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Why Nicolas Jackson can solve the Blues’ forward problem



Why Nicolas Jackson can solve the Blues' forward problem

Chelsea have surprisingly decided on Nicolas Jackson after their winter spending spree. SPOX shows why it was the 22-year-old.

As is well known, Chelsea didn’t do much right in the 2022/23 season. With all the problems, the fans were particularly annoyed by the weakness in the final. Kai Havertz, who has since moved to Arsenal, received the most criticism for this, but of course he was not the only culprit.

In the end, Chelsea scored 14 fewer goals than the expected goals value (xG) suggested. Only Everton and Manchester United have had worse records in this statistic. That’s not the only reason why the Blues have made the search for a new centre-forward their priority this summer – even if they’ve already spent a total of around €700m in the last two transfer windows.

The latest signing at Stamford Bridge is Nicolas Jackson, who came from Villarreal for €37m. The Senegalese is anything but a household name or big name. In January, he nearly moved to Bournemouth FC, a relegated Premier League side. At Villarreal he showed strong performances, especially towards the end of the season. And he fits the profile Chelsea is looking for.

SPOX takes a look at Jackson’s career so far and explains why Chelsea were so keen on him so early in the summer – and even paid more than his release clause for it.

Nicolas Jackson: It all started in Senegal

Jackson was born in The Gambia, the smallest country on the African continent, and then grew up in neighboring Senegal. For their national team, he later decided.

He spent his childhood in the western town of Ziguinchor and started playing football at local club ASC Tilene.

However, it didn’t take long for regional giants Casa Sports to take notice of his qualities. He was called up to the first team at the age of 16 and helped them to a mid-table place in the Senegalese Premier League.

The great appreciation for his achievements was not long in coming. In November 2018, Jackson was called up to the Senegalese U20 national team. Coach Youssouph Dabo then praised his ability “to put on a show” and highlighted his dribbling skills.

Nicolas Jackson: The move to Europe to Villarreal

Like many other footballers from Africa, Jackson made the big leap when he moved to Europe. But his transfer to the ‘Yellow U-Boot’ wasn’t met with much fanfare: Villarreal didn’t even bother to announce his signing on social media in the summer of 2019.

At the beginning of his time in Villarreal, there was nothing to suggest that the breakthrough would even work. He scored just one goal in 16 league games while on loan at second division club Mirandes. He was out of the question for Villarreal’s senior team – and that’s why he had to play in the second team. And there he turned things around after his return from Mirandes: with five goals and seven assists he made a decisive contribution to the promotion of the Villarreal reserve to the Segunda Division.

Already in the 2021/22 season he received a few brief appearances in the first team and then celebrated his starting XI debut in the Copa del Rey. Suddenly the fans and the other clubs became aware of Nicholas Jackson.

Nicolas Jackson: Haaland-like goal rate at the end of the season

Jackson made his first appearances in the 2021/22 season, but it wasn’t until the past season that he showed what he’s really made of. Already on the first day of play he scored his first professional goal at the second post after a low cross from Yeremi Pino.

A furious start – but after that it didn’t go on like this. He only scored once before the winter break and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, for which he was nominated. On New Year’s Eve he injured his hip badly and was out for two months. In retrospect, however, this time off turned out to be a blessing for him.

When Jackson got back on the pitch, he didn’t do things by halves anymore. At the beginning of April he came on for the last 28 minutes of the game against Real Sociedad (2-0) and scored the final score – but then picked up two completely unnecessary yellow cards and was sent off in added time. So he was suspended in the upcoming game at Real Madrid, missing a great opportunity to show it to everyone on an even bigger stage.

However, in his last eight LaLiga games for Villarreal he has scored nine goals and helped the ‘Yellow Submarine’ climb up to fifth place in the LaLiga table. In 38 games across all competitions last season, he scored 13 goals and provided five assists.

Nicolas Jackson: His great strengths

Jackson has a lot to offer. His final strength is probably the most obvious strength, even if he only really came into his own at the end of the 2022/23 season.

But his personal record compared to other talents is outstanding. Last season, there was no other forward aged 21 or younger who averaged Jackson’s goals per minute without penalties in the top five leagues. Not even Dortmund’s Youssoufa Moukoko, Bayern’s Jamal Musiala or Brighton’s Evan Ferguson could keep up.

The Senegalese impresses above all with his ability to finish right from the first contact in the box. Due to his speed, he can create excellent space between the defenders, which he then uses for his deals.

But the 22-year-old is also flexible. He can also get the ball deep in midfield and then make a few meters with the ball. Last season, he averaged 2.75 carries with aim – more than Mason Mount or Marcus Rashford.

Jackson successfully completed 62.2 percent of his dribbles last season, only five center forwards in Europe’s top five leagues were better in this regard.

All of this speaks for his footballing intelligence. Jackson knows when to drop back and when to dribble past defenses. These are very promising qualities for a young player.

Nicolas Jackson: He can still improve here

However, there are a few deficits that make you ponder. At Villarreal he struggled when he was supposed to be the central ball mooring in the center of attack. Because he has difficulty maintaining the ball against opponents who are covering closely. Experienced players in particular could make it even more difficult for him in the Premier League in this regard.

In the air, too, his opponents easily won the duels against him in many cases. Jackson prevailed in only 28.8 percent of the header duels.

The 22-year-old can also learn a few things when it comes to defensive behavior. His will and commitment are there, but he only won the ball back twice for his team last season – but he did make a few saves. There is no doubt that Jackson can improve in the game against the ball. Here his new coach Mauricio Pochettino will be asked to work with him.

Nicolas Jackson: Comparisons to Neymar and Sadio Mané are lacking

It’s not particularly imaginative, but Jackson has been dubbed ‘the Senegalese Neymar’. One can understand why his style of play made some people think of the PSG wizard. Both are great dribblers who want to wow the audience with their tricks. But Neymar and Jackson also know where the goal is and can make good use of their team-mates’ preparatory work.

Sadio Mané has also been compared to Jackson. To be fair, the two players have more in common than just nationality. In fact, there were even some faint calls for Jackson to replace Mané when the Bayern player was injured and absent from the World Cup.

If Jackson continues his development at Chelsea, he could one day be as revered in his home country as ex-Liverpool man Mané.

Nicolas Jackson: what’s next?

During Jackson’s goal drought in September 2022, then-Villarreal coach Unai Emery predicted that the slump in form would pass quickly: “He’s in the process of developing. Sometimes players have to go somewhere else to get better, but we’re counting on him because he brings a lot to our game,” said the 51-year-old. “He needs to gain experience in front of goal, it’s a learning process. We need to develop young players and we want to count on them.”

Emery was to be right – but left for Aston Villa himself in October 2022. His successor Quique Setien was ultimately responsible for Jackson’s breakthrough. Shortly before the end of the season, he suspected that the Senegalese could soon leave due to his rapid development.

“We already knew his potential. He was injured for two and a half months and couldn’t prove himself. But now he’s scored eight goals in seven games, plus two assists. He’ll end the season in a spectacular way. The sad thing for us is that someone is likely to come and offer him double.”

A few weeks later, Chelsea actually appeared on the scene and probably offered even more than Setien had thought. In the Premier League, the 22-year-old will now be part of an already overcrowded Chelsea squad. But if things go well for him, he could become a regular in the Blues straight away. Kai Havertz is gone, Armando Broja is still recovering from his cruciate ligament rupture and Romelu Lukaku is probably on the move again: Nicolas Jackson could be Chelsea’s best option in attack.

Given the strength of his degree, one should not be surprised in a few months if Nicolas Jackson ultimately turns out to be a clever transfer from Chelsea.