Nicolas Jackson has had a remarkable rise from relative obscurity to new Chelsea centre-forward.
Five years ago he was not even playing for a professional club in Senegal, two years ago he was struggling in the Spanish second division and earlier this season he was not getting in the Villarreal team.
But a blistering finish to the campaign caught the attention of clubs across Europe and convinced Chelsea to spend £32million and give him an eight-year contract.
Jackson scored nine goals in eight LaLiga matches in nine weeks between April and June, outscoring every player in Europe’s top-five leagues in that time and earning himself a big move to Stamford Bridge.
“His explosion has been extraordinary because 10 months ago he didn’t even start for Villarreal,” Nacho Sanchis, a local reporter for Spanish sport website Relevo, told Standard Sport. “He became a starter, goalscorer and is going to Chelsea in the blink of an eye.
“Only in this last period did people believe he could become a top player. Even people inside Villarreal didn’t expect him to explode like this.”
Electric speed and acceleration, coupled with his ability to dribble, earned Jackson the nickname ‘Senegalese Neymar’ in his own country.
His recent flurry of goals for Villarreal owed much to his dribbling at pace, pressing and running in behind defences. At 6ft 2ins, his build-up play still needs work and his heading is a weakness but he has learned to lead the line and stretch defences.
New signing: Nicolas Jackson swapped Villarreal for Chelsea in a deal worth £32m
New signing: Nicolas Jackson swapped Villarreal for Chelsea in a deal worth £32m / Chelsea FC via Getty Images
Last summer, then Villarreal manager Unai Emery wanted to replace him but missed out on his top target Umar Sadiq from Almeria. Jackson came close to joining Bournemouth in January but failed a medical due a hamstring injury after Villarreal agreed to sell him for £22m.
In the final weeks of the season he was the best player in LaLiga and finished the campaign with 12 goals in 26 league appearances. Villarreal have been pleasantly surprised by the rise of a player whom they did not even think warranted a press release when he joined the club aged 18.
Even for Senegal, he only made their World Cup squad after Sadio Mane pulled out injured. But Chelsea’s data-driven scouting looks beyond reputation and has seen an opportunity in what they believe might be a rough diamond with real potential.
Jackson has had just 1,758 minutes of top-flight action and his journey from playing street football in Ziguinchor to Stamford Bridge suggest he will embrace the challenge of making his mark in the Premier League.
Chelsea’s data-driven scouting looks beyond reputation and has seen an opportunity in what they believe might be a rough diamond with real potential
Cherif Sadio, who signed Jackson when he was 16 for Casa Sports, one of Senegal’s biggest clubs, has always believed in his ability.
“He showed us that he had everything needed to be a future star like Sadio Mane, one of his role models,” Sadio told Standard Sport. “On sandy soccer pitches, Nicolas performed techniques many can’t even do on grass pitches.
“Nicolas is someone who has only football on his mind, nothing else. He’s discreet, calm and very ambitious.
“He’s humble and very disciplined. He has the same friends he had as a boy, he has a good family and his agent Diomansy Kamara played in the Premier League.
“Off the pitch, he doesn’t get out much, and he’s a footballer who wants to go far in his career, and I’m convinced he will.”