10. Seydou Doumbia, forward, CSKA
On a personal level, 2015 has shot up and down for Seydou Doumbia as the Ivorian hitman finally secured his big move to Serie A with AS Roma, only to return with his tail between his legs in the summer on loan to CSKA. Despite an initial burst of goals that inspired the Army Men through to the Champions League group stages, his impact has diminished significantly; although his upper body strength is impressive, according to InStat only Edgar Manucharyan has committed fewer challenges per 90 minutes of the top 31 ranked forwards, while his average of one interception per 90 minutes is the lowest in the same category.
It is on the ball that he is impressive; or to be more precise, efficient. Of the strikers to have played over 1,000 minutes this season, he has had the fewest shots with only 13, but 10 of those have been on target, half of which were scored, while he has only been caught offside six times. His record in his whole CSKA career is astonishing; 95 goals in just 150 matches across all competitions is second only to Vagner Love’s in the all time list of CSKA foreigners. Whatever his fate beyond the winter transfer window, his status is secure in Russia as one of the finest ‘legionnaires’ to grace the Russian Premier League.
9. Fyodor Smolov, forward, Krasnodar
It has taken a long time coming, but Smolov is finally delivering on his immense potential in a slightly unexpected role. The gifted forward had an incredibly poor scoring record before his loan move last season to Ural; in eight seasons as a professional, he had only managed five league goals. This season, however, despite operating mostly on the left of an attacking three behind a lone striker, he has contributed six goals and six assists, thanks to his 65 shots, 27 of which were on target according to InStat. Only Hulk has had more attempts on goal.
Smolov’s contribution has been much more than just goals this season though – he averages 8 dribbles per 90 minutes, and only Hulk and Ricardo Laborde have committed more challenges in attack from forwards behind the striker. It was clear he needed a morale boosting season as the undisputed focal point of an attack, which he earned last term at Ural, and what was most impressive was his different role in Ekaterinburg. Whereas he is now showing his adaptability out wide, last season he operated as the lone frontman, which is a huge testament to his intelligence and work rate on the pitch. He should be threatening to break into the first choice starting eleven for his country on current form, and with his high-profile relationship with model Viktoria Lopyreva in the past, his focus will only improve.
8. Zoran Tošić, midfielder, CSKA
When he was signed by Sir Alex Ferguson for Manchester United as a relatively unproven 21-year-old, Zoran Tošić was a raw talent who couldn’t break into the first team, but at CSKA he has found his stage as an aggressive winger. His trademark is his long distance shooting – his 50 shots so far this season puts him 5th on the list for the whole RPL – but his return of only four goals show where he needs to improve. According to InStat, he has the highest percentage of successful dribbles with 69%, and this is what makes him such a threat.
Occasionally he can frustrate teammates with his reluctance to cross. Although he plays as a winger, his role is more direct with fewer than 40 deliveries into the box from out wide from 17 league appearances. This has lead to a slightly unorthodox (but undeniably effective) imbalance in the direction of attacks from the Army Men, and he can be difficult to track for full backs who are unsure how far to shadow him as he cuts inside. His mentality is one that energises his side and unsettles opposition, and gives him an unquantifiable value.
7. Ezequiel Garay, defender, Zenit
Much has been made of the tighter restrictions on foreign players, none more so than by outgoing Zenit boss Andre Villas-Boas, but there has been an equally high level of comment amongst followers of Russian football regarding the predominantly foreign makeup of his less-than-watertight defence. Ezequiel Garay, the only central defender in our Top 20, has however been the standout performer from the champions’ backline, completing every minute of every match he has started. He hasn’t been helped by his defensive partner changing between Luis Neto and Nicolas Lombaerts, but the former Real Madrid centre back’s organisation and reading of the game has been impressive.
InStat’s statistics reveal an intriguing side to his game; only eight other centre backs have a lower success rate than his 62% with headed challenges, while only Cesar Navas has a lower tackle success rate than Garay’s 50%, and yet he has conceded only ten fouls all season. For all the critics of Zenit’s defence, they are one of only two sides to not have conceded a single goal from a corner so far this year, and a lot of the credit for that impressive record is due to the experienced Argentine. With his best years potentially still ahead of him, Garay could soon become the hottest defensive property in the league.
6. Oleg Shatov, midfielder, Zenit
Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the restrictions on ‘legionnaires’ alongside his teammate Artyom Dzyuba. Oleg Shatov has been directly involved in 16 goals in 22 matches across all competitions this season. In an attacking unit that includes the Brazilian behemoth that is Hulk, those figures are remarkable, especially for a player of such a slight build. He has recorded the second fastest top speed at Zenit this season behind Hulk, and is rated by InStat as the second best player in the entire league.
His background in mini-football (he began playing for Ekaterinburg’s UEFA Futsal Cup-winning Sinara before moving to Ural) has built his confidence on the ball and speed of thought, but this year in particular he has become cooler in front of goal. His primary objective though has been to feed Dzyuba and Hulk, something he achieves with his average of 2.3 key attacking passes per 90 minutes according to InStat. This impact, as either a starter or a game-changing substitute, will be crucial to for Russia at the European Championships in the summer, and for the home World Cup. By then he should be the focal point of the Sbornaya’s attack.
5. Axel Witsel, midfielder, Zenit
Axel Witsel was the second most expensive signing in Russian football history when he joined from Benfica for €38million, and it is not hard to see why. The hulking Belgian midfielder of Caribbean descent has an absolute mastery ofthe ball, demonstrated by his 90% successful pass rate according to InStat, and although he doesn’t get involved inas many gritty physical defensive challenges, his awareness and intelligence means he doesn’t need to lunge intotackles. Chelsea’s interest in him during the summer came as no surprise, and it may not be long before anotherserious bid for him is successful.
He has adapted his now familiar role after leaving his country of birth, where he had scored at twice the rate that hehas done since in Portugal and Russia, and his reliability to lead the midfield has seen him miss just two leaguegames in the last two and a half seasons. His presence of mind in front of the defence allows the more creativesparks such as Hulk, Danny and Oleg Shatov to weave openings for each other and Dzyuba, but whether he stays ornot beyond he summer will depend a lot on the new man Zenit choose to bring in to replace Villas-Boas.
4. Oumar Baye Niasse, forward, Lokomotiv
Lokomotiv’s electric forward has an unstoppable energy about him that terrifies most defences and has drawn theattention of a host of Premier League clubs, but it wasn’t always like this for the Senegalese hitman as Stefano Conforti wrote on RFN last October. His time in Russia has been a microcosm of his whole career; he has had toovercome rejections from Norwegian and French clubs before he slipped into European football unnoticed toAkhisarspor in Turkey less than three years ago, but his tenacity and determination to build his future make him anattractive option in the transfer market.
He has had more shots on target than any other striker in Russia this season, and has either scored or assisted 14goals, second only to Hulk. One criticism of Niasse has been his profligacy in front of goal; although he has hadalmost four times as many shots as Seydou Doumbia, he’s scored less than double the Ivorian’s tally. His confidence on the ball is such that he is still a major threat almost through sheer determination alone, and he has embarked on more successful dribbles than any other central striker this season. Whether he will still be in Russia next season or not is debateable.