Alessia Russo and Lauren Hemp – the double act England did not know they needed

Lauren Hemp and Alessia Russo hit it off instantly as a new strike partnership

It was a little lost amid the glare of Lauren James’s brilliance in the annihilation of China but England may just have found the strike partnership to fire them to Women’s World Cup glory.

Neither Lauren Hemp nor Alessia Russo went into this tournament in the best form. Russo had not scored for England since the Arnold Clark Cup against South Korea back in February. Hemp had not scored since the victory over USA way back in October and was dropped from the starting line-up for the game against Denmark last week.

One was out of sorts, the other was out of the side. That changed in Adelaide. Paired up front in a new-look 3-5-2 formation, they were both invigorated. Their link-up play was more than just a footnote in the story of a dominant team display; it was one of the main reasons they caused China so many problems.

Time and again, Russo found Hemp and vice versa, one dropping deep to collect the ball, the other sprinting in behind or working the channels. In normal circumstances, it would have been a headline-grabbing double act, but attention was inevitably drawn to another virtuoso display from James.

James’s performances in this World Cup are the talk of women’s football, but nobody should ignore how much better England looked with two centre-forwards not one.

Lauren James scores England's fourth and her second against China

Lauren James’ impact has been the talk of the World Cup – Andy Cheung/Getty Images

Not since England reached the semi-finals of the European Championship back in 2017, when Jodie Taylor and Fran Kirby worked in tandem, have England had a strike partnership that was capable of hurting opposition with their combined movement and a natural ability to feed off each other.

As tends to be the case in football, fashions change and the trend for a solitary striker, playing in front of two wide players and a No 10, dominated under former manager Phil Neville as well as Sarina Wiegman.

But with England struggling for goals – they had not scored twice in a match since thrashing Belgium 6-1 back in February – Wiegman knew she had to shake things up. What came out of the tumble dryer of thoughts she must have had since the injury to Keira Walsh deprived her of her midfield playmaker was a new formation that added more bodies in the middle of the pitch, as well as wing-backs, and a new focus in attack.

As a lone striker, Russo had looked isolated, winning the ball with her back to goal, but always forced to go backwards or sideways at best to find a team-mate. It made England predictable and easy to contain.

With Hemp’s speed alongside her, it added a new dimension to her own performance and she looked a far more threatening player as a result. Hemp’s runs created space and gave Russo a progressive pass option whenever she got her head up. But it also occupied the minds of defenders and created space for her to operate, which is why Russo scored England’s first goal on Tuesday night.

She had begun the move too, taking the ball down, drawing three China players to her, before slipping a lovely through ball down the flank for Hemp to run on to. From there she was able to sprint into the area and was in the perfect place to capitalise when Hemp’s cross was only half-cleared.

“I liked it [playing as a two],” said Russo. “You have closer connections to players which is nice because you have LJ [Lauren James] under you and Hempo [Lauren Hemp] right by your side.

“Whatever way we set up, we’re always going to give it our all. I’ll do whatever for the team, doing what’s needed. I’m buzzing to get the goal because I’m a striker, but when you play as a two you can make that channel run too because you’ve got another striker in the box.”

Hemp, who has played most of her career on the wing, also looked far more comfortable playing through the middle with someone alongside her to take on the bulk of the hold-up play. Her goal against China came when she sprinted through the middle of the defence, a perfect first touch leaving her with a simple finish past the stranded goalkeeper.

Little and large partnerships used to be a common sight in international football and England have gone retro to galvanise their attack with 5ft 5in Hemp and 5ft 8in Russo. It is a simple formula that was too complicated for the Chinese to deal with. Nigeria, who England face in Brisbane in the round of 16 on Monday, will be worried too.

“We know that we can do that system, and keep growing and working on that,” said Rachel Daly, a striker at club level who has now played as a left-back and a wing-back in this tournament. “We obviously can revert back to type with a 4-3-3. It’s another weapon in the armoury.

“We hadn’t been working on it very long, but Sarina always says we are adaptable and that’s what we showed. It was a different formation, a different style, different personnel and dealing without Keira… I think what it is with our team is that it’s fluid. There are a lot of players that can play multiple positions.”

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