England were fast heading out of a home Euro 2022 disappointingly early until substitutes Ella Toone and Alessia Russo combined in the closing stages of the quarter-final against Spain.
Both players had already been pushing for a start following impressive performances off the bench during the group stage, having been brought on early in the second half in all three matches against Austria, Norway and Northern Ireland.
Against Spain, England were arguably second best for the first hour, with La Roja firmly knocking on the door by half-time and good value for the lead when Esther Gonzalez scored soon after the interval.
Russo in particular changed the game. She gave England an attacking focal point that they had been lacking without her and asked more taxing questions of the Spanish defence with her physicality. She gave England fresh impetus up front and it rubbed off on her teammates. New Bayern Munich midfielder Georgia Stanway eventually went on to get the winner in extra time.
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England defender Millie Bright credited all the subs for making the vital difference: “Our subs took us to the next level really," she said. "You need them to come and bring that little bit more energy.”
Russo is gunning to be the long-term replacement for veteran favourite Ellen White and has outscored the 33-year-old in fewer minutes on the pitch at this tournament. Toone’s clinical equaliser in the quarter-final was created by Russo’s downward header, while the Manchester United pair previously combined for Russo’s stunning second goal against Northern Ireland.
That relationship was born in England’s youth ranks around seven years ago when they first became close friends. More recently, it has been able to blossom on the pitch at club level with Manchester United over the last 12 months following Russo’s return from long-term injury, with both players stepping up and taking on senior roles in a developing squad there.
“We’ve always had that understanding of how each other play and I think it comes from off the pitch how close we are," Toone explained to 90min in April.
"We have that bond off the pitch that goes onto the pitch and helps us a lot. Obviously the more we play together the more we understand each other. It’s nice to share the pitch with a friend I’ve had for a long time."
With Russo excelling as a ‘number nine’ at club level and Toone pulling the strings in the ‘number 10’ role, their form resulted in each being nominated for PFA fans’ player of the year. United ultimately fell short of a place in next season’s Champions League in agonising fashion, but both players have room to grow and improve, with experience from the disappointment an invaluable tool.
Even relatively young at 23 and 22 respectively, they have shown in England colours this summer that they both have the quality to make their mark at the highest level when it matters most. Whether Sarina Wiegman will change her team for next week’s semi-final to reward their impact is a question that plenty of people will be asking in the build-up to the game.
But even if Russo and Toone remain impact subs for the remainder of Euro 2022, they are undeniably a key part of England’s long-term future as the Lionesses look ahead to the World Cup next year and tournaments to come for the next decade.