The spotlight was always going to be on Chelsea’s attack this season. Successful strikers over the last 20 years, since Roman Abramovich arrived to elevate the club into one of the biggest and best in Europe, have been hard to come by. But the last campaign, when the Blues finished 12th with Kai Havertz, who has since joined Arsenal top scoring with seven goals, has only increased the scrutiny.
It is not for the want of trying to find a solution to the issues up front. For years, Chelsea whittled through some of the games biggest strikers. Nobody has really matched the impact of Didier Drogba, signed at the height of their most successful era under Jose Mourinho in 2004; Diego Costa was something of an equivalent arrival during Mourinho’s second spell 10 years later. Both physical, aggressive, bullying centre forwards with a clinical edge, they embodied their team in a way the likes of Hernan Crespo, Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres and Romelu Lukaku all couldn’t.
But it is easy to forget that Drogba’s impact was a slow burner. Not only was he 26 when he joined from Marseille, but he took time to develop into the force of nature he became at Stamford Bridge. Although known for his strength, it seemed like the increase in physical output in the Premier League took some adjusting too, coming from Ligue 1. Eventually, he developed into one of the club’s greatest ever players; his consistency in the big games became his legacy, but he embodied what made Chelsea great at that time, all because he was given the space to improve.
The man tasked with leading the line for the Blues this season is Nicolas Jackson. The 22-year-old Senegal striker arrived from Villarreal as a bit of an unknown for £30m in the summer. He had impressed in La Liga, scoring 12 goals in 26 games, and arrived as another example of Chelsea, now under the ownership of American Todd Boehly, breaking the mould and signing a player they could build into a star, as opposed to a readymade one. Given how that has gone in the past, perhaps that was a smart move.
But because of the issues last season, there is so much scrutiny and focus on Jackson that is neither entirely justified nor helpful. He is a project, a work in progress. At such an early stage in what is a completely new era for Chelsea generally, predicated on the idea that youth and potential will be given a chance to grow, he needs to be cut some slack. Mauricio Pochettino’s track record of trusting and developing talent is why he was hired, and after the failed experiment Edith Graham Potter last season, it is imperative that everyone, including Jackson, is given find to develop.
In pre-season, his raw skillset was obvious. Part of the reason Chelsea lacked goals last season was because they didn’t have a recognised striker, with Havertz playing centrally. There was no focal point, nobody to keep defenders busy in behind. Jackson offered that and Chelsea instantly improved, but it was also clear that his game needed refining. He does not yet possess the clinical edge required in front of goal to be a top striker, and his intelligence of movement has been called into question too.
There’s no doubt Jackson needs to step up if he is to prove the long-term solution to Chelsea’s striker conundrum. But he doesn’t deserve some of the discourse that has surrounded him this season. It reached a head in the 4-1 win over Tottenham last week when, despite scoring a hat-trick, the number of opportunities he missed against nine men meant he endured yet more criticism. It would be fair to say he answered that with a goal against Manchester City, a typical striker’s finish reliant on movement and anticipation. His hard work has resulted in more goals scored, which is proof of concept for Chelsea.
Jackson has also been rather unfortunate in the fact that he has shouldered more responsibility. Christopher Nkunku, the French forward from RB Leipzig, was Chelsea’s first summer signing and big things were expected, but he has been injured all season.
The treatment of a player who is making his first foray at this level has been unfair. At Chelsea, the bar hasn’t been set particularly high for strikers, but even the best of the lot, Didier Drogba, took time to settle. Jackson is showing potential and the raw ability to become a key player in the future and should be credited for that.