakout season. His 20 goal haul was enough to see him be crowned top scorer in the league, and become an important member of the Russian national team.

Smolov being celebrated at Krasnodar Stadium before a Russia - Ivory Coast friendly in March. Photo: Дмитрий Пукалик/Soccer.ru

Smolov being celebrated at Krasnodar Stadium before a Russia – Ivory Coast friendly in March. Photo: Дмитрий Пукалик/Soccer.ru

While many say that the breakout season is always the hardest to follow, nobody seems to have told Smolov. The star striker proceeded to follow up last season with an 18 goal performance this season, even with a hamstring injury that caused him to miss four games. His minutes per goal ratio actually significantly improved from last year, going from one goal every 127 minutes to one goal every 107 minutes, a fantastic rate for a low scoring league like the RFPL. His performances were impressive enough to earn him concrete interest from Borussia Dortmund, as well as confirmed offers from Stoke City and multiple Chinese clubs.

Smolov is a complete striker

Smolov is a striker who possesses all of the skills needed to succeed. He can score in a variety of ways, with his head or his feet, he possesses plenty of pace. His skillset is one of a player who does almost everything very well, without any one particular skill being at an elite level in the context of the rest of Europe. However, his varied skillset does add utility to any team, and means that he can play in a variety of schemes.

Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of Smolov is his athleticism. Standing at 187 cm and weighing 80 kg, Smolov is a large striker, which lends him significant strength and power. This physique allows him to go toe-to-toe with many center backs, and makes him very effective in hold up play. While his size and strength are important to his game, his speed is integral too. His pace on the break is lethal, and his burst speed makes him very effective in running channels to latch onto through balls. His athleticism also shines through in his tendency for spectacular goals.

One does not become the top scorer in the Premier League without having a knack for scoring goals, and Smolov certainly does. He can score in just about any way you can imagine, equally as likely to try to curl a shot into the far corner as to power one straight over the keeper’s head. He has also shown that while heading the ball is not a definite strength of his, he is more than capable of finishing with his head should the opportunity present itself. While Smolov has proven the ability to score large numbers of goals, one potential drawback is that he takes a lot of shots in order to make a lot of goals. He is a high-volume shooter, averaging 4.6 shots per game, and can at times be inefficient in front of goal. However, his overall productivity has generally made the shot taking more than worth it.

Another trait that helps to distinguish Smolov is his willingness to work on the defensive end. He has proven that he is prepared to contribute to the pressing game that Krasnodar sometimes employs, averaging 1.9 tackles per match. He is very active in running down the ball, and has also been very effective in counter-pressing when Krasnodar lose the ball in order to prevent counterattacks.

What does the future hold?

Smolov’s massive success means that it is highly unlikely that he will remain in Krasnodar for much longer; he is simply too good. Although Krasnodar owner and president Sergey Galitsky has made it clear that he doesn’t want to sell Smolov to a Russian club, there have been strong rumours linking the star striker to Zenit St. Petersburg and reigning champions Spartak Moscow. A move to Zenit seems unlikely, considering they just signed young striker Sebastian Driussi, but the move to Spartak appears to be much more feasible, with Smolov himself reportedly being keen on a move back to the capital.

Many observers of Russian football would prefer to see Smolov work to continue his career abroad and break the mould of Russian players spending there careers in Russia, but a move to Spartak would still represent a step for forward in his career, considering the Champions League football. Whether Smolov ends up staying in Russia or moving abroad, it will surely be another fascinating chapter in his unlikely story.

Author: Will Baumgardner

College student in the United States and avid Krasnodar fan. Sergey Galitskiy is the man.

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