19 Striker Rubin Kazan Iran
2014 has been...
A surprising slight misfire. Born in Gonbad-e Kavus in north-eastern Iran, near the border with Turkmenistan, Sardar Azmoun was a talented all-round sportsman as a child and was once given the chance to play volleyball for the national team at youth level. In football he moved around a lot in Iran before making his senior debut for Russia’s Rubin Kazan, whom he joined in January last year.
He tends to stand out. On the pitch, his distinctive mop of black hair is as easy to spot as his number 69 jersey. Off it, he’s spent most of 2014 as the subject of transfer rumours and endless comparisons between himself and one of the genuine greats of the world game. The Iranian Messi? Well, not really. It’s a link even Azmoun isn’t keen on.
The two might have met in Brazil in the summer. Iran were drawn into Argentina’s World Cup group and Azmoun, who only made his international debut this year, was named by Carlos Queiroz in the 30-man preliminary squad for the tournament. However, Queiroz opted for a defence-minded 23 in the final event and forward Azmoun didn’t make the cut. With even a slightly different approach from the coach the Argentine Azmoun might have had to face his unwitting protégé en-route to the final.
Besides his first handful of national team caps, 2014 has been a year of plugging away in his relatively infrequent opportunities for Rubin Kazan and mastering the transfers and media game. Azmoun hasn’t been backwards in coming forward about interest from overseas. Liverpool and AC Milan are amongst his reported admirers. Internazionale apparently fancied a piece of him before he even reached Russia.
But the player himself supposedly dreams of playing for Arsenal, and the period between the January and summer transfer windows earlier this year carried seemingly daily reports of a possible move to London. It was a spell in which the dastardly Iranian Messi tag proliferated in spite of the modest fees mentioned alongside it. Azmoun said in June that he’d prefer to stay in Russia.
There are one or two question marks over his ambition and communication skills off the pitch but if he applies himself and continues to improve he’ll be a bargain for somebody at those prices. Despite hardly being first choice, it’s worth considering whether Azmoun, at his best, might be capable of more in a better team than Rubin Kazan. In his matches early in this calendar year they often didn’t have enough of the ball or enough of an attacking impact for him to really have an effect.
Azmoun can play right through the middle and lead the line as part of a two or, less so, on his own. In a pair he takes on mixed duties, sometimes making a good run himself and sometimes dropping in to flick the ball on to a man beyond him, which he does very deftly for a player of his stature. The same goes for holding up the play.
His movement is clever and he’s not frightened to use his upper body strength to mix it up with bigger players. His close control and reactions in the box are textbook, even under pressure, and his attacking positioning tends to be excellent whether he’s central or working the channels. Defenders can’t leave him alone for a second. Rough around the edges he may be, but he’s a threat.
Azmoun seems to almost drift into good positions and works hard to have a creative input, not least when the run of play leaves him in a number ten spot. One moment he’ll be nonchalantly scooping a pass in behind the defence, the next he’ll be neatly and incisively playing short passes to keep his team moving.
He’s got good balance, tidy footwork and lovely dribbling skills, and it’s here that the otherwise ludicrously over-egged Messi comparison is most permissible. He glides by players, sometimes just knocking the ball past and absolutely rinsing them, enabled by his close control and awareness of what’s around him. Azmoun is inventive and aggressive, and in full flow he’s an exciting and intelligent prospect.
As with most teenage strikers his finishing with the distraction of thinking time can be a little wayward and needs improving, and there are other areas to focus on. He’s capable of the odd “striker’s tackle” in the hunt for the ball, and is no stranger to leaving a boot or a leg in on an opponent. It’s naïveté rather than malice, but he has a streetwise edge to his game as well. No referee will be left in any doubt when Azmoun’s shirt has been pulled, to give just one example.
He gets caught offside needlessly too often and it costs him good chances. Paying more attention to the line would do him no harm at all and a few more goals – and misses, undoubtedly – should follow. Nevertheless, he’s always interested and active in a team that can be prone to labouring and a touch of negativity. It’s a liveliness that will serve him well.
For all his ability and the weaknesses that come with it, it must be mentioned that Azmoun doesn’t play 90 minutes for Rubin Kazan every week. He made his senior debut in July 2013 in the Europa League and played his first Russian Premier League game the following month, and since then he’s played about as much as one would expect of a closely managed 19-year-old.
In 2013/14 he started nine league games and made five league appearances as a substitute, scoring five goals. This season, his single goal earned his team their first point of the season. He’s made three starts and eight appearances off the bench at the time of writing; with his 20th birthday approaching on New Year’s Day, his next big step is to force his way into the reckoning more often. A few more goals would be the perfect accompaniment.
Perhaps more importantly, Azmoun could and should be something of a trailblazer for his nation. Despite arguably being outstripped at international level by Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Azmoun is the youngest Iranian to play in the Europa League or Champions League and has a responsibility to push back the limits for young Iranian players.
Even more so than succeeding in Russia, that means cracking the Iranian national team. Azmoun hasn’t quite managed that under Queiroz, playing just three times since replacing Reza Ghoochannejhad in the friendly against Montenegro in May. He did the same earlier this month and scored a controversial winner against South Korea, his first senior international goal.
Given the incessant nature of the transfer talk it seems very likely that some major European club will take a chance on him within a year. We’d like him to play a bit more before taking on a move, but the future of Sardar Azmoun isn’t just dependent on where he plays his football. The quality is there and only he can make it pay.
"It’s usually obvious that Azmoun has the ability to become an impressive player, but the flaws in his game are a worry. He’ll take on more playing time in 2015 unless he moves on, and, with those extra minutes, he should be able to shake out the kinks and really make a name for himself. He must think very carefully about whether he should leave Russia next summer; if he does, the right destination is vital." - Chris Nee
C- Smart decisions needed in 2015.
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