In Defence of Nicolas Jackson | Opta Analyst

Nicolas Jackson has been widely ridiculed for his poor finishing since joining Chelsea last summer, but is his recent form starting to prove his worth?

Saturday’s performance summed up Nicolas Jackson’s first season at Chelsea pretty nicely.

There was plenty of action, lots of involvement in his team’s play, a spurned chance from an unconvincing effort with the scores level, a match-winning goal and, naturally, an avoidable yellow card.

The Senegal international has come in for a fair deal of criticism following his £32 million move from Villarreal last summer, much of which has been based around his wastefulness in front of goal.

With his winner at Nottingham Forest taking his goal tally to 17 in all competitions for the season, though, there’s a decent argument to be made that he has actually been a success at Stamford Bridge. With a couple of games to spare, Jackson’s 2023-24 is already into the top 25 highest-scoring seasons by a Chelsea player in the Premier League era. And that’s without playing any European football this season.

nicolas jackson goals chelsea 2023-24

It’s also worth considering the significant mitigating circumstances that should be part of any conversation around Jackson’s numbers.

Firstly, he wasn’t signed to be Chelsea’s first-choice number nine – that was supposed to be the always-injured Christopher Nkunku – but has ended up starting 29 Premier League games. That’s the third-most of everyone in the Chelsea squad, behind Conor Gallagher (35) and Moisés Caicedo (31). All but three of those starts have come up front.

He has also played all those games despite missing a chunk of the season playing for Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations. Even though he didn’t play a great deal of football and his side crashed out in the last 16, there’s no doubt that the travel would have been draining and the tournament would have been a disruption to his season at club level.

He is also – perhaps most crucially – still only 22 years old. He shows his inexperience in his ill-discipline and his all-too-common snatched finishes, but it would be fair to say he deserves a little more patience than many people have seemingly been willing to give him. He only properly cemented a place in the Villarreal team in the second half of last season, so he didn’t arrive at Chelsea with much top-tier experience to his name.

Jackson is far from the complete product, but 14 Premier League goals in his debut season – one that has hardly been a roaring success for Chelsea – is still a decent return.

What’s more, not one of his goals has been a penalty, meaning he ranks eighth in the Premier League this season for non-penalty goals. Of players who haven’t taken a single penalty, he is the division’s fourth-highest scorer.

This follows an impressive end to 2022-23 – which helped convince Chelsea to sign him – and means only 10 players have scored more non-penalty goals in Europe’s top five leagues since 1 January 2023 than him (24). Jackson has a better return in this period than Robert Lewandowski (23), Mohamed Salah (23), Son Heung-min (22), Jude Bellingham (20), Rafael Leão (17), Vinícius Júnior (16) and many, many more big names. And he was playing for far less dominant teams than any of those players.

He is no elite finisher. His goal against Forest eight minutes from time was well taken but he just needed to head the ball into an empty net. The circumstances of that strike and his earlier miss – when he put a one-on-one straight at the goalkeeper – illustrated rather well how Jackson scores his goals: he gets into good positions often and might score the easier of the opportunities.

The frustration for Chelsea fans this season has been that there is no guarantee that Jackson will make up for a miss by scoring his next chance, as he did at the City Ground.

There have been some woeful misses, and even his sole hat-trick was scored against a nine-man Tottenham team in November, with Jackson also wasting a few more big opportunities in that game. He came away with the match ball but his reputation in England had taken a big hit.

In the recent return fixture against Spurs, he missed a huge chance at 0-0 when put through on goal by Mykhailo Mudryk but later made up for it by turning in the rebound from Cole Palmer’s free-kick as Chelsea ran out 2-0 winners.

But just nine days earlier at Arsenal, he shot into the side netting after bewilderingly choosing to go for David Raya’s near post from close range when 3-0 down with half an hour to play. Chelsea went on to lose that game 5-0.

Against Brentford in early March, he rounded goalkeeper Mark Flekken after being put clean through by Enzo Fernández, but his weak effort was then cleared off the line. Chelsea drew that game 2-2.

Earlier in the season there was a poor effort when clean through in what turned out to be a 1-0 home defeat to Aston Villa. Before that, there was the shot he poked over the bar from five yards out when he could have equalised at home to Nottingham Forest. Chelsea also lost that game 1-0.

The point here is that Chelsea haven’t always been able to bail Jackson out. There have been times they have done so, but it is no coincidence that their form picking up in recent weeks has gone hand in hand with Jackson scoring a few goals. He has been directly involved in five goals (four goals, one assist) in his last three Premier League games; as many as he had in his previous 11 games (three goals, two assists).

Chelsea have clawed their way up the table into seventh with three successive wins, and are now looking good to qualify for Europe – an almost incomprehensible situation given where they were just a few months ago. The Opta supercomputer gives them a 96.2% chance of finishing the season in the top seven, which will guarantee European football if Manchester City beat United in the FA Cup final. Chelsea even have a decent chance (49.4%) of finishing in the top six, too.

It would be a positive note to end on in what has in general been an underwhelming first season at the club for Mauricio Pochettino. On current form, though, the Argentine will surely be looking to challenge for the top four and trophies after a summer of improvements to the squad. Quite what lies ahead for Jackson remains to be seen.

He has improved in front of goal as he has got more experience of Premier League football and has grown in confidence. But he has still underperformed compared to his expected goals consistently all campaign, with his 14 goals coming from 17.8 xG. His underperformance of 3.8 is the fourth worst in the Premier League this season, behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin (5.8), Brennan Johnson (4.8) and Darwin Núñez (4.5).

Nicolas Jackson xg map chelsea 2023-24

It would be no surprise then if Mauricio Pochettino were to go all out to sign a new striker in the summer. Nkunku clearly can’t be relied upon to be fit, and Jackson is up there with the most unreliable of finishers. There is also the question of whether Pochettino believes that he can reintegrate Romelu Lukaku, currently on loan at Serie A side Roma, into the squad in 2024-25.

But he has at least shown this season – particularly in the last few weeks – that he is getting better. A look at his six-game rolling average expected goals compared to goals scored for the season shows that he is, at least, underperforming his xG less than he was earlier in the season.

The two big red sections of the below graphic indicate particularly poor periods that he will need to write out of his game to succeed at Chelsea. The other sections indicate he can perform for parts of the season; he just needs to do so more consistently.

nicolas jackson rolling xg chelsea premier league 2023-24
Jonathan Manuel

There is still plenty of improving to do to get to the level that Chelsea will ultimately want, and he will also have to do more to avoid going into the referee’s notebook. He has picked up 10 yellow cards this season – only five players have been booked more times – but only one of Jackon’s yellows has been for a foul. The others have been for dissent, not retreating at a free-kick, and entering the field of play without permission. All were completely avoidable and hint at his immaturity.

He won’t want to curb that side of his game too much – his wild celebrations with the Chelsea fans at the end of the Forest game are the kind of thing that makes him so much fun. And his desire to win might sometimes get him into trouble, but it also means he works extremely hard for his team.

It was a difficult introduction to the Premier League for Jackson, but after ending the season so well, he now has plenty of reasons to head into a long summer break content that he can make a go of life at Chelsea.

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