Players to Watch: Russia 

In this series, Luke Griffin continues to profile exciting players around the world using TransferLab. Got a league or country you’d like to see covered? Let us know!

After hosting the 2018 World Cup and making the quarter-finals, Russia will be relying on a decision from FIFA to allow them to compete in Qatar in 2022 after a doping ban was levied upon them by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2019.

If they don’t make it, their squad will be in need of younger reinforcements. Their youngsters impressed in the under-21 Euros group stages, despite being knocked out, so there are good signs for the future of the national team.

Although the Russian Premier League isn’t the most highly-regarded of leagues, there have been some notable exports over the years. However, only three Russian players have played more than 400 minutes in a top-five league this season and none have played over 850.

In part, this is because the league’s strict foreigner limit creates a lucrative market for high-level players with Russian passports. As a result, many clubs simply cannot afford to buy elite Russian players even in the top five leagues in Europe.

As a league, though, it’s physical and intense with decent technical quality and, on top of this, it is fairly competitive with five different champions in the past 11 seasons.

Here’s TransferLab’s Best XI of players from the league:

Today, I’m going to look at four of these players—two of whom are Russian—who I think could impress outside of Russia in the coming years.

Fedor Chalov

Fedor Chalov is a Russian international who leads the line for CSKA Moscow. He’s previously been linked with moves to Chelsea and West Ham. An intelligent forward with good movement and positioning, he has all traits of a poacher with smart timing in the box. 

Chalov stands at 5’11” but handles himself well against physical defenders and is a good athlete with great acceleration. He’s agile and works hard to press the opposition in the final third. Put this all together and he’s a well-rounded attacker who can play between the lines with good passing, link-up play and footwork in tight spaces but who can also make runs ahead of the ball. 

For CSKA, Chalov’s play in a very narrow front three and links effectively with his inside forwards. This manifests itself in a very good assist record, as you can see in his TransferLab profile: 

TransferLab compares Chalov to Neal Maupay, Roberto Firmino and Callum Wilson, all of whom are strong comparisons.

I think that with some time to adapt to the higher intensity, Chalov could be a good target for teams in top leagues. He’s intelligent and athletic with good ability on the ball and could be effective in a pressing system and I believe he has a skill set that transfers to other leagues effectively.

Alex Kral

Alex Kral is a Czech international box-to-box midfielder. He stands at 6’1” and looks a bit lightweight but is a physical presence in midfield who could fill out well and isn’t afraid of a challenge. 

In a similar way to his compatriot Tomas Soucek, Kral isn’t an elegant or aesthetic player but is very effective. He supports attacking play down Spartak’s right wing and gets into some good positions. He brings quality to the final third with some good crossing and powerful running and has provided four assists this season. However, Kral doesn’t bring much of a goal threat and lacks consistency in the final third, needing to be more assertive and calm.

Kral receives the ball well, is comfortable using both feet and shows good awareness. His passing is decent and he is able to progress it well at times but at times needs to take care over his passing more. He could certainly execute passes with better technique more consistently. 

As you can see from his data, his main progression is through carrying. While I think at times he can be rushed and struggle with intensity, on the ball he’s calm and confident, wanting to drive into space:

The Czech international is strong in the challenge and works hard out of possession. He wants to press out of the line and shows good anticipation to read the game and make interceptions. He is also impressive in transition. However, he isn’t the most athletic or agile though which can limit him a bit at times. 

Comparing him to Premier League players, TransferLab thinks Declan Rice, Youri Tielemans and Sander Berge are his closest matches. Sander Berge was the player I was thinking of when watching him.

I think that Kral would step up to a bigger league. I don’t think that he’ll play for an elite team, but in the right team, he would be a functional player who could be really effective. That said, he would need some time to adapt to the higher intensity. 

Ayrton 

Ayrton has been playing in Russia since his transfer from Brazil in 2018. He’s an attacking left-back who wants to get forward, as you can see from his heat map:

An excellent dribbler who looks to dominate his flank and covers a lot of ground, he is confident on the ball and able to create space. He’s also a good creative force going forward with his crossing and passing, is able to progress the ball well and is an important outlet for Spartak Moscow, helping to carry them forwards on the counter.

Ayrton is intelligent with a good variation of forward runs. He gets into very good positions and reminded me of Andy Robertson in this respect. Defensively, he works hard to track back and applies a lot of pressure in the midfield third. He isn’t very physical but uses his pace effectively to stay tight to his man and is tough to beat with very good defensive footwork and agility.

TransferLab likens him to Sergio Regulion and Ryan Bertrand when looking at Premier League left-backs. Considered one of the top players in Russia, Ayrton will be looking to progress to a tougher league soon and break into the Brazilian national team.

Ivan Oblyakov

Oblyakov is a midfielder who has international experience with Russia’s under-21s side, captaining them for the whole of the most recent cycle. He’s slim with great agility and brings lots of energy and work rate to the midfield. Stylistically, he’s an intelligent deep-lying playmaker who receives the ball really well and is elegant on the ball. With his ability to play different angles effectively, he progresses the ball well and is able to play out from under pressure. 

The Russian has a great range of passing with accurate diagonals and switches and can play different types of passes really well. He makes good decisions on the ball and has excellent technique to vary his passing styles.

While he lacks physicality in midfield and isn’t a tough tackler, he is good in transitions and is a quick, smart defender who presses out of the midfield well to win loose balls in the opposition half and reads the game fairly well. 

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Harrison Reed and Fred are his most similar players according to TransferLab. I think that Oblyakov could adapt to a higher league effectively with his level of technicality and athleticism in midfield.

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