Wolves 2-1 Chelsea (Lemina 51′, Doherty 90’+3 | Nkunku 90’+6)
MOLINEUX — It’s unsurprisingly difficult to weld two underperforming strikers into a flourishing, or even functioning, partnership.
Mauricio Pochettino’s decision to start Armando Broja and Nicolas Jackson together may have been more the product of necessity than inspiration, but that didn’t make it any less disastrous. Combining the two seemed to half their efficacy, rather than double it.
Jackson increasingly resembles an actor attempting to recreate the movements of an elite striker for some Hollywood blockbuster made largely by people who have never watched a football match.
Everything is too slow, too clumsy, too lumbering and languid and lackadaisical. He exists in the uncanny valley between appearing to possess the requisite physical attributes to be a great forward and clearly not being one.
Against Wolves, time and again Raheem Sterling crafted opportunities for Jackson to spurn. There was the perfect cross gawkily miscued into the Sir Jack Hayward stand. There was the chance to round Jose Sa, who Jackson promptly ran into.
There was even the moment two Wolves defenders ran into each other to leave half the penalty box unmanned. The prospect of so much time and space appeared to utterly perplex Jackson, who decided to neither look up nor shoot, simply dribbling until someone recovered to tackle him.
Jackson’s record of eight goals in 21 Chelsea games is unimpressive without being heinous. He needed time to settle in, then he needed a bit more. He was underperforming in an underperforming team. Being one of myriad problems has relieved some of the criticism.
Yet there has been no tangible improvement since Jackson joined Chelsea. Much is made of his expected goals (xG) in the Premier League – 10.63 – which puts him behind only Erling Haaland and Mo Salah. xG underperformance is often viewed as something which will inevitably be reconciled, as an average which will eventually be restored. Yet that is only the case if you are at least an above-average finisher.
Jackson’s xG underperformance of 3.63 trails only Darwin Nunez for the poorest in the Premier League. It’s not that the chances aren’t being created for him or that he cannot craft opportunities himself, it’s simply that he’s not a particularly good finisher.
Broja, meanwhile, continues to reinforce the doubts of every previous Chelsea boss – that he’s good, but not quite good enough. He tries, he cares, he doesn’t quite make the grade. He will surely make a club with lower expectations and lessened pressure very happy. It just won’t be Chelsea.
Pochettino’s side have now missed 36 big chances this Premier League season – the most of any team. When you consider they have only scored 29 goals in that period the impact of those wasted opportunities is put into perspective.
Of course, there was one faint ray of fresh hope at Molineux. Christopher Nkunku, making his first Premier League appearance, had one shot cleared off the line before scoring a consolation header.
Nkunku scored 58 goals and managed 29 assists across his final two seasons at RB Leipzig. Even 10 goals between now and May would be revelatory for a player yet to start a competitive Chelsea game.
Yet Chelsea have repeatedly witnessed the obscene pressure their new regime places on individuals, whether through price tags or positional responsibility, physically and psychologically damage those individuals. They must find a way to conscientiously reintegrate Nkunku without viewing him as a panacea. He can provide answers, but not if the club expects him to be The Answer.
In April, Chelsea lost at Molineux in the first game of the second Frank Lampard era. It was soul-destroyingly drab, devoid of cohesion, coherence or collective identity. There were no discernible positives from a 1-0 defeat which left them 11th in the Premier League.
Eight months and 16 days later, the Blues came back with a new manager, £400m-plus spent and nine of the starting eleven altered and were no better than before. They lacked any form of plan and a purpose. They flirted with functionality but constantly reverted to chaos.
The only positive from the 2-1 defeat which left them 10th was Nkunku. How Chelsea manage their new hope may well define whatever remains of this abominable ruin of a season.