Canada's Jessie Fleming Can Do Much More Than Ice Penalties

Fleming's performance vs. Sweden in the Olympics gold medal match provides a perfect window into her all-round game.

On August 2nd, 2021, Chelsea midfielder Jessie Fleming made headlines around the world when Christine Sinclair handed her the ball prior to a decisive spot kick against the USWNT — a team Canada hadn’t defeated in 20 years.

For the goal scorer of all goal scorers to place such trust in a young teammate was remarkable (even if it’s true that substitute goalkeeper Adrianna Franch knew all of Sinclair’s moves), speaking volumes of the unselfishness of Canada’s greatest legend and Fleming’s zen under pressure.

The 23-year-old iced the pen, securing a historic victory and a gold-medal match for her country.

Then, she did it again in the final vs. Sweden.

And again.

All of this came after she hit the back of the net from 12 yards out in the quarters against Brazil (another shootout).

These types of iconic moments sear themselves into our memories. A fan will never forget the shock of seeing Sinclair give up a critical penalty; the tension as they wondered whether it was the right choice; and the catharsis and joy that followed.

Fleming will be rightly remembered in Olympics history for her nerve and clutchness. That should be celebrated, especially for someone who has worked so hard to succeed in these exact situations.

There’s also the slight risk that the penalties are all she’ll be appreciated for. That would be a shame, as Fleming did so much more on the night, providing a window into the type of expansive talent she is and can blossom into.

Take the sequence preceding the VAR review and eventual foul call:

Fleming doesn’t even touch the ball, making a run to an area that never received service. Yet, her effect on the play was palpable, sucking two defenders towards her and allowing Sinclair to receive in space. Amanda Ilestedt tried to recover but was late thanks to her original orientation towards Fleming.

These are subtle things that hint at the Ontario native’s larger influence in the final.

Indeed, it is the harder-to-decipher actions that need to be magnified if we are to grasp Fleming’s overall impact in this Olympics, as *whisper it quietly* Canada’s attack wasn’t exactly blistering throughout the tournament. They scored zero open play goals in the knockouts and struggled to muster inspiring offense in group-stage play.

Their preferred method of progression — Christine Sinclair dropping extremely deep — often looked one-dimensional and Canada relied heavily on their solid defense to grind their way to gold.

In this context, Fleming’s quality in midfield offered her side desperate smidges of relief. Remove her from the possession chain and Sinclair would be tightly guarded, leading to difficult receptions or low-percentage balls over-the-top.

Get Jessie the rock and she could dip her shoulder to shake off a marker, evade the press, and help establish more controlled progression, though she was not averse to moving things quickly if the situation called for it.

It’s this management of tempo that’s easy to miss as an observer and notoriously difficult to evaluate. When one should take that extra touch, retain, and reset, as opposed to forcing the issue, depends entirely on positional and game-state context.

Former spielverlagerung analyst and current Borussia Dortmund assistant coach René Marić articulated the idea best in his profile of the great Alfredo Di Stéfano:

It is often said of playmakers that they “set the tempo,” yet it is rarely clear what that means. From a tactical perspective, one can imagine that the player is calmly engaged in a very dynamic game with many zone-changes and intense movements. Predominantly creating vertical attacks by leading a calmer and more stable ball circulation before directly or indirectly increasing the pace.

Too high a rhythm can also create problems of a tactical nature (such as a more wide-ranging and demanding nature of the passing game, unpleasant game dynamics or hasty decisions) and a psychological nature (such as more hectic action in the team’s coordination or a lack of concentration and precision).

Of these various aspects, most players can only exert very little influence and control over the different spaces; some thrive on a fast rhythm, and find that, in general, they can only switch between fast and very fast or influence their environment at these speeds. Others are missing the middle range. They can either be slow or fast; and some may not even realize what they’re missing. To completely take over the pace for a brief moment and then flexibly revive it in varying degrees of intensity is an underrated art; and the “striker” Di Stéfano dominated them all.

[Emphasis mine]

Now, Fleming wasn’t seamlessly managing all these paces and executing at quite the level of the Blond Arrow (I purposefully kept one of her errors in the film study), but she did it well enough to cause me to sit up and take notice. Having a measure of control over one of the most nebulous and complex aspects of football in a major international final is indubitably impressive. It’s reflective of upper-percentile game intuition and technical mastery.

The “technical mastery" bit is what’s much simpler for us to observe and shouldn’t be glossed over. Her first touch and comfort receiving under pressure allowed her to be a significant factor as a progressive receiver in more advanced positions, creating a sort of dual-#10 look for Canada, with Sinclair in one halfspace and Fleming in the other.

The crispness of her execution is applause-worthy and was enhanced by her aforementioned decision-making and ability to read (to quote Rene) “dynamic” scenarios. After successfully controlling the ball and fending off her mark, she had the wherewithal to assess whether she should accelerate the attack or play backwards or sideways so her team could go forward.

This sequence is worth coming back to:

How many players in the world do you think go for that obvious pass? At best, it would’ve gotten Canada nowhere and resulted in a backpass to Jessie. In that time, Fridolina Rolfö might’ve been able to recover into a better position to eliminate some of that free real estate on Sweden’s right wing.

You can see Fleming deliberating prior to this freeze frame before she rejects the initial option in favor of hitting the far side. There’s nothing sexy about this, but it’s these small moments of recognition that accrue marginal gains in progression, adding up to significant value in the aggregate.

It’s obvious to discern how Fleming might rack up such advantages at volume in a more dominant team environment [see: Chelsea].

However, she wasn’t playing for an offensive juggernaut — she had to operate within a defense-first habitat. And, so, she did.

As Canada receded and played for penalties, Fleming’s work against the ball became more and more important. By extra time, she had gone from making the occasional recovery run and tackle to constantly facing up vs. the likes of Kosovare Asllani and Jonna Andersson.

The skill, intensity, and awareness present in Fleming’s defensive work were a coach’s dream and reminiscent of the type of Mikkel Damsgaard-esque completeness that allows #10’s to survive in the modern era.

Of particular note was her willful overplaying of Andersson’s strong foot — evidence of a footballer that puts thought into and takes pride in her defensive work.

Thus, with the clock winding down, it’s no exaggeration to say that Fleming played a crucial role in helping Canada keep the score level, leading to the lottery of penalties and an eventual gold medal.

While Jessie and her teammates will ride the high of the occasion, the WSL is only a month or so away; the quest to defend domestic titles and avenge a humbling Champions League defeat is about to begin. Emma Hayes and company will be thinking about what can be done to improve an already great team in order to push Chelsea over that European hump. Signings like Aniek Nouwen are certainly a step in the right decision, but there are young, promising in-house options as well: Erin Cuthbert, Niahm Charles, and, yes, Jessie Fleming.

Fleming barely had a chance to showcase her talent last season, registering a minuscule 443 minutes spread across 14 appearances in the league. She passed that total in only 6 Olympic games, providing Hayes with a greater and more recent sample size to evaluate.

It remains to be seen whether that will be enough to give the Canadian a real opportunity at competing with an experienced veteran like Ji So-Yun, but don’t be surprised if Jessie Fleming finally gets her shot at becoming a regular contributor for one of the best sides in Europe.

What she did vs. Sweden suggests that she deserves it.