The roaring success of England’s Lionesses at Euro 2022 has captured the imagination of a public previously indifferent to the women’s game like never before; Football’s Coming Home belted out in pubs and fan parks, the classic tournament arc of battling start, moments of explosion and question marks over an established star’s right to be picked. More than ever, fans are embracing that football is Her Game Too.
Perhaps the brightest sparkle among the glittering galaxy though is the mercurial genius of impact substitute Alessia Russo. We spoke to women’s football expert, analyst and acclaimed author Abdullah Abdullah to get an insight into who the player behind the headlines really is, and how far she could go after a summer like no other.
Everyone’s seen the stunning backheel goal against Sweden, but just how good actually is Alessia Russo the player?
Alessia Russo is the real deal. We’re seeing this young player blossom into this really world-class player. I think there’s a lot of development to go but all the signs are that she’ll be such a pivotal player for England. Before the tournament we were thinking there’s Russo, Beth England, and it looked like England was going to be the one to fill in for Ellen White, then you see how Alessia’s played, and Sarina Wiegman’s preference for her, and Russo’s probably the heir to Ellen White’s throne – possibly even for the World Cup next year.
Do you think she made the right decision to move to US college soccer just months after making her senior league debut in the WSL 2? How did the move help or hinder her, as a player and a person?
In hindsight I think it has, because she’s been able to go there and develop as a player in a different league, in a different environment. I think US Soccer, US college soccer is such an important networking event that’s so important for a lot of players. We’ve seen a lot of players come out of the draft and play in the NWSL with some really good players there.
Just take the example of Catarina Macario – she now plays for Lyon. She went straight from playing for Stanford to Lyon, she didn’t even go through the NWSL, and now she’s one of the best young players in the world. I think for Alessia to go there and develop against girls her age who are really, really good.
Is Manchester United the best club for her development, or do you see her better suited to a more established powerhouse of English women’s football like Chelsea or Manchester City?
I think right now United might the best club available to her, mainly because she’s pretty much guaranteed a starting spot every week so there is a space for her to play more often than not. If you look at the likes of Man City, Arsenal, Chelsea, they already have big names. Chelsea have Pernille Harder, Fran Kirby, and Sam Kerr, City have Khadija Shaw And Ellen White, Arsenal have Vivianne Miedema, so there’s really no pathway for regular first-team football. In that sense, Manchester United are probably one of the better places for now until she can compete with the likes of a Sam Kerr or a Miedema.
How much of a danger do you think there is that the inevitable hype surrounding Russo at this tournament will typecast her as a flashy supersub, and gloss over her overall quality?
I don’t think there’s too much of an issue of her becoming a flashy supersub. I think it’s well known that she can play well as a starter or as a supersub; the only reason she is a supersub for England is you basically have to play Ellen White. If you reverse the roles and start Russo, White isn’t going to give you much coming off the bench, whereas Russo will, and Russo essentially does fit in with the play.
I can see in a year’s time at the World Cup that Russo is starting games and be the one to play for 90 minutes. White might have to be on the bench while you develop another striker such as Bethany England. No, I don’t think it’s an issue, it’s just good management that she’s able to come on and make such an impact like that. And there’s no sign of her being like “Oh, I’m just a supersub”,; you can see her just starting and playing well.
Why do you believe Sarina Wiegman has not started Russo yet this tournament – and do you think it has been the right decision?
I could say it’s the right decision, because the team’s been winning. It comes back to my previous thing about Ellen White just starts games better, and if it isn’t working out you can just bring on Russo, whereas if you bring on Ellen White she doesn’t give you that same impact. Honestly we don’t know why; I think she’s just going with experience. She knows that White gives her something that other players don’t. White gives you experience, she’s a big-tournament player, and although she hasn’t scored many goals, she just knows what to do in that position. You can then bring on Russo when there are tired legs.
What are Russo’s key characteristics that define her as a player? What have been her standout analysis points from this tournament, and the last domestic season?
Her standout attribute is her link-up play, and her ability to really contribute to the all-round game by dropping in deep and hanging in with the play, and she just seems like the type of player that fits the overall style a lot better. She’s got power, deceptive pace, this work ethic where she runs a lot, working the channels, but I think her link-up play is where she’s really stood out from an analysis point of view.
Her relationship with Ella Toone is massive, because they play together for club and country, and they both usually come within a few minutes if not together. So when you play Toone and Russo together for their club the entire time and at international level, they’ve already got that understanding already there.
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