Chelsea’s Jessie Fleming: ‘The rivalry with Arsenal is quite fierce’

Jessie Fleming played 433 minutes and made three starts in the Women’s Super League last season but rocked back into the Chelsea dressing room this summer with a gold Olympic medal. She was no bit-part player for Canada at Tokyo 2020 either, scoring four penalties in the knockout stage, including two in the final against Sweden and in a 1-0 win over the US in the semi-finals, Canada having not beaten their neighbours, the World Cup holders, in 20 years.

Fleming has stood out for so long that these feats are not in the least surprising. Few players make their international debut at 15 and not many 23-year-olds have 94 caps four months into their second season as a professional. This season Fleming has already played nine minutes more than in the 2020-21 WSL campaign, starting five games and scoring three goals, and has been named as the Barclays player of the month for November.

“It’s definitely been a busy time,” the attacking midfielder says. Busy is an understatement. Fleming is chatting on her day off, 12 hours after Chelsea were held 0-0 by Juventus at Kingsmeadow and four days after they hammered Arsenal 3-0 in the FA Cup final at Wembley.

That game was cathartic in many ways, Arsenal having beaten Chelsea in the opening game. “The rivalry between our two clubs is quite fierce,” says Fleming. “They’ve been sat at the top of the league for most of the season and I think that’s kind of been in the back of our minds, wanting to be in that position. When you look at our performance it was dominant in a lot of ways and a lot of it just had to do with our work rate and players wanting to win the ball and doubling up on their players and just desire and passion from our entire group.”

Dominant is another understatement. Chelsea bulldozed Arsenal, and Fleming slotted seamlessly into the front three alongside Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr, with Pernille Harder being eased back from injury.

“I definitely feel like I’ve improved since coming here,” Fleming says. “Just the quality every day in training, the physicality and the quality in the league have definitely helped me improve. I’d say one big focus area or thing that I’ve been working on with our coaches is my attacking side of the game and being able to make quicker decisions, act more decisively in the attack and create more chances for the team. And then being able to deal with the physicality and navigate it, learning how to get out of certain situations and maybe be a bit smarter with how I use my body in some of those tighter pockets.”

Before the final, played on the 100th anniversary of when the Football Association banned women’s football from all affiliated grounds, Chelsea’s manager, Emma Hayes, “read us an excerpt,” says Fleming. “It was a complaint that a citizen had placed to the FA talking about why women shouldn’t be allowed to play football. That was pretty powerful.”

Hayes is a master at instilling belief. Fleming credits the way Hayes talks about the group and the language used as contributing to that. “But a lot of it also has to do with history and experience. We’ve won in the past and we know we can win again. We know we’re good enough to beat Arsenal because we’ve done it before and a lot of us felt like that game that we’d lost at the Emirates early in the season was something that kind of slipped away from us and people were definitely really disappointed.”

Hayes also achieves what seems like an innate belief by putting lots of leaders on the pitch and empowering players to make decisions. “Something that’s special about our group is just how easily we can adapt to a change of formation or if something’s not working well, on the game,” says Fleming. “We have the leaders and the minds on the team to be able to adapt and not let it throw off our entire gameplan. Whether it’s players having to slightly adjust their position or that sort of thing, just all around, it’s a massive weapon.”

Hayes is under pressure to give players minutes – a problem she both loves and hates – and Fleming is showing she deserves time on the pitch. After Olympic gold and a strong start to the season have her expectations changed?

“Maybe they’ve changed a little bit,” says Fleming. “But I don’t really like to put a ton of pressure on myself in terms of playing. I’ve come to trust Emma’s decision making. I think she knows how to win games and I also have to appreciate the talent that is in our squad. When you look at Fran and Sam and Pernille, sometimes it’s hard to argue against them not playing.

“For me, coming to Chelsea, the biggest thing I wanted was to be in a challenging environment and to improve, and I feel like I’m doing that. So it’s hard for me not to be happy. It is nice to be able to tangibly see some of that improvement but I also see a lot of the things that I still need to work on. I just want to get better and then the playing time, and maybe some of the trust from Emma, will continue to come.”