10: Denis Glushakov, Midfielder, Spartak (+31)
Back in August nobody could possibly have predicted that Spartak would sit pretty at the top of the table going into the winter break, and even fewer could have foreseen Denis Glushakov’s meteoric rise up the RFN Top 50, but the midfield general has been a relatively unsung hero in Massimo Carrera’s machine. Without question the individual highlight was his sensational rocket that crashed in off his new teammate Aleksandr Selikhov’s crossbar in injury time to snatch all three points from Amkar, and he has already equalled his highest goals tally in a 30-match league season (although in the elongated 2011-12 season he grabbed 11 for Lokomotiv).
Fernando has been an absolute rock anchoring the middle of the park after arriving from Serie A in the summer which has allowed Glushakov a touch more license to roam forward, and his slightly disappointing tackling success rate of 48% has not hindered his impact on the field. While his Brazilian partner in crime is undoubtedly a huge part of his form, Glushakov’s attitude on the pitch epitomises the resurgent energy emanating from Spartak.
9. Sardar Azmoun, Forward, Rostov (NEW ENTRY)
Picked by RFN’s Thomas Giles to have a breakthrough season, the 22-year-old Iranian forward has made a real name for himself as a deadly poacher in 2016, despite having a modest strike rate so far this season. 20 goals in the calendar year of 2016 is only only half the story; it was the occasions on which they were scored that tells you something of his composure. His solo effort just before the break set up a historic win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League and put him firmly in the shop window.
Although his exploits have raised eyebrows on Merseyside, his year was not without its controversies. During the summer break he went AWOL from Rubin Kazan pre-season training to try and force through a permanent move to Rostov, and the dispute over his contract attracted FIFA and and the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s attention with the matter still holding some question marks. His confidence, however – demonstrated by his 4 dribbles per match and 12 average aerial challenges per match – has never been in doubt for one of Russia’s most marketable assets.
8. Christian Noboa, Midfielder, Rostov (+26)
Another high-ranking player on our list from last year’s runners up, Noboa has offered the class and precision in the centre to compliment the combative power of Alexandru Gatcan. The former Dinamo Moscow and Rubin man averages four key passes and five dribbles per match according to InStat, and when he is in front of a dead ball he is a dangerous as anyone in Russian football, as Bayern Munich found out to their cost in the famous 3-2 cracker back in November.
Next month marks a decade since he arrived in Kazan, and he has surely been one of the most consistently influential foreign imports to grace the RFPL. His languid posture belies his vision; the sight of a swift turn, a deft touch to set himself and a raking pass delivered to the onrushing Azmoun or Dmitry Poloz has been a familiar one for Rostov fans this year, and one that showcases the Ecuadorian maestro’s skill set well. His huge leap up the RFN Top 50 rankings can be explained easily by the extraordinary fairy tale success of his current employers, but his class has long been known.
7. Alan Dzagoev, Midfielder, CSKA (+4)
Amidst a troubled second half of the year for the reigning champions, a lot of pressure has been heaped on the shoulders of the boy from Beslan. As the championship run-in heated up, Dzagoev came to life as he netted five goals in the last ten league matches to boost the Army Men to an impressive title win. Like Noboa he averages 4 key passes per match but also makes more passes and at a higher completion rate of 83% from InStat data sources.
Often forced to accommodate others into Leonid Slutsky’s 4-2-3-1 system, his natural creativity has been stifled somewhat this season as options have run very thin in a squad now shorn of Roman Eremeneko. Since the start of the new season he has only had a hand in four goals in 13 games for club and country – a result of his increased deployment in a defensive role – and as a result his maturity has developed further. Everton and Newcastle have registered an interest in bringing CSKA’s chief creator to England, which would all but destroy what slim chances of silverare Viktor Goncharenko’s men may have had.
6. Pontus Wernbloom, Midfielder, CSKA (+13)
Ever since joining CSKA in the winter of 2012, Pontus Wernbloom has performed at a consistently high level. These days, there is little doubt that the Swede is not only the best defensive midfielder in the Russian Football Premier League, but the best central midfielder in general. His defensive contribution to CSKA Moscow provides more technical players such as Alan Dzagoev, Roman Eremeko and Aleksandr Golovin the offensive freedom needed for them to shine. Wernbloom however, isn’t just a defensive garbage man, something he keeps proving with important goals, like the two crucial ones he scored in game week 27 and 28 last season, and important passes. Last season he averaged 1.5 key passes per game and 3.3 passes into the opposing penalty area each game according to InStat, underlining how important he is in the offensive part of the game too.
Unfortunately for Wernbloom he has never been able to duplicate his success for the Army Men on the Swedish national team, and following a disappointing Euro, where he spent the entire tournament on the bench, 30-year-old Wernbloom retired from international football, something CSKA can hardly complain about. Even this season, where CSKA have struggled, Wernbloom has managed to maintain his high level, and in the Champions League again he proved that he has top European class.
5. Dmitry Poloz, Forward, Rostov (+38)
Poloz has shot to prominence in 2016 like few others – the fact his rise up our rankings is the highest of all this year is a testament to his phenomenal form – and yet in transfer talk is overshadowed by his clubmate Azmoun. Not to belittle his younger strike partner, but it is marginally surprising when one looks at his direct impact on matches on an arguably more consistent basis. His prime attribute is his searing pace, but when he can keep his composure enough to see others in better positions and not be blinded by greed, he becomes an infinitely more valuable component of the counter-attacking system Rostov play.
As discussed on numerous RFN podcasts, he offers something that very few Russian players can when one thinks of options for the World Cup squad next year. Still only 25, the former Lokomotiv youngster has been a slightly under-appreciated member of Rostov’s system at times, and the club will be desperate to extend his contract beyond this summer when Zenit and Spartak will surely be circling – if not a European club.
4. Artyom Dzyuba, Forward, Zenit (-1)
Russia’s hulking target man is a polarising character – three of our panel voted him outside the top ten – despite his scoring record being second only to Fyodor Smolov. Zenit’s number nine has been served by some of the finest attacking talent in the country ever since his move from this season’s title rivals Spartak so in one sense he has only done what is expected of a man in his position, but to prove the old adage, he can only score against what’s in front of him.
Most of the criticism seems to stem from his physical nature. While it is true that his heading is a prominent feature of his play – InStat reveals that he has averaged 13 aerial challenges per match this season – his tackling is poor even for a striker, with just 25% of his challenges being successful. Despite his 1.94m frame, though, he has a better touch than he is given credit for, and with a hugely experienced manager and quality squad around him, he will continue to guarantee goals for Spartak’s only serious titles rivals this spring.
Author: Andrew Flint
I moved out to Russia in 2010 to teach English because it sounded like fun, then I met and fell in love with FC Tyumen (and my wife!) and decided to stay. Surprisingly, I turned out to be the only English person remotely interested in a Siberian third-tier club, but then who wouldn’t fall for a grizzly Georgian midget, a flying Brazilian and Tyumen’s 93rd most influential figure…