Nicolas Jackson had just one thing to avoid against Aston Villa. Not a lot to ask, really — and yet he could not even manage that.
If ever there was an indication of just how hard Chelsea head coach Mauricio Pochettino is finding it to impart his message to a young squad, it was the moment Jackson picked up a yellow card five minutes into Sunday’s second half at Stamford Bridge.
Pochettino could not have been clearer ahead of the game. Normally a manager would be most worried about his striker struggling in front of goal but, instead, he felt the need to pull the forward aside at the club’s training ground to discuss his lack of on-field discipline.
The 22-year-old had picked up four yellow cards in just five Premier League matches and Pochettino told him in no uncertain terms to stop earning “cheap” bookings — not least because a fifth against Aston Villa would mean an automatic one-game suspension. The forward had been pre-warned.
In that context, what Jackson did feels all the more inexcusable.
As Aston Villa keeper Emiliano Martinez looked to deliver a free kick up field, Jackson positioned himself a few yards away in an attempt to stop the Argentinian from taking it quickly. Martinez, perhaps using a bit of know-how, duly kicked the ball against his opponent and referee Jarred Gillett brandished the inevitable yellow card.
Ordinarily, Jackson would not exactly be a big miss given his current fragile form. He has scored just once for Chelsea since joining from Villarreal, and that was against bottom club Luton Town in the only league victory this side have enjoyed to date. As his display on Sunday demonstrated, confidence is draining from him with every passing week.
But Chelsea do not exactly have many options up front right now. Armando Broja is the only other recognised target man in this squad and his appearance from the bench in the second half was his first for nine months having suffered a serious knee injury back in December. He is still being eased back into action. Before the Albania international came on, there was the bizarre sight of seeing the diminutive Raheem Sterling leading the line.
Jackson will only sit out the next Premier League game, a west London derby against Fulham, but the last thing Pochettino needs is to be without one of his attacking players — even if they are all struggling to find the net.
As Opta revealed after the loss to Aston Villa, no team have failed to score a goal in more league matches in 2023 than Chelsea’s 13. It is also the most times they have failed to score in a single year in the league since 1995, when they endured 14 scoreless games. There are still three months to comfortably set a new club record.
13 – Chelsea have failed to score in 13 Premier League matches in 2023, more than any other side. It’s the most times they have failed to score in a single year in the league since 1995 (14 games). Dismal. pic.twitter.com/opqUryrWbz
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 24, 2023
Pochettino also now has to worry about the right-back situation, too. A reckless tackle from Malo Gusto on Lucas Digne — even if the Chelsea player did win the ball first — just eight minutes after Jackson’s own show of naivety was upgraded from a yellow card to a red card when the VAR directed Gillett to review the incident on the monitor.
Gusto’s ban is more severe at three games, and finding a replacement will be no easy task. Pochettino will be loathe to rush Reece James back. The Chelsea captain wrote in the Aston Villa matchday programme how he is still taking things slowly after suffering a knee problem last month because he wants to avoid the risk of a reoccurrence. Surely those plans will not be changed regardless of the need.
Understandably Pochettino made a point of speaking to his players afterwards about the mistakes they are making. “We were were talking, we need to grow up like a team, not only in an individual way,” said the head coach, who has overseen a solitary victory in six Premier League matches.
“I think players like Nico who are so young and feeling the Premier League and is learning… they need time. In this type of game, we are competing and want to win and football is about winning. But also players, when they are young, need to learn. They need experience and (to) make mistakes. That’s why we feel disappointed as there are too many situations like this and and, in the end, we are losing the game.
“We are in situation we need to change as soon as possible.”
Pochettino ran 25 minutes late for his pre-match press conference at the club’s training ground on Friday having met with co-owner Behdad Eghbali for talks. Eghbali also went into the dressing room after this latest defeat, although that has become standard procedure for members of the hierarchy whenever they attend fixtures at Stamford Bridge.
Aston Villa fans chanted “you’re getting sacked in the morning” at Pochettino after taking the lead through Ollie Watkins. The away support enjoyed their taunts, and it is too early for talk of sackings or another change in the dugout. But this is still going to be a hard week for Chelsea’s beleaguered head coach with the negative scrutiny on the club growing.
This has been their worst start to a season in the top division since 1978-79, after all.
Pochettino clearly is not worried about any lack of support from the owners, but has felt the need to urge to stay patient.
“They are disappointed,” he admitted. “They arrived at the club and are so excited to build a project. Of course they feel disappointed but, at the same time, they need to support the plan.”
That would be easier if his own players started doing what they were told.
(Top photo: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)