Manchester United Women

The 'real' Alessia Russo had to be patient for her chance this season

Jamie Spencer
Alessia Russo is leading Man Utd's challenge for a top three WSL finish this season
Alessia Russo is leading Man Utd's challenge for a top three WSL finish this season / Clive Brunskill/GettyImages

Manchester United were deliberately cautious with star forward Alessia Russo at the start of the season, which initially frustrated the player, but both parties are now reaping the rewards.

Russo joined United in the summer of 2020 upon her return to English football following three years in the legendary University of North Carolina Tar Heels setup – she had previously played first-team football in England during short stints at Chelsea and Brighton but never in the WSL.

United fans glimpsed what Russo was capable of when she scored on her home debut against Brighton and then two weeks later twice more in a 4-2 win over West Ham. Yet only another few weeks on, a hamstring injury that required surgery prematurely ended her season in November.

Working her way back to fitness after a lengthy period out of action, Russo only featured once, as a substitute, during pre-season. She was then on the bench as United kicked off the WSL campaign in front of the television cameras at Leigh Sports Village and had to make do with a 15-minute cameo towards the end when the game was already won and the points secure.

It was a similar story against Leicester in the next fixture, getting even less time on the pitch. But Russo staked her claim for a place when she scored just three minutes after coming off the bench at half-time when United were losing 3-0 at home to Chelsea.

Russo’s first start of the season didn’t come until October. Yet, despite the player’s understandable eagerness to play more, it had been part of the plan from United staff to build her up gradually so as not to risk injury recurrence or compromise her fitness before she was ready.

“I remember at the start of the [season] getting a lot of grief from her - only because she wanted to play - because we were naturally trying to progress her into the team,” United manager Marc Skinner now admits.

Skinner has also been keen to stress how grounded Russo, who grew up a United fan, is.

The rising star soon went on to score in successive WSL games against Manchester City and Tottenham either side of the October international break – she also immediately returned to the England setup that month, although didn’t get on the pitch.

Assists in back-to-back WSL wins in December brought Russo the PFA Vertu Motors WSL Fans' Player of the Month award. In November, she had also scored a hat-trick for England in a World Cup qualifier against Latvia - her first senior international goals - in record quick time.

But it is Russo’s club form since the turn of the calendar year that impressed even more. Her place at United briefly came under threat following the January transfer window when Signe Bruun arrived on loan from Lyon and she was temporarily pushed out wide to accommodate the Dane.

Looking back to that moment, it appears to have served as a challenge to Russo. Skinner preaches positional fluidity among his players, and she still moves all around the attacking third, linking play, but the 23-year-old returned to the ‘number nine’ role in early March and hasn’t relinquished it.

Four WSL goals and an assist in her last four appearances tells its own story. The most recent of those goals of those came in United’s historic game at Old Trafford as Russo scored twice with her head, highlighting how well rounded her game is after previously being praised by her manager for a fearsome shooting ability.

"Alessia Russo (9/10) - Looked really up for it and competed well physically. Got her reward with two great headed goals."

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“My job is to keep her focused, progressing everything she does, stay humble - she’s a really humble girl anyway,” Skinner reflected.

“But you’ve not even seen half of it yet. This is her first season back from a really serious injury and I’ve been really pleased. Now, we’re at a point where we’re seeing the real Alessia Russo and I know there is so much more to come.”

At this late stage of the season, Russo is the WSL’s top scoring English player, with three times as many goals in the league as Lionesses veteran Ellen White - the player she will be directly competing with for a starting place at Euro 2022 in just three months’ time.

“I can’t pick Sarina Wiegman's team, but the scary thing is we’ve not even seen anything near her [full] potential,” Skinner said of Russo. “It’s going to be an exciting time for Manchester United and England hopefully.”

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