Russo’s complete centre-forward display shows England can deal with Daly retirement

On the morning after England’s previous Euro 2025 qualifying double-header, Sarina Wiegman was dealt a blow. Rachel Daly, full-back but also back-up centre-forward, announced she was retiring from international duty. Coming at the relatively early age of 32, and so suddenly after a match, it was a shock and a setback.

Daly’s versatility became a running joke and probably held back her international career. But this was a player who had finished as the Women’s Super League’s top goalscorer in 2022-23 with 22 goals in 22 games. She also scored in consecutive matches against Austria and Italy in February. And it left Wiegman without serious depth up front, a particular problem considering first-choice No 9 Alessia Russo hadn’t quite pushed on as expected after her move to Arsenal last summer.

But since Daly’s retirement, Russo has played perhaps the best football of her career. She returned to Arsenal and banged in five goals in four games, ending the campaign with her best WSL goals return so far. Russo has always appeared a confidence player: when she’s out of sorts she struggles to influence games, but when she’s performing well, she completely dominates.

In both matches against France this week, a 2-1 defeat in Newcastle and then a 2-1 victory in Saint-Etienne, Russo has been England’s best player. At St James’ Park, she came short, linked play and encouraged others into attack. That has always been one of her strengths, particularly when compared to Daly — who, a little ironically for such an all-rounder, always seemed like a pure penalty box player when fielded in her preferred position up front. Russo has felt like a more modern centre-forward, a combination of a No 9 and No 10.

Russo dribbling with the ball on Tuesday (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

And Russo was even better last night. There are essentially three ways to beat an opposition back four. You can go between them, you can go over them, and you can go around them.

And that means a centre-forward has to offer, broadly speaking, three different qualities. To help her side go between the back four, the striker needs to be able to be involved in combination play. To help her side go over the back four, the striker needs speed in behind. And to help her side go around the back four, the striker needs to be a proper target for crosses. Last night, Russo played all three roles perfectly.

The first job, linking play, is Russo’s specialism. In particular, she was excellent at receiving long balls. This was crucial because England were determined to play longer than usual, bypassing France’s aggressive midfield press. Leah Williamson and Millie Bright both hit ambitious passes into attack. They conceded possession more often than Wiegman would have liked, but Russo won balls others wouldn’t have, held off defenders, and linked play.

One piece of play midway through the first half, when she knocked the ball back to Ella Toone, who fed Beth Mead in behind for a decent shot down the right, was particularly smooth. She also received the ball from a throw-in and turned smarty in the build-up to Georgia Stanway’s belting opener. Her close friend Toone is sometimes accused of primarily offering a goal threat rather than passing quality from the No 10 role, and that means Russo’s ability to link play is even more vital.

“She’s working so hard on that, holding the ball up but also being in the right positions in the build-up, and the right positions when we get into the final third, and you saw today,” said Wiegman. “She played a proper game on Friday as well, particularly deeper on the pitch in the build-up. And you see how important that is because the team can move up too.”

The second role is something Russo should probably do more of: going in behind. Russo isn’t a pure speedster and doesn’t work the channels as effectively as a striker like Sam Kerr. But her movement is good and she’s excellent at using her body to fend off defenders. One moment, when she received the ball on the half turn, spun down the outside of Maelle Lakrar and got her body between Lamar and the ball, showed how dangerous she can be in those situations. She is one of the strongest strikers in the women’s game, and can probably become even bolder in terms of using her power.

But the third role was most pleasing. When the ball was wide, Russo made the right runs to get into prime goalscoring positions. When Mead sprinted down the right and drove a cross to the near post, Russo got to the ball ahead of Lakrar but got too much on her attempt at goal. When Williamson switched play to Lucy Bronze, who knocked the ball across the box for Russo, her clever, headed, effort was foiled by a good save. And then, third time lucky — when Lauren Hemp found herself on the right and sent in a far-post cross, Russo headed the ball down past the goalkeeper and up into the net. 2-0.

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Rachel Daly (right) surprisingly retired after England’s last international double-header (Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images)

“The first half was one of the best halves we’ve ever played,” said Wiegman afterwards. “Sometimes playing, sometimes going in behind quicker. We created about six huge chances to score goals.”

The second half was tougher. France made changes, threw players into attack and scored from a penalty. But Russo remained England’s best player: a constant out-ball. When Williamson played an ambitious pass into her under pressure, Russo shielded the ball, dropped deep, laid it off and England kept possession. When Russo was found down the left, closely followed by Lakrar, she simply barged her way up the touchline, gaining 30 yards and winning a throw. When France chucked a late set-piece into the box, Russo got her head to the first ball, then thumped clear the second ball. She did more than anyone else to keep France at bay.

Russo was non-committal when asked afterwards if it was one of her best games in an England shirt. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll look back at it after. I think when you’re in the moment, you’re so focused on the game…strikers get counted on their goals and that’s massively important to me and I always want to keep working on that, but I think I’m learning that there’s so much more to the No 9 role.”

When she sits down and watches the game back, Russo will enjoy what she sees — she offered hold-up play, speed in the channels and a target for crosses. It was the complete centre-forward performance. Perhaps Daly’s retirement hasn’t left England short up front, but instead given Russo the confidence she needed to reach the next level.

(Top photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

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