Alessia Russo has been a long-term target for Jonas Eidevall and Arsenal. That became public in January when, having missed out on Debinha and Cloe Lacasse, they were willing to break the world transfer record for Russo. They pivoted to Russo late in the window out of desperation having not really made a move for her earlier in January because it seemed unlikely that United would countenance a sale (which turned out to be the case).
However, Arsenal were always minded to make a big push for Russo during this summer at the conclusion of her Manchester United contract. Many have looked at her total of 10 WSL goals from last season and wondered why the club were willing to go so big on this player. Put simply, it’s because Eidevall views her as the perfect striker for his system. Let’s look at why.
Touch and hold up play
Eidevall wants a strong striker who can run the channels, hold the ball up and provide a focal point for attacks. It’s why Vivianne Miedema struggled as a centre-forward in Eidevall’s system in the first half of 2021-22. Eidevall bought Stina Blackstenius in January 2022 and moved Miedema into a deeper role behind the front line.
As a centre-forward, Miedema operates more like a false 9, dropping deep towards the ball to connect play and have lots of touches of the ball in the build-up. That isn’t what Eidevall wants from a central striker, he wants them running the channels and providing penalty area presence. Blackstenius does that and so does Russo.
One of Russo’s great strengths is her first touch, as well as her ability with her back to goal. Blackstenius admitted to Arseblog News last September that her touch was a key development area for her. “I think I need to be better with my first touch, to get the ball in tight spaces and to get the quick passes between me and Viv because I don’t have so much time with the ball and that is something I am really working on.”
Russo’s first touch is already very well honed. She has a very neat way of simultaneously getting the ball out of her feet and keeping it away from the opponent. Look at the clip below of Leah Galton’s goal against Aston Villa at Old Trafford from earlier in the season. She not only protects the ball but she manages to turn away from the defender too all in one movement.
She can do this in tight areas too, look at how she wins this penalty for England against Luxembourg last autumn by collecting the ball with her back to goal in the area before rolling her marker and drawing the foul. That assist for Galton against Aston Villa was no one-off either. She does something very similar in the home game against Leicester City with a wonderful touch in a crowded area, Russo isn’t just thinking of holding and protecting the ball but of releasing it into a dangerous area for a teammate. She can use this ability to get shots off too, as we see from this effort for England against Korea which hits the post.
This aspect requires less explanation. Eidevall wants his forwards to press and counter press intently and the chart below from Statsbomb compares Russo’s pressures to Stina Blackstenius’ (Russo is in red and Blackstenius in blue). Russo is one of the most effective pressing strikers in the WSL and that is a huge part of what Eidevall wants from his striker. Russo will need little to no coaching in this element, she will just need to do what she always does when it comes to pressing and regaining the ball high up the field.
Runs off the shoulder of the last defender
One of the reasons Eidevall bought Blackstenius was because of her tendency to play on the shoulder of the last defender. She pushes defences back and consistently asks them questions by playing on the last line to either force opponents to sit deeper and allow space, or else push up and risk allowing her runs in behind. Brighton, in particular, suffered at Stina’s hands in this respect recently.
This is an area of the game Russo is also very good at. She has a very good way of varying her runs and creating what coaches describe as ‘double movements’ to confuse defenders. This might involve starting to run on one side of the defender before quickly changing and running on their other side. Or it might involve threatening to run in behind a defender before quickly changing to run across them.
Just look at this run in behind from the right, followed by the one-touch (more on that later) and finish against Brighton in the FA Cup in April. Likewise, she makes a really smart run around the back of Emma Mukandi to win a penalty against Reading, this time in the left channel. In the example below, against Arsenal in April, her effort is saved but we also see how she is never fully idle even when it looks like she might be.
In the above example, for a start, she beats Jen Beattie in an aerial duel, which not many WSL forwards are capable of but even when the ball doesn’t fall especially favourably for United, she stays on Beattie’s shoulder so when the ball does break to Nikita Parris, she is alive and making the right run. Playing in the channels and on the shoulder are crucial attributes Eidevall wants from a striker. Remember also what Eidevall said about Frida Maanum in the number 10 role towards the end of last season.
