The story of Chelsea strikers past and present was the outstanding African subplot during an engrossing weekend of Premier League action, before players departed for the final international break of the year. Nicolas Jackson was among Africa’s star performers in Europe this weekend, as he delivered yet another display that should get Chelsea fans excited about his prospects of being the club’s next African hero.
Certainly, parallels with Stamford Bridge icon Didier Drogba are appearing much less far-fetched after a four-goal week for the 22-year-old…even prompting another Premier League great to eat his words after previous criticism of the 22-year-old Senegal international.
One of Jackson’s predecessor’s at Stamford Bridge — AFC Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke — also enjoyed a weekend to remember in the top flight as he marked his reunion with former boss Eddie Howe by bagging a double to down Newcastle United.
For Jackson, Chelsea’s latest hope to banish the ‘curse of the No. 9’, early inroads into English football haven’t been straightforward. Having only relatively recently emerged on the scene at Villarreal – Nicolas Jackson only scored his first La Liga (and top flight) goal in August 2022 – the Senegal international was something of an unknown when he arrived at Stamford Bridge.
However, his early showings swelled expectation after parallels were drawn with Didier Drogba… albeit somewhat lazily. After the opening games of the season, another commonality with early-Stamford Bridge-years Drogba was also clear – a hatful of missed chances and a distinct lack inconsistency in front of goal.
The Ivorian legend netted 16 goals across 40 appearances in his first season at Chelsea, having signed in 2004, although early struggles promptly evolved into a magnificent career in West London.
For Nicolas Jackson, having scored just once in his first seven Chelsea outings, missed chances are beginning to be balanced out by a steady flow of goals, as he followed up his hat-trick showing in the 4-1 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur on Monday by adding the Blues’ third in a 4-4 epic against Manchester City on Sunday.
As Drogba made a habit of leaving his mark in the biggest of matches – no other player has scored more goals in FA Cup final history – so Jackson too is developing something of a reputation for rising to the big occasion. He didn’t let missed opportunities dissuade him against Spurs, and promptly silenced the erstwhile league leaders with a hat-trick, holding his nerve to punish the depleted Lilywhites.
With Christopher Nkunku injured since arriving at the club, Nicolas Jackson has had to shoulder much of Chelsea’s attacking burden alone, and while he’d missed eight big chances in the top flight heading into Sunday’s meeting with City, he demonstrated in North London that he doesn’t lose his nerve when previous chances haven’t been converted.
There’s increasingly a lot to like about this Chelsea side – not least the character and verve they showed in attempting to peg back City on Sunday – and Jackson can take encouragement from the fact that he finds himself in a transitional environment, with less expectation on Mauricio Pochettino’s young charges to surpass the league’s top sides.
His goal on Sunday wasn’t particularly special – the forward finding his feet to finish from close range after Éderson parried into his path – but it maintained the forward’s momentum, and demonstrated his ability to take the chances presented to him, even in the most high profile of clashes.
His form has made Premier League royalty sit up and take notice. Speaking to The Rest is Football podcast after the match, Premier League all-time top scorer Alan Shearer acknowledged Jackson’s improvement, having previously criticised his ineffectiveness in front of goal.
“I was crucial of [Jackson’s] lack of movement a few weeks ago,” Shearer began, as per the Mirror, “I got a text from Chelsea to say that they didn’t think it was over the top and that they have been working on one or two things in and around that. He was a lot better today and full of confidence after what happened earlier in the week and that showed today.”
Certainly, this week has represented a magnificent turnaround for a player previously described by Shearer as “not a natural goalscorer”, and as this young Chelsea team takes shape, and with Pochettino refining the rougher edges of his game, don’t be surprised if Nicolas Jackson comfortably surpasses Drogba’s inaugural season tally of 16 in a Blues shirt.
The Ghost of Chelsea Past
In contrast to Jackson, Dominic Solanke, who spent 13 years at Chelsea between 2004 and 2017 – overlapping with Drogba — may never know what it feels like to net a Premier League home goal at Stamford Bridge.
However, Bournemouth fans won’t be complaining as the Anglo-Nigerian hitman continues to lead the Cherries’ battle against relegation this season, twice scoring against Newcastle – and haunting his former manager Eddie Howe – to secure all three points.
Solanke once appeared destined for great things at Stamford Bridge after netting twice in a victorious FA Youth Cup Final showing in 2014, before going on to clinch the U-17 European Championship and the U-20 World Cup.
However, Solanke was unable to make his mark at Chelsea, let alone emulate Drogba, and he eventually departed Cobham for Liverpool, before moving on to Howe’s Bournemouth after netting just once in 21 league outings with the Reds.
Solanke can surely sympathise with Jackson’s initial struggles to impose himself in the Prem, having scored just three in 42 league outings with the Cherries before they tumbled out of the top tier. Having been influential in their return to the elite in 2022, he’s set about proving he’s every bit a worthy frontman, and Solanke’s double against Newcastle United at the weekend ensured he equalled his entire top flight tally for last season… and his all-time best return of six in a Premier League season.
“Hopefully I can keep scoring,” Solanke told Sky Sports after the match. “[At Liverpool] it didn’t work out, I had to go back to square one and work up.
“The year we got relegated back to Championship, I didn’t want to be there,” he added. “I dreamed of playing in Premier League but felt it was a time to go and score goals.
“Last season I wanted to establish myself and have a decent season. I’m feeling more confident this season and with these goals behind me I feel great.”
His brace against the Magpies on Saturday demonstrated his athleticism, predatory instincts and flair in front of goal, as the attacker first outpaced the visiting defence and reacted quickest to prod home beyond Nick Pope. For his second, Pope was beaten by a moment of close-range innovation, as Solanke met the ball on the volley with a heel flick to take the contest beyond Newcastle.
Only five players have scored more than Solanke in the Prem so far this season, although the likes of Harry Kane, Ollie Watkins, Callum Wilson, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Eddie Nketiah continue to block his path to a second England cap, following his sole friendly appearance in 2017.
Earlier this year, the forward reportedly indicated that no one from the Nigeria Football Federation had approached him about playing for the Super Eagles, but with the Africa Cup of Nations approaching, it would be a good time for the West African giants to reconsider an approach for the 26-year-old.