Maybe it’s a symptom of the impatient world we inhabit but, whenever a young talent emerges, there seems an almost inevitable clamour for this new star to start every game. In England’s case that is now applying to Alessia Russo after the Manchester United striker’s impressive performances as a substitute during England’s first four Euro 2022 games.
Russo scored a goal against Norway and two against Northern Ireland after coming off the bench. Crucially, she also played a key role in creating her fellow substitute Ella Toone’s late equaliser in the quarter-final against Spain.
Her impact has prompted suggestions Ellen White should be dropped for Tuesday’s semi-final against Sweden but, if I were Sarina Wiegman I would most definitely resist that temptation. White would be the centre-forward in my Euro 22 starting XI every time. She did not become England’s record goalscorer by accident and, even if the goals haven’t exactly been flowing for her lately, she has still got into some excellent positions.
White also plays a vitally important, if sometimes unsung, role in the Lionesses’ pressing game and is one of Wiegman’s leaders on the pitch, her movement asks so many questions of defenders they are invariably left stressed out and tired by the time Russo and her fellow substitutes join the party.
That is no criticism of Russo. She is a hugely talented 23-year-old who I’m sure will one day take over from White as England’s centre-forward but, at the moment, the demand for her to play every minute of every game seems more about the “we want it now, now, now” demands of the times we live in than what is best for either her or the Lionesses. Playing too many minutes too soon does not always enhance your longer-term international career.
Why can’t everyone simply be happy that England have such strength in depth that they really do now have a Plan B and a Plan C? Tournament football is a squad game and we should never underestimate the role of the players on the bench.
As Russo and Toone proved against Spain, substitutes can change games. Starting a game, particularly at a major tournament, is very different to coming into it at some point in the second half, or even extra-time, when opponents are fatigued, the game becomes stretched and newcomers can make things chaotic for defenders.
To start a semi-final is a big responsibility. It’s the sort of match that requires experienced leaders. This is a relatively young, inexperienced England side so on Tuesday they will need every bit of White’s experience, leadership, presence and work ethic on the pitch.
Russo will learn an awful lot from sitting on the bench and watching all the little things White does, the intelligence of her pressing from the front, that work ethic, her movement and the way Sweden’s defenders react to different situations. Then, if the time comes for her to step off the bench and present that backline with a different challenge, she’ll have an understanding of precisely what she needs to do and a better opportunity to capitalise.
One of the most encouraging things about this England squad is that they all seem to be very much on the same page, with players on the bench very supportive of those on the pitch. There’s clearly a strong sense of unity; this group have such collective trust they know they can all lean on each other. There was a lovely moment in the quarter-final when Rachel Daly came off, probably feeling a bit down after struggling at left-back. Jill Scott, a substitute, hugged her and gave her a little kiss on the cheek, showing her emotional intelligence and saying “you’re one of us”.
As much as managers may try to dial it down or dilute it, at this stage of a tournament everyone’s under pressure – and pressure is all about emotions. The trick is to manage those inner highs and lows – along with the big moments that matches turn on.
Everyone can make mistakes under pressure but the experiences of having played in semi-finals will help players such as White, Fran Kirby and Beth Mead on Tuesday. If I were Wiegman – who, significantly, made precisely the right changes and tactical tweaks against Spain – I’d definitely keep those three plus Lauren Hemp at the attacking end of the starting XI and leave Toone and Chloe Kelly as potential impact substitutes.
Against Spain, England struggled to move the ball from back to front and Kirby and Mead weren’t as influential as they would have liked but they’ve been two of England’s best players this summer. Kirby’s such an intelligent, and crafty, footballer. My former Chelsea teammate knows how to go hunting for space and cause chaos by drifting into it and passing between the lines. She pulls defenders out of position and leaves them asking “do I step out or do I drop?”
Happily, I faced no such dilemma when I accepted the Bristol City manager Lauren Smith’s invitation to become her first-team coach – I’m super-excited. That’s also how England fans should feel about the depth in depth of Wiegman’s attacking options.