Nicholas Jackson buried his face in his hands after wasting a clear chance in Chelsea’s defeat to Nottingham Forest last weekend, but there is nowhere to hide. The attacker is under surveillance.
It was, according to Opta, the sixth big chance he has missed in four games since arriving from Villarreal for £32m, a total that puts him two points ahead of any other player in the Premier League this season.
Chelsea fans will also remember the stray near-post effort from Reece James’ cross against Liverpool. A close-range header sent over the bar from Ben Chilwell’s pass against West Ham.
Jackson’s extravagance is evident in the underlying numbers as well. He scored 3.03 expected goals and yet only found the back of the net once, leaving him with the biggest negative margin in the division.
No wonder, then, that his credentials have been questioned.
Chelsea have invested huge sums of money in the transfer market since Todd Buhle took over as coach of the team last year, but the prevailing opinion is that they still lack a striker capable of providing the vanguard.
They are certainly asking a lot of Jackson, a new arrival to the Premier League who is tasked with leading the line alone in the absence of injured duo Christopher Nkunku and Armando Broga.
But Mauricio Pochettino’s faith in the 22-year-old is clear.
“It’s only a matter of time,” he said after Jackson scored his first goal for the club against Luton last month. “Once he settles in the Premier League, it will show even 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 bit hasty in his decisions, but that just means he needs to settle himself, be more calm and relaxed and for sure he will score goals. In the future, we will talk in a different way.” Because he will score those kind of chances.”
Indeed, despite Jackson’s misses, the Chelsea coach can take heart in the fact that he often takes the right positions. Only three players have shot the ball more than him this season. Taking penalties and only Erling Haaland ranks higher in expected goals.
Jackson hasn’t taken enough of his chances so far, but he’s getting them at an impressive rate, averaging 3.8 shots per 90 minutes, meaning he’s tracking down over 100 shots this season.
There have only been 11 instances of players exceeding this total number of shots over the last three Premier League seasons, and the players in question have scored at least 17 goals.
The lesson is that shot volume is key for strikers, and it bodes well that Jackson is producing that even as he adapts to a new country, a newly formed Chelsea squad, and a new style of football.
It is also worth noting that He is Capable of cruelty. He showed that much at Villarreal last season, scoring 12 goals in just 1,603 minutes in La Liga – all while beating his expected goals by the second-highest positive differential in the division.
His explosive performance prompted Villarreal coach Quique Setien to praise his “exceptional qualities” and even speak of his talent for making “intelligent decisions” in front of goal.
In this context, the recent hasty decisions cited by Pochettino in the wake of the Forest match are best attributed to completely understandable nerves in unfamiliar surroundings.
Jackson’s true form as an attacking player may fall somewhere between his contribution for Villarreal last season and the form he is providing for Chelsea now, but at just 22 years old, and with just 53 appearances at the highest level behind him, the potential for improvement is clear.
So does the fact that he gives Chelsea more than just a goal threat.
Pochettino’s high-intensity playing style requires speed and movement in attack. Romelu Lukaku was unable to provide this, hence the club’s desire to agree to his departure. But Jackson can.
Premier League tracking data shows he ranks first among all players in sprints, which confirms his work rate. A deeper look at the numbers highlights the extraordinary extent of his movement.
Jackson has taken more off-ball kicks than any other player in the Premier League this season. He also ranks first in attacking runs, which are defined as those in which the striker accelerates towards goal with momentum, for example to meet a cross.
But what’s even more impressive is that Jackson also comes out on top in terms of runs that challenge the opposition’s back line, a statistic that reflects his ability to pressure and stretch defenses, and that even on a new-look team still in the process of taking shape, his runs are targeted regularly. Through passes.
However, Jackson’s runs aren’t just about putting him in shooting positions. It is also a way to create space for Chelsea’s supporting strikers.
This is another area in which Jackson excels and no one is feeling the benefits more than Raheem Sterling, whose eye-catching start to the season is linked to his new team-mate.
With Jackson’s movements causing numerous problems in midfield, Sterling enjoyed greater freedom with the ball on the right flank, often playing as Chelsea’s more advanced player despite ostensibly playing as a winger.
Statistics confirm his transformation. Sterling, in addition to shooting and scoring at a higher rate than last season, has twice as many touches in the opposition penalty area.
Jackson’s unselfish movement allows him to get forward, but it is also a result of Sterling being more able to isolate defenders. Last season, he averaged just 4.3 duels per 90 minutes. This term, that number jumped to 7.3 per 90 minutes.
Jackson’s presence allows Sterling to play to his strengths again and that’s just another reason why this raw and extremely talented 22-year-old, despite his faults, is worth persevering with.
Chelsea’s critics could justifiably question a recruitment strategy that left a relatively inexperienced player as their only impressive option at the start of the season. However, we should see Nicholas Jackson as part of the solution and not as a problem.
Don’t expect Pochettino to lose confidence anytime soon.
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