Nicolas Jackson’s Chelsea transfer: Will the new attacker give Mauricio Pochettino the firepower for success?



One of the great truisms of sport is that it is defense that wins championships. Sometimes, like in the Champions League, that might even ring true. Even attacking minds like Pep Guardiola obsess with mitigating risks when that familiar anthem plays, acutely aware as he is of the damage one error at the back can do in 180 minutes of cup football. In the Premier League, however, nothing could be further from the truth. A top tier rearguard might be a shade factor in a title race but the sine qua non of an English champion is a hyper-powered offense.

So, Mauricio Pochettino, do you reckon you’ve got enough about you to add 60 goals to this Chelsea side? Arsenal took a leap last season because they went from a team who scored 61 goals in 2021-22 to almost 90 the following year. The blame for Liverpool’s slide back has been placed on innumerable individuals or tactical constructs but swapping out the known quantity of Sadio Mane for the potential of Darwin Nunez and, in January, Cody Gakpo brought with it almost 20 fewer goals.

Almost since the moment the delirious celebrations spilled out into the corridors of the Hawthorns Stadium as they were crowned champions in the spring of 2017, Chelsea’s great difficulty has been finding a group that can match or better the 85 goals that Antonio Conte scored that year. Even when Thomas Tuchel constructed Europe’s most authoritative defense, there was a sense that they would not score enough to keep pace with Manchester City or Liverpool over 38 games. Since Tuchel left the fall off has been drastic, the Blues scoring half as many goals in 2022-23 as they did 2021-22, exactly a goal a game at 38. 

At least Pochettino will not have to work with the same attack that had gone so stale under Graham Potter and Frank Lampard. Kai Havertz is set to finalise his £65 million move to Arsenal this week. With Hakim Ziyech having agreed to a €15 million a year deal with Al Nassr, the front line that Roman Abramovich’s ambitious spending spree in the teeth of 2020’s COVID-19 bear market has been disassembled. Crucial to Chelsea’s plans for this summer have been two new forwards.

One, Christopher Nkunku, feels like as sure a bet as Chelsea could have made, a player with 36 goals and 21 assists in his last two Bundesliga seasons. The only criticism you could make of that deal is that at the same time as they’ve been pushing for one of Europe’s most coveted forwards who excels in the inside left channel, they have acquired Raheem Sterling and Mykhailo Mudryk. Nkunku, however, could fit in seamlessly as the advanced midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 that Pochettino has generally deployed.

Ahead of him is where the intrigue lies with Chelsea who announced their signing of Nicolas Jackson from Villarreal this week, agreeing a fee that is said to be just in excess of his €35 million release clause so that they are not obliged to pay up in one lump sum. The 22 year old has completed his medical, and is expected to sign a lengthy contract at Stamford Bridge. A summer striker hunt that started with the Blues being linked to Victor Osimhen and Harry Kane might just end with the signing of a player who had not scored a top division goal a year ago.

That need not be an issue and when you see Jackson scoring his opening goal against Cadiz last month — barging through one defender, beating the goalkeeper to the ball before showing the composure to sit defenders down and put the ball in the net — it is easy to convince yourself he will be a hit in the Premier League. Leading the line for Villarreal this season, the Senegal international seemed not to struggle with the task of being an outball in the same way that Romelu Lukaku and Havertz have in a Chelsea shirt. Note in the passes received map below, how often he is on the receiving end of long balls into the channels for him to chase down. 


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Pochettino’s side ought not to be hitting the big man up top quite as frequently, but it doubtless helps to have a mobile, physical presence at the tip of their attack. That Jackson has the versatility to play wide or in a front two, as he did on occasion alongside Gerard Moreno, only adds to the utility of a new signing who is still raw enough that his new coaching staff could forge him into a number of different roles.

Can he fulfil them and deliver Chelsea the goals they so desperately need? With the evidence base available to us, it is exceptionally hard to be sure. His head coaches speak in glowing terms of him. When he was at Villarreal at the start of last season, Unai Emery spoke of a “growing” player but one whose “contribution is very high” already. That was reflected in his scoring tear at the back end of an injury-hit campaign, but the sample size remains small for a £30 million transfer, 1763 minutes of top division football and just 16 starts. In his second season he might have scored 12 goals in all competitions, but that came from shots worth a combined 6.5 expected goals (xG). Even Erling Haaland doesn’t outperform his underlying metrics like that.

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There is at least a certain irony in the club who so massively underperformed their own xG last season going for a player who hit such a hot streak, but you wouldn’t be wise to make multimillion pound decisions to test a statistical quirk. It is far too early in Jackson’s career to know if there is anything even remotely sustainable in his xG overperformance over the past few months. What does stand out from his figures, however, is the relative paucity of shots he is averaging, a mark of 2.3 per 90 minutes, only the 58th highest in La Liga. The great quality that truly elite strikers share is not necessarily beating their xG but getting in position to shoot again and again and again. Considering Jackson was playing on a team that averaged the third most possession in La Liga last season it is cause for some skepticism that he was getting up half as many efforts per game as some of the division’s other strikers.


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There is a lot of other aspects to Jackson’s game that look rather tempting from Chelsea’s point of view, that expected assist return of 0.2 per 90 and a chance and a half created for team mates, for example. In another context those would be rather more important, but what Stamford Bridge needs is someone who can put the ball in the net 18 or so times in a Premier League season. They have not had that since Diego Costa and Conte fell out.

What they are getting in Jackson is someone who might do that but thinking they will requires faith in something beyond the small sample of top league data. In many ways their new striker is what Chelsea would want you to think of as the archetypal signing of the Todd Boehly era: an intriguing youngster who is tied to competitive wages for the foreseeable future. They may be right and Jackson may be redolent of the post-Abramovich epoch, but in rather the same way that Mykhailo Mudryk and David Datro Fofana are, interesting players with an awful lot of room for development, but not necessarily prospects who profile as the sort of elite talent who will one day take Chelsea to the highest peaks. 





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