Alsu Abdullina: Why Russia international “sensation” will fit seamlessly into Emma Hayes’ Chelsea system – scout report
The WSL has experienced a number of firsts this season, with Everton Women’s Aurora Galli the first Italian to feature in the top flight after signing from Juventus Femmenile last summer, whilst the league also has a Russian player now, with Chelsea Women recently acquiring Alsu Abdullina from 2021 Russian Women’s Championship winners WFC Lokomotiv Moscow. An exciting player who can operate at left-back, left wing-back or as a left winger, her arrival has attracted plenty of attention from fans and analysts, with many feeling that she is the last piece needed to complete Chelsea’s wing-back formation puzzle.
In this tactical analysis, we will look in closer detail at Abdullina’s game, focusing on where she will fit into Chelsea’s attacking and defensive tactics, as well as how she links up with teammates in different areas of the pitch, all of which will provide a clearer picture of what Chelsea fans can expect from her.
In the final third
The first section of this scout report will focus on Alsu Abdullina’s attacking abilities, looking at her positioning and roles in the final third and seeing why she will compliment Chelsea’s current forward players.
One of Abdullina’s key strengths is her natural pace, which allows her to run up the pitch at speed and unlock opposing defences, taking them by surprise and creating ways for her team to move the ball up the field. Here, WFC Krasnodar are in the process of tracking back to prevent this happening, but Abdullina often wins these races, and that is something that Chelsea will undoubtedly benefit from, as their style of play relies on the wing-backs moving into the spaces left by opposing full-backs running forwards (a key factor in their 2021 FA Cup final victory against Arsenal Women last year). Therefore, this is one clear way that the Russia international suits the way Emma Hayes’ side like to play.
However, this is not the only way that she influences her side’s attacks, as she can play in different roles when needed. She normally stays close to the wing and maintains the width when her team are in the final third, but she is also capable of cutting inside and playing in the half-spaces, as is happening here against ZFK Zenit St. Petersburg. For Chelsea, their change to a wing-back setup has seen individual players improve, none more so than Denmark star Pernille Harder. Last season, she played as a winger or a striker, but was often restricted positionally and lacked the impact many expected her to have. However, the change to play with wing-backs has enabled her to move into the half-spaces, just as Abdullina is doing here, so the Russian’s ability to get into the same areas is another reason that she will suit Chelsea’s style of play.
However, Abdullina plays especially well when given the freedom to drift around the pitch and influence the game in her own way, which Lokomotiv understood and allowed her to do. Here, we see how she has positioned herself inside the goal area, setting up striker Nelli Korovkina to score a goal. There was a partnership between Abdullina and Korovkina that developed over last season, with both working together to cover as much space as possible when the team was attacking, and the fact that Abdullina averaged 3.15 touches in the penalty area per game highlights how her switching to the central areas was a common feature of Lokomotiv’s performances.
Given this, we would have expected her shots on target value to be high, but it was only 41.9%, and this was likely down to her working with teammates and not often shooting at goal herself. At Chelsea, we perhaps won’t see her score many goals, but she will undoubtedly be involved in the build-up to them, especially if allowed to move around the pitch in the same way that she did at Lokomotiv last year.
As well as supporting attacks, the wing-backs also have an important role in defensive situations, and Alsu Abdullina is just as influential for her team in her own third as she is in the opponents’.
Perhaps the most notable feature of Abdullina’s defensive play is that she is not the type of player who simply slots into line and holds her position. Instead, she likes to get out and close balls down, keeping opposing attackers as far away from her team’s goal area as possible. WFK Rubin Kazan have taken the ball into Lokomotiv’s third here, but are unable to move it any further towards the goal because of Abdullina’s speed at getting out to limit their options. These quick movements led to the new Chelsea player winning 70.1% of her defensive duels last season, whilst she was also good in the air when needed to be, having succeeded in 41.7% of her aerial duels.
In order to be successful with this way of defending, Abdullina needed to time her runs correctly, as going too early or too late would have given the attacker the opportunity to move around and behind her. However, this is yet another of her key individual qualities, and the fact that Lokomotiv only conceded eight times during last season’s title-winning campaign was partly down to her individual solidity, so Chelsea fans can expect a defender who works hard and is not easily beaten in individual battles.
As a comparison, she has a similar playing style to Chelsea’s young full-back Jorja Fox, who has been Norway international Guro Reiten’s understudy at left wing-back so far. However, Reiten is a natural attacker, and took time to adjust to the defensive side of the role, whilst Fox has been linked with a loan move to top-flight strugglers Leicester City Women, and Sweden’s Jonna Andersson has had to settle for a place on the bench for most of the season. Chelsea are therefore looking for cover in that area of the team, and Abdullina is comfortable in both attacking and defensive situations, so will give them the blend of attacking and defensive quality that they didn’t have beforehand.