“She is so good in front of their defending line, the power, her touch, the way she engages defenders. If you don’t step to her she shoots. Then it becomes a really hard task for the defending team, if you give her space she shoots. If you step up to her, it creates space and frees another player. That is exactly the type of decision we want to force from the opponent.” I imagine Eidevall envisages Maanum’s ability to draw defenders out with Russo’s ability to run in behind as a happy marriage.
I don’t need to tell Arsenal fans about Russo’s threat in the air. She has scored from headers in three of her last four encounters against the Gunners. With Katie Zelem’s wicked setpiece delivery and Ona Batlle’s world class open play crossing, Russo had plenty of avenues to demonstrate her strength, power and accuracy in the air. In Catley and McCabe, Arsenal have crossers and setpiece specialists to capitalise on this strength.
Russo scored five headers last season for club and country last season and, for me, this one against Reading was the pick of them. Batlle plays an excellent stand up cross, Reading’s defence is positioned well to deal with it but Russo just absolutely obliterates her marker in the air and powers a header into the top corner. Rachel Daly and Bunny Shaw scored a lot of goals in this manner last season and so did Russo.
Or if you want an insight into what an Arsenal hook up might look like, look no further than this header from a Leah Williamson cross against Luxembourg. It’s not just the amount of goals Russo scores from headers that gives opponents problems either, 13 of her shot creating actions were shots saved by the goalkeeper that fell to a teammate, most of these were headers. Look at Katie Zelem’s goal against Aston Villa as an example of this. Her aerial threat is an excellent creator of chances for others too.
Economy of touches
Every single one of Russo’s goals last season was preceded by no more than a single touch. When collecting passes in behind opponents, she takes them as early as possible before defenders and goalkeepers can get set. Look at the goal below from Toone’s through ball against Liverpool, which she takes first time.
Likewise, against Arsenal in April (sorry) she finishes Parris’ cut-back through a sea of bodies first time. At the foot of the article, I have catalogued her goals from last season with a link to view alongside them. Just look at how many times the words ‘header’ and ‘first-time’ appear. Her instinctive first time finishing also serves her well when the ball breaks loose in the penalty area.
This was another theme of her goals from last season, there were several occasions where the ball bounced around the penalty area and she was able to lash it home without pause for thought. She is an instinctive finisher. Look at the goal she scores against Austria for England last September, a cross comes in that isn’t aimed at her but when the ball ricochets in her direction, she acts instinctively to turn it home.
Russo scores a very similar goal for United against Spurs, her final goal of last season. It’s a very similar situation, a cross comes in (again, even though the initial cross doesn’t fall for her look at the panic her presence creates in the Spurs defence) but when the ball drops, her instinct takes over and she smashes it home first time. There is a looseness to her play in the area.
I love this instinctive finish for England against Korea in the Arnold Clark Cup. Again, it shows her alertness in the area. Even when the first cross is over hit and floats to the other side of the pitch, she stays switched on and then gets across her marker and it’s a very clever finish indeed. Most of all I like it because I can very much picture Steph Catley or Katie McCabe with a similar delivery to Alex Greenwood’s from the left side.
When it comes to the attributes that Eidevall wants from a striker, Russo is a very good fit which is why Arsenal pushed so hard for the transfer to happen. There are, of course, creases to iron in her game (only two of her United goals last season were scored away from home- one at Arsenal and one at Lewes). Arsenal scored 16 fewer WSL goals in 2022-23 compared to the previous season and Blackstenius had to play in every single game. They needed to add a striker and Russo has all the attributes Eidevall wants in a number 9.
|England v Austria
|First time finish from penalty area knockdown
|England v Luxembourg
|Back post header from cross
|MUFC v Reading
|Header from Batlle cross
|MUFC v Chelsea
|Through ball one touch and finish
|MUFC v Villa
|First time back post finish from Toone cross
|Arsenal v MUFC
|Header from corner
|MUFC v Liverpool
|First time finish from Toone through ball
|England v Korea Rep
|First-time front post finish from low Greenwood cross
|MUFC v Durham
|Header from Zelem free-kick
|MUFC v Leicester
|First time finish from close range
|MUFC v Leicester
|Header from Batlle cross
|MUFC v Leicester
|Close range rebound finish after Thomas header from corner saved
|Lewes v MUFC
|First time finish from Batlle cross
|MUFC v Brighton
|One touch and finish from through ball
|MUFC v Arsenal
|First time finish from Parris pull-back
|MUFC v Spurs
|First time finish after ball drops in area