When Aleksandr Golovin stood with his arms aloft after netting Russia’s fifth goal against Saudi Arabia in the opening match of World Cup 2018, the 23-year-old attacking midfielder looked like a player with the game at his feet.
The host nation’s poster-boy had come good when all the eyes of the world were affixed upon a country and team around which so much scepticism had swirled for months beforehand. And just as Russia swept away the doubters over its capability to stage such a global event, Golovin seemed to have done likewise to critics who might have questioned his ability.
It might ‘only’ have been Saudi Arabia, but he contributed heavily to four of the five goals, while his defensive work was admirable and not to be overlooked: he won back possession more than any other player on the pitch and covered more distance, too.
Little wonder that big clubs were clamouring for his signature come the end of the tournament, with Real Madrid and Juventus set to pounce for the CSKA Moscow man before Monaco and their Russian ownership swooped to take him to Ligue 1.
He was immediately hailed by head coach Leonardo Jardim as the club’s “most important signing”. The €30 million (£27m/$34m) move, however, has turned rather sour for both parties, with Golovin having dreadfully failed to perform since arriving in France. Indeed, there is a case to be made that he has been the biggest transfer flop in European football over the course of the last 12 months.
In 36 games, he mustered only four goals and as many assists, a fair reflection on the influence he had under both Jardim and, temporarily, Thierry Henry.
“Everything is much faster than in Russia, especially when it comes to decision-making,” he told France Football in October. “The first games were really tough. Ligue 1 players are stronger physically, faster and more technical than in Russia.”
Initially, there was a defence of the player, notably from Arsenal legend Henry, who took charge of Monaco for a mere 20 matches before being sacked.
“He came back too quickly after the World Cup, without taking a holiday,” Henry said in mid-January. “After that, he played with an ankle injury. He couldn’t even strike the ball.
“I’ve experience of knowing how hard it is to adapt to a new country. Especially when the team is not going well. Guys point the finger: ‘Big transfer! What’s he doing? He’s not scoring and he’s not making assists!’”
Henry’s assistant boss, Franck Passi, also stood by the Russian, stating: “The day when he scores one, he’s going to go on a run.”
Golovin, though, was evidently unimpressed with Henry, later coming out with a broadside on the former Belgium assistant, stating to YouTuber Savin Evgeny: “He’s not completed his transition to a coaching role… For me, he’s not ready to coach yet.”
There were instances when his contempt for Henry seemed to be manifest on the pitch. In a 3-0 defeat to Lyon shortly before Christmas, he was dismissed mere seconds after half-time in what many claimed was a pre-meditated action to earn a red card.
It was a moment that did the player and the club no favours, and simply served to highlight his personal frustrations.
There were a few bright moments that suggested he might become the player that we saw at the World Cup. Indeed, it was fitting that in a season of such individual and collective mediocrity, he scored a goal and fashioned an assist in a 2-0 win over Amiens that ultimately kept relegation-threatened Monaco in Ligue 1.
Circumstances certainly worked against the player, too. He arrived carrying an ankle injury and just as it seemed that he was ready to finally show his true potential, another problem with the same joint emerged. To his credit, he played through the pain barrier having been expected to be sidelined for several weeks, though that was to the clear detriment of his form.
A year after being on top of the world, Golovin instead finds himself unanimously selected in flop XIs by the French press, an indication of just how far and how quickly he has fallen.
With four years to run on a five-year deal, there may yet be time to salvage his reputation in Ligue 1, but with Bundesliga side Hoffenheim hovering, it may be judicious for all parties simply to make a clean break.
Having answered the critics once in his career, Golovin finds himself needing to do so all over again.