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Johnny Russell was one of the brightest talents in the Scottish game when he burst onto the scene after breaking into the first team at Dundee United. After spending the majority of his career to date at Derby County, the winger took the brave step of signing for Sporting Kansas City in the MLS. It’s a decision that seems to have paid dividends for the 28-year old.
In his latest outing stateside, Russell stole the show. Sporting KC thumped Vancouver Whitecaps 6-0, with Russell grabbing a hattrick. Sporting KC now lead the Western Conference, seven points clear of New York City in second place, with Russell settling in nicely and leading the Kansas attack to great effect.
It used to be the case that a move to the MLS meant that a player’s career was winding down. It made sense, too: over-the-hill players could get one final payday, in a league where their waning talents would still leave them head and shoulders above everyone else. But this isn’t the case any longer, as more and more players in their prime are moving to the States. The standard is rising.
Where players were previously derided and written off for moving to the American football league, now they remain respected. Football is a blossoming sport in the US, and as more youngsters play, the standard has improved. It’s now the most-played sport by kids in the US by a distance.
The move has been nothing short of perfect for Russell. The former Dundee United player enjoyed a decent spell at Derby County, but his career stalled slightly as County repeatedly fell just short of promotion to the Premier League. The move to Sporting KC has reinvigorated the forward, making the most out of his talents and the results are there for all to see.
In his eight games for his new club, Russell has scored five goals and assisted another two. Only Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez has scored more goals this season. With Russell in such fine form, Alex McLeish would be foolish to overlook the forward when naming his next squad.
Despite playing primarily out on the wing, Russell gives a team an added goal threat. In fact, only two prominent Scottish strikers find the net more regularly than the 28-year-old: Celtic’s Leigh Griffiths and Killie’s Kris Boyd. Griffiths has the best rate, scoring a goal every 120 minutes, followed by Boyd who scores every 133 minutes. Russell’s rate is only marginally worse than Boyd’s, but still much, much better than Jason Cummings or Steven Fletcher.
So Russell provides goals but, as he usually starts on the wing, this isn’t the best way to judge him. The graph below highlights Russell’s assists per 90, dribbles per 90 and his dribble success rate, compared to the wingers called up in McLeish’s latest squad.
As we can see, Russell hasn’t managed an assist in the league since his move across the Atlantic so, in this regard at least, some improvement is required. The former Derby County player attempts more dribbles than his compatriots on average during the game, but with a lower success rate. It’s this fact that reveals just how important he could be for Scotland.
Russell is a direct player, more of an inside forward than a traditional winger. The number of dribbles he attempts on average reflects this; often, his first thought will be to drive at goal. Now, this doesn’t always work – around a third of the time the opposition will win the ball back – but by having a player who’s willing to attempt difficult, penetrating runs into the opposition defence, Russell provides an excellent alternative to our current wingers.
McLeish’s sides are hardly fabled for their creativity so Scotland need all the help they can get in this regard. Goals could be hard to come by so McLeish cannot afford to leave any stone unturned in his quest for players. Russell has shown that he deserves to be in the conversation – no other Scottish winger has his specific skillset, no other provides the directness attached to Russell’s game. Here we have a proven inside forward, approaching the peak of his career, who’s hit a remarkable vein of form. McLeish would be mad to overlook him.