Alan Dzagoev’s Glass Ceiling – Rise and Fall of Russia’s Original Wonderkid

Four years ago, there were very few Football Manager saved games without Alan Dzagoev in it. In 2018, in what should have been his breakthrough year, the wonderkid is struggling to catch a break.
Alan Dzagoev's Glass Ceiling - Rise and Fall of Russia's Original Wonderkid
Art by Satwato.

On the evening of June 14th 2018, almost every Russian involved in football in any capacity was elated. This was because they were part of a historic night for Russian football, their national team beating Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening match of a World Cup they were hosting. Whether it was a fan jumping with glee in celebration, Aleksandr Golovin standing with his chest puffed out and arms out wide after scoring a brilliant free kick having also assisted twice, or President Vladimir Putin smugly shaking the hand of FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, they were all thoroughly enjoying themselves. For Alan Dzagoev though, this night will be remembered as the one in which his chance to represent Russia at a World Cup hosted by his home nation was cruelly and prematurely taken away from him.

The midfielder, adorning his country’s number nine shirt, had looked impressive in the early stages of the match. His driving runs and passing range had threatened a shaky defence and he was clearly having a ball – when Yury Gazinsky headed in the opener, Dzagoev was one of the first to celebrate with him. However, in the 24th minute, while sprinting to overlap Fyodor Smolov, he crumbled to the floor holding his hamstring.

It was immediately obvious that his match was over and probably his World Cup; it was later confirmed he would miss the two remaining group matches at the very least (though MRI results showed he is likely to miss the entire tournament). As Dzagoev limped off the field of play to the sombre applause of Russian supporters, he looked like a crushed man. With a grimace on his face, he clapped back but the weight of disappointment was clearly and understandably taking its toll on him – though this comes from more than that one moment, even if this injury did accentuate it.

As Dzagoev sat in the changing room, the sound of cheers and celebration would have been reverberating around every nook and cranny of the stadium as his replacement Denis Cheryshev bagged a brilliant brace to lead Russia to a 5-0 victory. It is difficult to imagine what was running through the fallen Russian’s mind as the joyous echoes reached him. But by the time Golovin’s free kick crept between the post and Abdullah Al Muaiouf’s fingertips, adding to the hype already surrounding the 22 year old, Dzagoev’s mind must have strayed to a time when he was in a similar situation to his CSKA Moscow team mate.

Back in 2012, going into the Euros in Poland and Ukraine, there was plenty of attention surrounding 22-year-old CSKA Moscow midfielder Alan Dzagoev. He had started his career with Krylia Sovetov-SOK (now known as FC Akademiya Totyatti) in the Russian Second Division before getting his move to CSKA in 2008, winning the Russian Premier League Best Young Player in his first season in Moscow. He had also shown his talent outside of Russia already, scoring in a 3-3 draw in the Champions League against Manchester United in 2009 as well as a free kick against Inter Milan in 2011.

However, it was during the Euro 2012 tournament that he truly announced himself to the world. Dzagoev shone for his country, though Russia weren’t able to navigate their way through a group containing Czech Republic, Greece and Poland. Despite this, Dzagoev, with three goals, finished as joint top scorer alongside big names Mario Mandžukić, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Gómez, Fernando Torres and Mario Balotelli.

He was lethal in and around the box. In the opening game Russia beat eventual group winners Czech Republic 4-1 with Dzagoev scoring two goals at vital times. He pounced on a loose ball in the penalty area before smashing it through the crowd and into the bottom corner to score the opener; then with the score at 2-1 and the Czechs threatening, he received the ball just outside the box, took a touch out of his feet and fired it past Petr Cech into the top corner, giving his side some breathing space. He then followed that up with a glancing header to opening the scoring in a 1-1 draw against Poland, before Russia were eventually beaten 1-0 by Greece who progressed along with the Czechs.

As often happens when a promising player does well in a tournament such as the Euros or a World Cup, sides from the biggest leagues in Europe started circling. There were rumours Real Madrid had taken interest in the midfielder and the name Dzagoev was plastered across the English media, linking him with moves to the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. With Andrey Arshavin already at Arsenal, Pavel Pogrebnyak at Fulham and Roman Pavlyuchenko having just left Tottenham Hotspur after a relatively successful four years in North London, it seemed clear that Dzagoev was going to be the latest Russian star to grace English shores. In the end nothing materialised and he stayed in Russia, with third party ownership issues and questions over his attitude complicating things.

One aspect of the Russian game which could have been a contributing factor in Dzagoev staying there is the competition’s domestic player rules. Since Dynamo Moscow fielded a team solely compiled of foreign talent against FC Moscow in 2005, there have been rules ensuring that teams must have at least four Russians on the pitch at all times, which was even raised to five in 2015. This ruling has seen the selling price and wage demands of Russian players in the league rocket, making it a much more comfortable decision for the biggest Russian talents to remain in the league, rather than taking the leap of faith to go abroad. Something which some feel has made many Russian players complacent and unmotivated to challenge themselves on a bigger stage. The risen financial demands from both clubs and players has also made Russian talent less appealing for suitors from the outside world.

Despite the decision for him to not flee the nest and go to play his football abroad straight away, many felt that he would continue to develop his game and go on to be one of the deadliest midfielders in Europe. It was assumed that he would move abroad at some point in his career and lead Russia during international tournaments. By the age of 28 – hitting what should be his prime years – many would have expected him to have truly made his mark on the wider game. But this vision hasn’t come to fruition. It can be argued that he has stagnated as a player, which has resulted in his options regarding moves to the top leagues dwindling away as time has gone on.

One factor that has undoubtedly impacted this is injuries. He has spent a total of 416 days out injured, sometimes at vital times. He was forced to withdraw from Russia’s Euros squad in 2016 through injury as well as in the Confederations Cup a year later. Though the fact that he was only a substitute for his country during the 2014 World Cup highlights how much his career had already stalled in the two years since the 2012 Euros.

He may have had difficulties throughout the years, but Dzagoev does still have an impressive CV. He’s won three league titles, the Russian Cup four times, and the Russian Super Cup twice. However, there will still be frustrations surrounding the amount of time he has spent on the sidelines. There will be even more due to the fact he hasn’t managed to reach the dizzying heights that he was touted to find himself at in the early stages of his career. Though at 28 years old, if he is able to maintain his fitness, there is a slight chance the Russian could still do so.

However, this World Cup should have been an opportunity for Dzagoev to remind the world of the talent which had so many talking six years ago. It now arguably embodies much of his career; he had a brief moment in the world’s spotlight before reluctantly trudging away from it and out of sight. As his team mates came bounding in following their colossal win, Dzagoev surely will have had mixed emotions. He will have congratulated his replacement Cheryshev on his two goals and man of the match award, before going over to speak to a jubilant Golovin who had announced himself to the world in a major international tournament at the age of 22. It is strangely similar to Dzagoev’s own experiences. There is a familiarity there; though hopefully that won’t be the case when the next World Cup comes along.

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Danny Lewis

Freelance sport writer and final year Multimedia Journalism student at Bournemouth University with a fascination for football's obscure stories.