One reason for her ability to get out to attackers is her excellent anticipation and ability to read the game, and that is something that this image picks up on. WFC CSKA Moscow are looking to pass down the wing and find a way around Lokomotiv’s narrow defensive setup here, with an attacker waiting to receive the ball. However, Abdullina sees this and once again makes the run, this time successfully intercepting the ball and ending the threat; something she did 4.15 times per game last season on average. She is calm under pressure in these situations and rarely gives the ball away in cheap circumstances, with a passing accuracy of 70.6% last season, and this is yet another reason that she is so highly rated and seen as a sensation in Russian women’s football.
This ability to keep the ball was particularly important in Lokomotiv’s transitional play, as Abdullina’s spatial awareness and ability to keep her head up were key factors in the team’s ability to move the ball out of danger. Here, she plays a pass into the open central space, indicated by the yellow square, before running forward to receive the return pass behind the Kazan attacker, and this gets her into the perfect position to set up an attack. The fact that this is carried out at speed and without too much thinking is also critical in ensuring that the opponents have the lowest possible chance of making an interception, and Abdullina is once again at the heart of this good play.
Ultimately, this section has shown that Abdullina is a key player in her own third as well as at the opposite end of the pitch, and it will be interesting to see how Emma Hayes balances the team out with her in the squad. This season, it has mainly been forwards like Reiten and Scotland star Erin Cuthbert who have acted as the wing-backs, tasked with carrying their usual attacking threat but also ensuring that the three centre-backs don’t become isolated, and this hasn’t always worked for them. The discussion now is whether Abdullina stays back to provide this support, allowing Cuthbert and others to make even more forward runs, or whether Emma Hayes has other plans for her team’s structure, so it will be interesting to see how the Russian is deployed throughout the remainder of this season.
Working with teammates
We have so far analysed Alsu Abdullina’s attacking and defensive play in this scout report, but one thing we also need to examine is how she works with teammates to create chances and spaces around the pitch. This required organisation and trust between the whole Lokomotiv team last season, and, as has been the case with many of the examples in this analysis, the new Chelsea signing was at the heart of a lot of their key moments.
Lokomotiv tended to play with a 4-2-3-1 formation last season, using it on 47% of occasions, and Abdullina was either deployed as a left-back or a left-winger, depending on which team they were up against. Here, against WFK Rostov, she has seen defender Maria Galay receive the ball on the left hand side of the defence, and instantly looks to provide her with a forward passing option. By keeping her distance from Galay and the ball, she ensures that the Rostov players are unable to surround them and cut off the potential passing options, as that would leave Abdullina in open space and with a clear route to goal once she did receive the ball. Therefore, through her positioning, she has helped her team to maintain their momentum.
We can relate this back to Chelsea too, because we have seen captain Magdalena Eriksson, as the left-sided centre-back, drift out to the wing at times to receive passes and play long balls into teammates, meaning that Reiten has not been required to track back and cover that part of the pitch. Therefore, it is likely that Abdullina may not always need to drop back either, and can stay higher up the pitch to help her team move the ball into dangerous areas, and the fact that this is something she already does well means it is another reason for her not needing to adjust much to fit into Chelsea’s style of play.
We have already mentioned how she can stay wide and allow others to work together inside the pitch, but this image shows one time when her presence was especially important. Lokomotiv have moved the majority of their players inside the pitch to try and separate the Rostov players from each other, with two defenders now marking the two forwardmost players, Korovkina and midfielder Alena Ruzina, whilst three other opponents have positioned themselves near the two central Lokomotiv players, looking to outnumber them and win the ball.
Abdullina not only balances out this numerical disadvantage but also ensures that there is a passing option available for Lokomotiv to use, which allows them to keep moving the ball forwards, so she has a crucial role here. Wing-backs need to be good at getting up the pitch and working with teammates to set up chances, and this situation shows how Abdullina has that ability, getting into the right place at the right time, and this is something else that the Russian will bring to Kingsmeadow in the second half of the season.
However, whilst both of those are important points to make with regards to how Abdullina works with her teammates, this image shows perhaps the most important one, as she has a direct role in Lokomotiv’s shot on goal here. Her free role and spatial awareness mean that, when needed, she can act as a pivot and bring teammates into the game, especially when the space ahead of her has become crowded.
Here, she sees defender Elina Samoylova getting forward, as shown by the yellow circle, and lays the ball off for her to take the shot at goal. Although this doesn’t find the target, the point to take is that Abdullina is not just a player who works with other attackers, but she is also capable of bringing midfielders and defenders into dangerous areas as well, helping to overload the final third and giving her team a better chance of converting their opportunities, and this is something that Chelsea will be particularly interested in as they look to make up the points difference between them and current WSL leaders Arsenal.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has shown why Russia international Alsu Abdullina is a really clever signing by Chelsea Women, and why she will be a hugely important player for them in their title fight during the second half of this season. The English champions have reportedly had their eye on her for a while, and it is not hard to see why when we consider that she scored four league goals and assisted six others in the league last season. She will undoubtedly be an asset to their attacking play, but her ability to close balls down early will help to make Chelsea’s defence harder to break down too, and this is arguably even more important, given that this was the area of the team that took the longest to adjust to the new system adopted by Emma Hayes’ side over the summer.