FC Rostov forward Sardar Azmoun has emerged as a surprise target for Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool in the January transfer window.
One possible target is Azmoun, who the Reds are scouting ahead of a possible bid when the window opens on January 1.
So who is the Rostov man, what could he bring to Liverpool in January and why has Klopp set his sights on him?
Club: FC Rostov
At a young age, Azmoun’s sporting loyalties did not lie in football, but in volleyball, as despite earning a place in Iran’s Under-12 squad at the age of nine, he opted to take a year off football to concentrate on his first passion.
His father, Khalil, had been a fixture of the Iran national volleyball team and has since gone on to coach a number of clubs, but when Azmoun returned his focus to football, he supported his decision.
This proved fruitful, with Azmoun progressing through the Iranian youth ranks at domestic sides Oghab Gonbad, Shamoushak Gorgan, Etka Gorgan and ultimately Sepahan.
It was his displays at international level that garnered his reputation as a young talent, however, such as when performing for the Iran Under-20s at the Commonwealth of Independent States Cup in 2012, netting seven goals in six games as his side finished fifth.
Top goalscorer on Russian soil, Azmoun drew the attention of Rubin Kazan, and turning down a contract from Sepahan, as well as offers from Persepolis and Esteghlal, he made the move to Kazan in 2013.
In doing so, Azmoun became the first Iranian player to make the switch to the Russian Premier League and, at 18 and having never made senior competitive appearance, Kazan were clearly banking on potential.
Notable Iranian Players in Europe
- Reza Ghoochannejhad – SV Heerenveen (Netherlands)
- Alireza Jahanbakhsh – AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands)
- Ali Karimi – Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)
- Alireza Haghighi – CS Maritimo (Portugal)
- Saeid Ezatolahi – FC Rostov (Russia)
- Sardar Azmoun – FC Rostov (Russia)
- Milad Mohammadi – Terek Grozny (Russia)
- Porya Ahmadi – Rhyl FC (Wales)
Azmoun scored in just his second game for the club, after coming on as a substitute in Kazan’s 3-0 Europa League victory over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Molde in 2013, before scoring once and laying on another in his league debut against Anzhi Makhachkala.
In his first season with Kazan, Azmoun registered four goals and three assists in 14 league games, averaging a direct goal contribution every 112 minutes, and was the subject of interest from Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and, unsurprisingly, Liverpool.
Azmoun ultimately left Kazan for Rostov, however, initially on loan and, controversially, on a permanent deal in the summer—with Kazan refusing to acknowledge a buy-out clause in the forward’s contract, though this was ultimately overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
He has clearly remained on Liverpool’s radar, however, but what could he bring to the Reds in January?
Strengths, Weaknesses & Style of Play
Azmoun is primarily a centre-forward, and has scored 39 goals in 107 senior games for club and country, with his record for Iran, with 15 goals in just 20 games, particularly impressive.
It is this rate of a goal every 1.33 games that could see Azmoun surpass Iran’s greatest-ever player, Ali Daei, who struck 109 times in 149 outings for his country, at a rate of one every 1.37 games.
He is a 6’1″ striker who has a wide variety of skills, including the ability to play comfortably with both feet, trouble defences with a range of movement—from well-timed diagonal runs to rapid drives on the counter-attack—and, crucially, the ability to finish from all situations.
“I have always admired Zlatan because his technical skills are amazing for such a big man,” Azmoun said in 2014, and it is clear that he shares some attributes with the Swedish legend.
Though, unlike Ibrahimovic, he is not the loftiest of strikers—standing at the same height as Liverpool’s Divock Origi—he has learned to dominate defences in the air.
This could be seen with his strike against Ajax in the Champions League qualification round in August, rising above the Dutch side’s defence to power a header beyond Jasper Cillessen and help seal a 4-1 victory and progress to the tournament’s group stage.
Having already turned out in the Europa League for Kazan, Azmoun has gained further experience in Europe’s top tier this season, with Rostov drawn against Bayern Munich, PSV Eindhoven and Atletico Madrid in Group D—scoring once against the latter in November’s 2-1 defeat.
On the whole for Rostov, however, Azmoun’s efforts in front of goal have been more muted, and this season so far he has scored just four times in 19 games in all competitions, with a further two assists.
This is seemingly due to the low-scoring nature of the Russian Premier League, as only twice this season have there been more than three goals scored in any of Rostov’s games, with no more than five scored on any occasion; only Zenit St. Petersburg (27) and Spartak Moscow (22) have scored more than 20 goals in 13 league games so far.
Instead, Azmoun is tasked with contributing to a rigid defensive effort, while snatching up chances whenever they are produced.
In this respect, however, with Azmoun preferring to showcase his flair and creativity in an attacking role, the 21-year-old can still improve on his discipline, as well as his physicality.
But as Iran manager Carlos Queiroz said in 2015, “he has all the qualities to succeed at the highest level.”
Why is Klopp Targeting Azmoun?
Signing Azmoun in January, when he has previously acknowledged the need to add another wide player to his squad, would be a surprising move from Klopp.
“Three strikers is enough, I think,” he said in November. “But when Sadio is away we will be without a winger. We do not have many wingers, I would say.”
On paper, Azmoun is not the type of striker who would thrive out wide in the Premier League, and if he did turn to the Iranian, it would likely mean Roberto Firmino would be shifted wide if he was to feature in Mane’s absence.
However, given Azmoun is 21 and has no experience of the English top flight, it could be that Klopp envisages his transition to be on a more lengthy scale, similar to that of Grujic.
Grujic has made just two starts in the League Cup and two substitutes appearances in the league so far, following his move from Red Star Belgrade in the summer.
With Azmoun drawing comparison between himself and Ibrahimovic, this could suggest Klopp is looking to diversify his attacking options, too, with AIK’s 6’3″ striker Alexander Isak also linked with a move to Liverpool this season.
Valued at close to £6 million, Azmoun could well be part of a long-term plan for Klopp, rather than the quick fix expected in the January market.