With Wednesday’s news that Ellen White has had to withdraw from England’s pre-Euro 2022 camp with COVID-19, Sarina Wiegman’s squad has suffered the (hopefully only temporary) loss of arguably one of their cornerstones. But out of struggle comes opportunity, and with England now having a hole at their number 9 position for at least the next couple of games, this could be the beginning of a changing of the guard up top for the Lionesses and a chance for a new star to rise.
Ellen White is a Lionesses legend. Top scoring England woman ever and only three goals behind the record English goalscorer in all of football, she has 11 goals in the past 7 England games and was seen by most, at least in the media, as England’s unquestioned starting striker in the coming European Championships even despite a disappointing season in the Barclays WSL and the fact she’s only scored 1 goal against a top 20-ranked nation in the world in an England shirt since the 2020 SheBelieves Cup. So, the news that she, at least temporarily, is not an option for Sarina Wiegman would be expected to be a body-blow.
Don’t get me wrong here – losing a player with the experience of White hurts England at any time, and even her harshest critics will be wishing her a very quick recovery from COVID so that she can come back into the England squad as soon as possible because the England squad is undoubtedly far stronger with Ellen White in it than without. But at the same time, though it’s come in a way nobody would wish it, White’s enforced absence the next few games presents a golden opportunity for the next generation of England striker to cement her claim for the position spearheading England’s attack at Old Trafford on July 6th – one that so far Sarina Wiegman has been reluctant to give and is now forced to by circumstance.
It represents an opportunity, if not for a passing of the torch, at least for someone to claim equal custody of it.
If England want to be the best team in Europe this summer, that “someone” has to be Manchester United’s Alessia Russo.
Looking at the sheer weight of power in the England striking ranks might make one think that is a strong statement to make – after all, Russo has so far only played 5 games for England. She is the least-experienced name of a group that has names like Beth Mead, Beth England and Nikita Parris also potentially vying for that spot as spearhead of the attack.
But the thing with Russo is she is what one might justly call a prodigy. Top scorer for her club in the WSL this season, forming a prolific pairing with fellow rising star for England Ella Toone just behind her, and with double the amount of goals that Ellen White has in club football in a similar number of minutes, she’s unquestionably in form. But there are more reasons than just goals as to why Russo needs the chance to start now.
Let’s take a look at her 2021/22 domestic season, and compare it against her rival for the England striking job.
Russo vs White
Now…there’s a lot of data in there but the key points are these…
Russo is better than White in almost every statistical category this season important as a number nine and even where White is better the gap is negligible and likely explained by the fact Russo has played the equivalent of three games extra – indeed the closest-running player is Beth England and England APPEARS to have a significantly higher production rate in goals/90, for example. But we have to bear in mind that Beth England is a) playing for Chelsea and b) often came on against tiring defences in the WSL while playing less than half the minutes Russo did. If you adjust for playing time, Russo is in fact equally prolific.
But forget goals themselves – it’s what Russo does more than White and indeed any of her rivals aside from putting the ball in the back of the net that makes her relevant for England.
If you’re going to play a spearhead, they need to be a multi-talented player in today’s game. Ellen White is more of a specialist. She has done one thing very well in her career, and that’s pop up to score goals for England when needed – which worked fine when she was the sole focus of England’s attack.
But football has changed now – number nines are expected to create chances and progress the ball as well as simply pop up to finish off their team-mate’s hard work. And Russo does that beautifully. She has carried the ball herself in a way that moves possession at least 5 yards forward 75 times. White’s total? 17. She is better at being an offensive target player (she was targeted with passes by teammates over 200 times more than White was last season and retained possession 66% of the time, as opposed to White’s 55%). Russo made a total progression forward with the ball of 1200 yards last season – Ellen White’s sum total of forward runs with the ball was less than a sixth of that. A SIXTH.
The upshot of this is simple…Ellen White waits for the game to come to her…Alessia Russo drives the game forward wherever she can.
All the best players in the world, in the men’s or women’s game, are known for being players who “make things happen”, and Russo simply does that more than White does as a number 9.
One of the major criticisms of England thus far is that when it comes to scoring, they perhaps overcomplicate some things, or don’t make things happen enough. If Ellen White isn’t in the opposition penalty area, she is often a passenger, waiting for her team-mates to make her chances. That isn’t a criticism – just a statement of fact.
But it effectively means with this England that the supposed focus of their attack is a reactive player, not a proactive one. That is a style of play that might work against the likes of Latvia time and again, but we saw in the Arnold Clark Cup (where White was often a peripheral figure and despite her much-vaunted scoring record she was outscored by Millie Bright from centre-back) that it doesn’t work any more against the elite teams, who are a level above even where they were at the 2019 World Cup.
Women’s football has changed so much in the past few years that England have to change with it at major tournaments and acknowledge that players like Lauren Hemp and Beth Mead are far more effective when they have a target to play off and with them rather than merely feed – and Russo will do that in a way Ellen White may not.
England need something different up front. There is still definitely room for a player like Ellen White, but if Sarina Wiegman is going to persist in playing a lone spearhead, then that spearhead should be Russo. She’s more proactive, more progressive and crucially more involved in the entire game than her competitor. With White missing due to COVID against the Netherlands but nothing on the line but pride, now is an IDEAL chance to see what Russo can do against one of the best teams in the world given the chance.
Women’s football is entering a new era, and after this tournament, the Lionesses, too, will likely begin to fully transition to the next wave of talent. Alessia Russo this season has shown very real signs of wanting to be England’s next great number nine. Ellen White is not getting any younger and the calls this season have already been loud and long for there to at least be rotation up top so England have more than one name staking their claim loudly to start against Austria.
This WSL season Alessia Russo has more than earned the chance to prove herself, and with fate deciding that White will be absent for a test against one of the best teams in the world, what better and crucially more beneficial time to give her that chance?
That is why Friday at Elland Road should be Lessi Russo’s big night. She’s been knocking on the door and fate has opened it.
Now all that Sarina Wiegman needs to do is give her the chance to walk through it.