Discover more from Pressing Matters
Redefining Chelsea's No. 10 role – Jessie Fleming
Fleming's role seems to be having more of an effect off the ball than on it but how has that affected Emma Hayes' setup?
This season feels like a defining one for Jessie Fleming.
In November 2022, Fleming signed a new 2-year extension to stay at Chelsea and at the time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was the right move for both parties considering the impact she had had so far.
This season it has been a case of trial and error. Having played as a No. 8, No. 10, No. 6, and even as a winger, there hasn’t been a clear-cut position and role for Fleming which has led to inconsistent performances and periods in and out of the team.
There’s no harm in being classified as a versatile midfielder, but at Fleming’s age there needs to be a defined role and position that can be classed as her ‘best position’.
Nevertheless, Fleming has started three of the last five games and most importantly, two of these games were as an attacking midfielder with a slightly different role than what we’ve traditionally seen from the Canadian attacker. What stood out to me was her off-ball movement and its effect on the shape and system.
Thanks for reading Pressing Matters! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I think there’s a deliberate use of Fleming’s off-ball qualities in an attempt to try and free the wide players in being a more attacking presence. Chelsea have switched to a more wide progression through ball carrying than passing that probably suits Fleming but having too many players wanting the ball can stifle creativity.
Chelsea are stacked with attacking talent in their squad that was further bolstered in the summer of 2022, with the likes of Jelena Čanković and Johanna Rytting Kanneryd added to the already impressive names of Pernille Harder, Lauren James, and Guro Reiten. This has meant a shuffle in system and formation – sometimes game to game – and a changed starting 11. Emma Hayes has looked to create a much more diverse style to adapt to her ever-dynamic squad of creative attacking talent.
Part of the adaption of utilising the aforementioned players has been to bring in a more well-rounded player with strengths both on and off the ball. Fleming’s use as an off-ball playmaker and ‘spacewoman’ has been an underrated part of Chelsea’s chance creation.
It seems as though Hayes has settled on the 4-2-3-1 formation, playing Reiten and James as her first-choice wingers and a rotating cast of No. 10s with Kirby, Fleming, and Čanković all being rotated for the coveted spot. Each of these players brings a variation to the way the position is played.
The No. 10 in this system has needed to be a simultaneous ball progressor and off-ball runner. The latter role has become very important in how Chelsea create opportunities, not just on the ball but off it as well. Čanković, Kirby, and Fleming are all very competent on the ball and in creating and scoring from their advanced positions, but the position requires a high degree of off-the-ball work rate.
Kirby is probably the best mix of a creative attacking midfielder coupled with a natural ability to find spaces in the attacking third to get into goal-scoring positions. When Chelsea are up against mid-low block sides that require extra speed and productivity to break down, Kirby is then the likeliest and best player to unlock these defences with exquisite on-the-ball dribbling.
I detailed Čanković’s role in depth a couple of weeks ago but the Serbian is a more progressive on-ball creator with a deadly eye for a pass than Kirby is. More of a ‘hybrid’ midfielder, Čanković will ensure the spaces between the central and attacking thirds are covered by being on the ball more and will also be a more aggressive and progressive presence in build-up before finding the other forward players.
The differences between Čanković and Kirby are stark and there isn’t much of a comparison that can be made between them. The key difference with Fleming is her utilisation as an off-the-ball playmaker. More than Kirby or Čanković, Fleming is using the pitch real estate to her advantage in finding key pockets of space to enable Chelsea’s attacking talent.
What Fleming has started doing a lot more is scanning the pitch to understand spatial awareness, to know where the ball and the space to put it to are at all times. This becomes relevant to the system because of the way the other Chelsea attackers are operating.
Compared to the other attacking midfielders, Fleming is much more of an off-the-ball playmaker, or rather becoming one. You ideally want to see Fleming make late runs into the box and do the sort of movements that take away players from their positions to open up space for the others. In this case, Fleming running through the left channel forces the opposition team to move to the left, leaving James in an advantageous position to attack the box.
With the exception of Sam Kerr, very few of Chelsea’s attackers want to run and attack space – rather they show for the ball in their respective spaces, whether it be in the channels or in between the defensive and midfield lines. Reiten’s and James’s preference to show for the ball is attached to the wide areas on the left and right before driving inside and attracting the defenders. Fleming, however, has evolved since last season with her movement being tracked to being a lot deeper than she was in the 2021/22 season.
Take this example against Liverpool in the WSL, Fleming is playing as a central midfielder next to Erin Cuthbert and facilitates the move forward once the ball reaches the wide area. Fleming immediately recognises the vacant space in the forward area once Kerr drops deep into the left midfield space to link up with Reiten. Though Reiten loses the ball, Fleming anticipates the back pass and intercepts the Liverpool centre-back before playing in a quick cut-back towards Fran Kirby and James.
Similarly here, Fleming pushes forward to take Leah Williamson away from the middle to open up space for Kerr and Reiten to drop into. Though there was an interception afterwards, there was clearly space created by the Canadian.
Fleming’s constant proactive stance is key to Chelsea’s ability to transition into quick attacking situations. She seems to be processing scenarios and figuratively downloading Hayes’ tactical updates every couple of minutes, given her continual changes in position to either intercept, block, or find opportunistic attacking spaces. Of course, it helps that Fleming’s athleticism ensures she covers high amounts of pitch real estate to engage in a high-pressing game of this calibre for this to work.
Fleming’s intelligence in terms of attacking the space makes her a good option when Chelsea are breaking quickly into attack. Although this wasn’t quite a high transition moment, Chelsea’s quick counter-punch after they regained possession caught Liverpool by surprise.
Even when Fleming loses the ball, there’s a constant ‘never give up’ attitude to pressing and winning the ball back, and here is an example of that. Fleming presses the Liverpool midfielders even after giving the ball away and manages to win the ball, play it to Kirby, and make a beeline for the central area to give Reiten a passing option.
Fleming’s progressive passing and carry numbers remain low, but the data for her progressive passes received and touches in the box indicate that Fleming is more active as a link player than a progressor. She’s the player’s conduit in midfield that webs together the attack.
By being an off-the-ball playmaker, Fleming is bringing her own flair and creativity – even without the standout numbers. There is a logic behind her extension given her performances at face value haven’t exactly been electric, but this shift in the role might be the way forward for Fleming to differentiate herself from the other several dynamic No. 10s already in the squad.
Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images