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Jelena Čanković – The New Architect of Chelsea’s midfield
The Chelsea midfielder arrived from Sweden so highly rated, so how does she suit Emma Hayes' side?
Jelena Čanković could be one of Chelsea’s most important signings of the season.
The Serbian international came into a Chelsea side that needed an injection of flair after the departure of veteran Ji So-Yun. The South Korean left Chelsea after eight years and with her, so too left the source of their creativity and the immense amount of fluid play in the middle and final thirds that we had grown accustomed to. Čanković can be seen as Ji’s replacement but would need time to adapt, like most new signings. I can see her being the next exciting player to burst onto the Chelsea squad, and we’ve yet to see her full potential.
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Čanković came in with a reputation for being a creative, aggressive midfielder that functions as a focal point for the side’s creation in the final third whilst also scoring goals.
Now, you’d be right in thinking about Čanković position as an attacking midfielder. If this sounds familiar, you’d be right again in thinking that certain other players are already playing in this position in Pernille Harder and (to a lesser degree) Fran Kirby.
While the subject hasn’t precisely appeared in most discussions around her, the exact nature of Čanković’s role and where she should play is up for debate. My objective here isn’t to make a subjective ruling on Čanković – instead, it is to interpret the role she might be tasked with undertaking this season by the manager and where she could thrive. Therefore, it makes sense to take a step back and start by analysing her role and time at Rosengård.
Čanković at Rosengård
Digging into the numbers, the first thing to note is the striking revelation of her highly-ranked playmaking. The attacking midfielder is very much a player that thrives and focuses on chance creation.
Čanković is an exceptionally high-volume passer and dribbler who will bring a high level of creativity and vision to Chelsea’s midfield. While Harder is more of an all-action goal-scorer, Čanković brings a more creative skillset to the table. The Serb was more involved in build-up at Rosengård but has the qualities to play in transition too.
At Rosengård, Čanković was predominantly played as a more attack-minded player to maximise her creative output, playing on the right side of an attacking midfield position – as an attacking No. 8 in a 4-3-3 or a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1, given the freedom to make an impact further forward. Both the role and position looked to push her into more advanced positions between the lines where she could affect play in dangerous positions.
In short, Čanković can be called an ‘architect’.
This heat map from her 2021 season with Rosengård highlights the exact positions she preferred to take up, focusing on the right side of the pitch. Much of her game is predicated on her movement in the final third and how she moves becomes the cornerstone of her and her team’s next move. The idea is to rotate possession to create overloads before enabling Čanković to create moments of magic in solo or even 2 v 1 situations.
Speaking to journalist Pär Lagerström, he talked about Čanković’s stark standout trait – her incredible game intelligence and her ability of constantly wanting to receive the ball in high-value areas. From here, she used to drop into the build-up phase, thus starting attacks, but also then finishing them by getting into the areas mentioned above near the box.
Given Čanković was the primary creator-in-chief at Rosengård, where the team was built to facilitate the Serb’s movements and give her a platform to thrive. If you want to find an incisive name for her role, I’d look at the analytics platform Playmaker AI’s naming conventions and argue she’s the ‘Playmaker’ or, in my opinion, the ‘Creator’. Both roles overlap in the way the Serbian international plays.
By their definition, “The creator is similar to the playmaker but more offensive average position. The player is very valuable in generating chances, mainly with passes and crosses. The creator usually plays as a central attacking midfielder or winger.”
Examples: Kevin De Bruyne & Svenja Huth
Čanković’s cognitive intelligence in both on-the-ball and off-the-ball movements drives her entire style of play, and playing in a freer central midfield role allows her to do that. The plan is to get Čanković into these positions (below) with space to receive and turn with a ball from deep.
However, you notice that three opposition players surround the Serb and in ordinary circumstances, any player would play the apparent pass back into the free player.
In Čanković’s case, she drives a bit deeper with the ball and looks to lure the players away from their positions which opens up space in the final third for her attacking teammates to drop into. Once she gets a clear sight after her turn, Čanković plays a through ball into the two players in space to create a much more refined attacking opportunity.
Similarly, her on-ball intelligence is directly correlated to her decision-making, making her a threat in most situations with the ball at her feet. She isn’t just a player that can dribble and move her way out of problems – Čanković can play quick, incisive passes to create opportune moments.
This time, the chance presents itself when Čanković receives the ball from deep between the lines and has a few seconds to turn and assess her options before the opposition tightens their defensive line. The Chelsea playmaker sees her teammate on the shoulder of the last defender and makes her decision instantaneously by playing a lofted diagonal pass in behind.
Off the ball, Čanković is constantly looking to play forwards and move into space herself. She isn’t afraid of tight quarters, but her enthusiasm for wanting the ball makes her so compelling in this position. Most of Čanković’s movements are calculated to first move into space but crucially, also to receive possession in threatening areas.
This example shows parts of her game where Čanković receives the ball under pressure in the right attacking midfield position.
From here, Čanković plays a ball out wide to the winger and runs towards the highlighted space to give her receiver a passing option.
However, her run was also designed to clear a pathway for the midfield runner to settle into the vacated space in the centre of the box. This is another part of Čanković’s footballing IQ and game awareness: to know where her teammates are and what movements to make.
