Sliding Doors – the iconic film directed by Peter Howitt – recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.
It follows Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Helen and the two paths her life could take depending on whether or not she catches a train one day.
Nicolas Jackson was still three years away from being born, but the man Mauricio Pochettino is pinning his hopes on at Chelsea has already experienced his very own Sliding Doors moment.
Bournemouth were close to signing the 22-year-old back in January from Villarreal only for the deal to collapse amid concerns over a hamstring injury he had suffered. Jackson failed a medical on the south coast.
The Cherries had indeed agreed a £21m fee but with relegation still a serious possibility, they needed as many fit players as possible and opted not to gamble on Jackson’s status.
Had he moved to Bournemouth, would Jackson have predominantly played wide of Dominic Solanke, once of Chelsea? The player would shake off those concerns with a blistering end to the campaign for the Yellow Submarine.
Upon his return in March, Jackson was moved into a more central position and scored 10 LaLiga goals in 11 games as Villarreal finished in fifth place and secured a Europa League berth. He won May’s LaLiga player of the month award.
Such form has inflated the forward’s value to meet his €35m release clause – although it is thought Chelsea will pay slightly more in exchange for more favourable payment terms.
Jackson was born and raised in Gambia but represents Senegal. He impressed in his home nation at ASC Tilene and Casa Sports de Ziguinchor before moving to Spain in 2019, initially joining Villarreal’s Juvenil A.
Having spent time out on loan with Mirandes in Spain’s second division, his breakthrough at Villarreal came under now Aston Villa head coach Unai Emery, and is considered a forward of great potential.
A red card in early April against Real Sociedad led to a one-game suspension, while he had previously fallen out of favour under Villarreal boss Quique Setien, which led to Bournemouth’s winter interest.
Southampton, under Sport Republic co-founder Rasmus Ankersen, were also ready to pounce for Jackson, who progressed through Villarreal’s youth ranks before making his LaLiga debut in 2021.
Chelsea have plunged to strike oil in the desert, with Saudi Arabia emerging as the coveted destination for ageing fringe players.
Conversely, Jackson has his career in front of him, and his stock has skyrocketed.
Emery said at the beginning of last season: “He is a player who is in the process of growing. There are times when some players have to go elsewhere to grow, but we are betting on him because his contribution is very high.
“He must get experience in front of goal and this is a learning process. We need to establish young players and we want to bet on them.”
In his native Senegal, the 6ft 2in forward has been dubbed the ‘next Neymar’ – due to his combination of quick feet, impressive dribbling skills and an eye for goal.
National team coach Aliou Cisse only called Jackson up to his squad for the first time just two months before the World Cup before being selected as his wildcard pick.
The forward – who made his international debut against the Netherlands in Qatar – is known for his directness, which is partly the rationale between Setien only starting him in 33 per cent of Villarreal’s games prior to his hamstring setback.
There was a clash in playing style with Setien’s emphasis on a more patient, progressive approach, but the verticality in his play is something Pochettino has identified to suit his philosophy and the make-up of his squad.
The Argentine is recruiting a very versatile forward capable of playing across the front line.
But given Chelsea’s wealth of options on the flanks and absence of a true No 9, even after the arrival of Christopher Nkunku from RB Leipzig, Jackson could yet emerge as the attacking focal point next season at Stamford Bridge.
Back in late January, Gary O’Neil was Bournemouth manager, Graham Potter was still finding his feet at Chelsea while Pochettino was still keeping his cards close to his chest over his next move in football.
In standing still, missing the Cherries train, Jackson is now set to embark on a move that will change the course of his life.
Could Jackson be the next Drogba?
Sky Sports News reporter Mark McAdam on the Transfer Show:
Nicolas Jackson will excite Chelsea fans, absolutely. This is a player who has huge potential.
He’s a focal point No 9, he’s got the ability to drop into pockets of space and link the play. He’s hard-working, he’s got great technical ability, his finishing has improved. He’s certainly proved in LaLiga he can score goals.
He’s versatile, he can press from the front and has all the attributes you need. The only question mark I would say is whether he needs another step – would Bournemouth have been a good first step for him? They were so close to signing him in January.
But I’ll say this under my breath – could he be the next Didier Drogba? Could he be that player for Chelsea?
Patience needed if Jackson joins Blues
Chelsea have a desperate need to bring in a new No 9 this summer in a bid to resolve the goal-scoring issues that mean Diego Costa remains the last striker to score 20 goals in a season for the club – and that was six years ago.
Those problems came to a head last season when no player scored more than nine goals as Chelsea slumped to 12th in the Premier League, exacerbating the desire to strengthen their forward line.
However, Jackson is not the eye-catching name that many supporters may have been hoping for this summer.
The 22-year-old, who has one cap for Senegal, was only promoted to Villarreal’s first team on a full-time basis last season, while he would have joined Bournemouth in January had he not failed a medical.
It’s unlikely that Chelsea would have considered a move for Jackson in the previous window, given his modest record of just three goals in his first 18 LaLiga games of the season.
However, he exploded into life down the stretch, scoring nine in his final eight matches to help Villarreal to Europa League qualification.
That impressive form at the end of the season means Jackson compared favourably to Chelsea’s crop of forwards during the 2022/23 campaign, ranking highest for goals and big chances scored per 90 minutes.
However, it must be pointed out that none of Chelsea’s forwards performed to their expected levels last season, while Jackson’s numbers for possession wins and completed passes compare unfavourably to the attacking players already at Stamford Bridge.
As such, it’s unfair to expect Jackson to arrive at Stamford Bridge and immediately fix Chelsea’s issues in front of goal. Don’t be surprised to see the club pursue another No 9 this summer.
Instead, a longer-term view should be taken with Jackson. His hot streak last season demonstrates his potential, but his lack of experience at the top level, as well as the room for improvement in aspects of his game, shows patience may be needed from Mauricio Pochettino and the Blues’ fans.
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