Nicolas Jackson buried his face in his hands after his point-blank miss in Chelsea’s defeat to Nottingham Forest last weekend but there is no hiding place. The striker is under scrutiny.
It was, according to Opta, the sixth big chance he has missed in four games since his £32m arrival from Villarreal, a total which puts him two clear of any other Premier League player this season.
Chelsea fans will also recall the wayward near-post effort from a Reece James cross against Liverpool; the close-range header sent over the bar from Ben Chilwell’s delivery against West Ham.
Jackson’s profligacy is apparent in the underlying numbers too. He has accrued 3.03 expected goals and yet only found the net once, leaving him with the biggest negative differential in the division.
Little wonder, then, that his credentials are being questioned.
Chelsea have invested eye-watering sums in the transfer market since Todd Boehly’s takeover last year but the prevailing view is that they still lack a striker capable of providing the cutting edge.
Certainly, they are asking a lot of Jackson, a Premier League newcomer charged with leading the line single-handedly in the absence of injured duo Christopher Nkunku and Armando Broja.
But Mauricio Pochettino’s belief in the 22-year-old is clear.
“It is only a matter of time,” he said after Jackson scored his first goal for the club against Luton last month. “Once he settles into the Premier League, he will show it more. I have no doubt that he can become one of the greatest strikers in the Premier League.”
The message was similar after the Forest game.
“Sometimes he is a little bit rushed in his decisions, but this is only to say he needs to settle himself, be more calm and more relaxed and for sure he is going to score goals. In the future, we will talk in a different way because he is going to score this type of chance.”
Indeed, despite Jackson’s misses, Chelsea’s head coach can find encouragement in the fact he is so frequently getting into the right positions. Only three players have had more shots than him this season. Take out penalties and only Erling Haaland ranks higher for expected goals.
Jackson is not burying enough of his chances yet but he is getting them at a prodigious rate, his average of 3.8 shots per 90 minutes meaning he is tracking for well over 100 this season.
There have only been 11 instances of players surpassing that total for shots over the last three campaigns in the Premier League and the players in question have scored a minimum of 17 goals.
The lesson is that shot volume is key for strikers and it bodes well that Jackson is producing it even as he adapts to a new country, a newly-configured Chelsea team and a new style of football.
It is worth noting, too, that he is capable of ruthlessness. He showed as much at Villarreal last season, scoring 12 goals in only 1,603 minutes in La Liga – all while outperforming his expected goals by the second-highest positive differential in the division.
His explosive performances prompted Villarreal boss Quique Setien to rave about his “exceptional qualities” and even talk up his knack for making “intelligent decisions” in front of goal.
In that context, the recent rushed decisions mentioned by Pochettino in the wake of the Forest game are best put down to entirely understandable nerves in unfamiliar surroundings.
Jackson’s true level as a finisher probably lies somewhere in between his contribution for Villarreal last season and the one he is producing for Chelsea now but, at only 22, and with just 53 top-level games behind him, the potential for improvement is obvious.
So too is the fact he is giving Chelsea plenty more than goal threat.
Pochettino’s high-intensity playing style demands speed and mobility up front. Romelu Lukaku could not provide it, hence the club’s willingness to sanction his departure. But Jackson can.
Premier League tracking data shows he ranks top among all players for sprints, underlining his work-rate. A deeper look at the numbers highlights the extraordinary extent of his movement.
Jackson has made more off-the-ball runs than any other Premier League player this season. He also ranks top for attacking runs, which are defined as those where the attacker accelerates towards goal with momentum, for example to meet a cross.
Most impressive, though, is that Jackson also comes out on top for runs challenging the opposition’s backline, a statistic which reflects his ability to stress and stretch defences, and that, even in a new-look team still in the process of gelling, his runs are regularly being targeted by passes.
Jackson’s runs are not just intended to put him in shooting positions, however. They are also a means of creating space for Chelsea’s supporting forwards.
That is another area in which Jackson is excelling and nobody is feeling the benefits more than Raheem Sterling, whose eye-catching start to the campaign has a lot to do with his new team-mate.
With Jackson’s movement causing so many problems centrally, Sterling has relished greater freedom on the ball on their right flank, often operating as Chelsea’s most advanced player despite ostensibly playing as a winger.
The statistics underline his transformation. Sterling, in addition to shooting and scoring at a higher rate than last season, is having twice as many touches in the opposition box.
Jackson’s selfless movement is allowing him to push further forward, but it is also a consequence of Sterling being better able to isolate defenders. Last season, he averaged only 4.3 one-on-ones per 90 minutes. This term, that number has leapt to 7.3 per 90 minutes.
Jackson’s presence is allowing Sterling to play to his strengths again and that is just another reason why, despite his misses, this raw but abundantly talented 22-year-old is worth persisting with.
Chelsea’s critics can justifiably question the recruitment strategy that left a player of his relative inexperience as their only striking option at the start of the season. Nicolas Jackson, though, should be viewed as part of the solution rather than a problem.
Don’t expect Pochettino to lose faith any time soon.
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