It will take time for Čanković to be truly embedded in Chelsea’s style of play, and we might only see the Serbian’s true form next season, but what role could she best thrive in for now?
The current Chelsea setup is constantly changing between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, depending on the phase of play. We’ve seen variations of the 3-4-3 and 3-4-1-2 system make appearances this season, but the one commonality is the integration of a dedicated attacking midfielder slot. Emma Hayes’ decision to do so was very much to give Pernille Harder an active and concerted run as the side’s focal point.
Most of Chelsea’s games begin in a 4-2-3-1 with a double-pivot and attacking midfielder. While Erin Cuthbert and Sophie Ingle occupy the two deeper positions, the advanced position is still fluctuating between Pernille Harder, Fran Kirby, and Lauren James. The former two have been fleetingly in and out of the side mainly due to injuries, but Emma Hayes’ preference to use James as a right-sided forward gives the England international a firm place in the side.
Kirby usually gets the nod to start at right wing or attacking midfield when fit and is arguably the club's best finisher alongside Sam Kerr. In Harder, Chelsea have a diverse No. 10 who plays between the lines and uses these spaces to generate goal-scoring chances. Harder plays a free role where she can roam across the final third, whether with or without the ball.
One of her responsibilities includes facilitating the build-up to connect the midfield and attack to create space for the forwards to operate. As such, Harder becomes a reference point for the team to play through.
The role can also be firmly attributed to Čanković. Her play style is eerily similar to Harder’s; both players can generate chances and conjure moments of magic from the middle. The difference between the two players is the Dane is more of a natural goal-scorer, while the Serb relies more on playmaking and chance creation.
I wrote a detailed article on Pernille Harder’s role as the modern No. 10 last year that still holds true if you want a closer read.
The exact nature of Čanković’s role is not as clear-cut, but it seems as though she is being asked to play on the left instead of her favoured right side, and equally is playing a bit deeper than she’s used to. This is partially down to the opposition teams’ defending and covering the central spaces, which give her less room than she was used to in Sweden. But I think Čanković doesn’t need to drive as far forward anyway because of Lauren James’ presence. The English winger’s inverted role means she plays as much as an attacking inside-forward as the No. 10, so Čanković’s and James’ spaces will intersect.
Čanković - The“hybrid midfielder”
Back to the point of where and how she should play, while it’s easy to pinpoint Čanković as a playmaking central attacking midfielder, I would like to suggest a slightly tailored role for her as a ‘hybrid midfielder’.
What is a hybrid midfielder, you ask?
In as many words, it’s a midfielder that plays predominantly deeper than a traditional No. 10 would whilst still taking up the role of chief architect. It’s like an “anti-shadow striker” if you will. So instead of being a constant box threat, the player picks up more central midfield playmaking responsibilities without overly sacrificing their positional duties further forward.
Antoine Griezmann is the best example of this role; he most recently took it up for France at the 2022 World Cup, which enabled Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele to thrive from the wide positions.
For Čanković to thrive in this role if they’re sticking to the 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-2-1 system, she would have to take up the central attacking midfield position and play in front of two more deep-lying midfielders who can defend deep and are positionally disciplined. Čanković’s movement in this position will be entirely based on the ball’s movement, helping her to create passing triangles with her surrounding teammates. In other words, it enables Čanković to thrive between the lines without the need to do a lot of backtracking defensive work.
In this setup, you want Čanković to be in a position to receive possession and be able to turn to pass forward into crucial areas. Using the half-spaces becomes extremely vital given Reiten and James’ preferences to invert, where it becomes crucial to rotate the ball to create shot-creating opportunities and actions quickly. Also, Kerr’s tendency to drift into pockets in the half-spaces means she’ll always become available to create positional overloads and be a proponent of the interchange of passes.
The left image is a network from a game against Pitea, whilst the right is Chelsea’s game against Tottenham Hotspur in the Conti Cup quarter-final. This could seem contradictory to what I mentioned before about her being played deeper, but as you can see in these two passing networks, Čanković’s positions are slightly different. Čanković (#28) positioned herself much closer to Reiten (#11) and Kerr (#20) and was given more licence to roam. Čanković (#10) plays much deeper in a bid to control the build-up, as seen in the other passing network.
The more she settles in this side, the more she’ll be allowed to roam. As a hybrid attacking midfielder, Čanković will constantly be patrolling these areas.
In 2021, Čanković ranked third in Expected Goals + Assists with 14.54, with a return of 12. Just this stat in isolation makes for great reading on how active Čanković is in an attacking sense. She can score goals, but a player plucked from the cold depths of Malmö that was hyper-focused on being a preliminary playmaker should be leveraged into a similar role at Chelsea whilst making goals a secondary KPI.
With the way they prefer to play, they’re better off channelling their attacking threat through the wide players. Hayes always has three out-and-out goal scorers and finishers in Guro Reiten, James/Kirby, and Kerr. The team needs someone to stitch the play together and provide service for these players to thrive.
There was deservedly a transfer struggle for Chelsea to secure her, with Arsenal rivalling them for Čanković’s signature. Though many fans can be forgiven for not having seen much of the Serbian international before her move to England, they can now appreciate her for who she is: an enthralling and dynamic creative midfield orchestrator who embraced the Swedish league’s physicality, making her a tailor-made WSL player.
Photo by Harriet Lander - Chelsea FC/Getty Images
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