Most Chelsea fans won’t know a lot about Nicolas Jackson, but that admission is to be expected. The young forward has just completed his first full season as a top-flight footballer, but a strong finish to the 2022-23 La Liga campaign at Villarreal has led to a move to the Premier League giants.
With 10 goals in his final 11 league appearances of the season, Jackson was one of the in-form forwards across Europe from April onwards. In fact, since 1 April, no player in the top five European leagues scored more non-penalty goals than Jackson. Across that period, he scored with an incredible 40% of his shots and averaged a goal every 80 minutes in La Liga. Those 10 goals were one more than Chelsea scored in the Premier League as a team over the same period and across the same number of games (nine in 11).
We could have seen him in the Premier League even earlier in 2023, with Bournemouth coming close to signing him for a reported fee of £22.5 million (€26m) in January, but the transfer fell through at the last stage following a hamstring injury flagged in the medical. Jackson stayed, and Villarreal have benefitted with both his goals and an additional £7.6m (€14.7m) in the bank after Chelsea met his release clause of £30.1m (€35m).
Across the 2022-23 season, Jackson became one of the most exciting attacking talents in Spain, despite struggling to force his way into the Villarreal side for large spells. He only played 46.8% of possible playing time in La Liga for the club, but of all players to play at least 1,500 minutes in the competition, only seven had a higher combined average per 90 for non-penalty expected goals and expected assists than he did (0.56). All seven of those players played for the top three clubs, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. None of them are as young as Jackson.
An attribute of Jackson’s game that Chelsea fans will be excited to see is his ability to travel with the ball at his feet. While there are various attacking players across Europe that possess this trait, not many have the end product of Jackson.
The forward had 10 goal involvements across La Liga in 2022-23 following a ball carry, with seven goals and three assists. This tally was below only Real Madrid superstar Vinícius Júnior in the Spanish top flight (12), but Jackson managed his tally in 1,231 fewer minutes on pitch than the Brazilian.
Jackson’s pace and acceleration became a real weapon for Villarreal on the counter last season, and he could cover long distances with the ball at his feet. Across all midfield and forward players to play at least 1,500 minutes of La Liga action, only three averaged a distance superior to Jackson’s 13.6 metres per carry.
As expected from a player with tendencies to drift wide and collect the ball before cutting inside to cause maximum damage, Jackson’s carries often weren’t upfield in direction. Similar to Vinícius (50.6%), pretty much half of his carry distance was upfield (51.7%), and a lot of his goal involvements from carries derived out wide – sometimes in wider positions of the box – before entering central areas of the pitch. His late goal in the 2-0 win over Real Sociedad in April is a fine example of this.
Much of Jackson’s success in the latter stages of the 2022-23 campaign came from the flexibility given to him in the Villarreal system by coach Quique Setién.
When given playing time under Setién he was usually deployed centrally as the front man in a 4-3-3, with the talented pairing of Samuel Chukwueze and Yeremy Pino out wide, allowing Jackson to show how dynamic he was and combine with those two wingers.
The Senegal international would be allowed freedom to drop out of central positions in attacking transitions, drifting left or right, then collecting and combining or he’d otherwise turn and go, using that extreme pace to his advantage and giving opposition defenders a hard time.
Jackson’s speed and the variations to his game were among the main reasons defenders struggled to contain him – not to mention the additional presence of similar levels of youthful energy in Chukwueze and Pino either side of him, matched with Alex Baena’s deep runs into the box. Setién improved every one of the players mentioned. Jackson is all but confirmed to be gone, but don’t expect him to be the last young talent from Villarreal to garner interest from bigger clubs this summer.
When Villarreal found themselves transitioning from defence to attack, Jackson’s pace in central areas was devastating if the opposition defence was high up the pitch.
His two goals against Celta Vigo in April and another back in October 2022 versus Almeria (all shown in screenshots below, at the moment the pass was played to him) display how dangerous he can be when opponents leave space in behind the defence for Jackson’s off-the-ball movement and pace to exploit.
Chelsea look set to lose their top scorer last season, with Kai Havertz expected to join Arsenal this summer. The German was one of the best off-the-ball attacking players across the Premier League in 2022-23, with the second-most off-the-ball runs into the opposition penalty area (334) behind only goal machine Erling Haaland (349), but Chelsea were only the ninth best team for through-balls (57 in total) and just 23 of those (40%) were successful in finding their intended target.
If Chelsea are to exploit Jackson’s qualities in central areas of attack, they’ll need to find players who can pick those passes better than they did last season.
Admittedly, Jackson won’t be going to Chelsea with the expectation of being a regular starter. He’s just turned 22 years old and only has 1,758 minutes of top-flight league football under his belt. But that’s what could make him such a useful option for Pochettino, especially late on, with games stretched.
Chelsea scored six goals via substitutes in 2022-23 and only in two games did those goals make a difference, none of them coming after 1 October. Ben Chilwell and Havertz both came off the bench to score and turn the game around at home to West Ham (1-0 down, 2-1 win) on 3 September under Thomas Tuchel, while Graham Potter led Chelsea to a 2-1 win at Crystal Palace in his first Premier League game in charge of the club on 1 October thanks to Conor Gallagher’s last-minute strike.
If Chelsea are to threaten the top four in 2023-24 and regain their position as a Champions League side, then Pochettino knows he’ll have to have a supply of goals from across his squad. The acquisition of Jackson should certainly help with that.
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