In the first of a series of in-depth profiles on our stars of 2019/20, I take a deeper look at the dazzling performances of the man with the finest left peg in the land. (Quick heads up: I’ve never written this kind of piece before, so it’s a bit experimental!)
Not that any of us will have had it marked on the calendar, but it’s just over a year since the nadir of the 2018/19 season: the 2-1 loss to Oxford – our second stoppage time chuck-away job in as many games and a tenth match without a win. The eminently infuriating nature of the result dominated post-match discussion, with Yves Makalambay’s nail-shredding shakiness in his second and final Wycombe league start also a hot topic. But there was another big talking point from that exasperating afternoon at the Kassam: Joe Jacobson.
Our esteemed left-back had uncharacteristically dragged a penalty wide at 0-1, but more significantly, he was dragged off just shy of the hour mark, making way for Michael Harriman – a straight swap, nothing tactical. The fact that JJ was on a yellow might well have influenced Gareth Ainsworth’s unprecedented decision, but he’d been enduring a torrid time up against the hosts’ Marcus Browne. And when he sat out the next six fixtures, doubts begun to emerge (and I’ll admit was one of the doubters, now gladly proven wrong) in some quarters. When would he return?
On the final day, as it happened, and he only went and mathematically confirmed our survival by emphatically reminding us all what a special player he is – bending in the only goal of the game directly from a corner, the second of four times he’d pull off that feat in 2019. Visitors Fleetwood already had the sand between their toes, so it wasn’t the best day for scrutinising defending, but that moment of magic from the Welsh wizard’s undisputed wand of a left foot sent out an important and reassuring message: ‘I’m still here!’.
And he’s not looked back. Just under a year later and he’s arguably had the campaign of his career. Impatience is perhaps the hardest habit for football fans to break, but with hindsight, well clear of the mentally-clouding heat of a relegation battle, it’s probably fair to see 2018/19 as JJ’s readjustment to the demands of the third tier after four seasons away. That wasn’t the only reason behind an inconsistent spell, but every member of a minnow among big fish deserves a grace period – as the last eight (well, seven) months go to show.
* * *
Of course, the starting point with any ode to Joe is obvious… So let’s start somewhere less obvious. What’s rarely, if ever, discussed by outsiders rightly praising his invaluable contribution to our odds-defying 2019/20 is the defensive side of his game. Sure, we’re in the age of the marauding, playmaking full-back – your Trent Alexander-Arnolds and Andy Robertsons – but we’ve not un-inverted the pyramid yet! It’s fair to say the left end of the Wall of Wycombe – which back in the autumn went over ten hours without conceding, keeping six straight clean sheets in the process, a new club Football League record – has got stuck in to brilliant effect.
Of League One left-backs who’ve played 900 minutes (i.e. the equivalent of ten full appearances) or more, JJ ranks equal sixth on tackles per game, while only two of his counterparts have been dribbled past less frequently. Double the playing time and he comes out third and second respectively – a mark of the consistency he’s brought to the position and, consequently, the cause. He’s made an obstacle and a nuisance of himself.
Basic Comparison of League One Left-backs* (min. 900 minutes played)
|Tackles/90||Tackle Success||Dribbled Past/90||Interceptions/90||Clearances/90||Blocks/90|
|Brandon Mason (Coventry) – 3.6||Lee Brown (Portsmouth) – 91.6%||Lee Brown – 0.1||Adam Chicksen – 1.9||Liam Ridehalgh – 4.1||Adam Chicksen – 2.4|
|Liam Ridehalgh (Tranmere) – 2.7||Joe Jacobson – 82.6%||Josh Ruffels – 0.3||Harry Toffolo – 1.7||Nathan Ralph – 2.9||Rhys Norrington-Davies – 1.9|
|Adam Chicksen (Bolton) – 2.5||Jerome Opoku – 82.6%||Connor Ogilvie – 0.3||Brandon Mason – 1.6||Joe Mattock – 2.7||Connor Ogilvie – 1.8|
|Rhys Norrington-Davies (Rochdale) – 2.2||Rhys Norrington-Davies – 81.48%||Joe Jacobson – 0.4||Nathan Ralph – 1.3||Josh Ruffels – 2.6||Liam Ridehalgh – 1.5|
|Reece James (Doncaster) – 2.1||Connor Ogilvie (Gillingham) – 81.25%||Harry Toffolo (Lincoln) – 0.4||Reece James (Doncaster) – 1.2||Adam Chicksen – 2.5||Nathan Ralph – 1.4|
|Nathan Ralph (Southend) – 2||Liam Ridehalgh – 79.41%||Joe Mattock – 0.4||Jerome Opoku – 1.2||Joe Jacobson – 2.4||Joe Jacobson – 1.4|
|Joe Jacobson – 1.9||Joe Mattock (Rotherham) – 78.95%||Steve Seddon (Portsmouth) – 0.4||Josh Ruffels – 1.2||Rhys Norrington-Davies – 2.3||Reece James – 1.3|
|Jerome Opoku (Accrington) – 1.9||Josh Ruffels (Oxford) – 78.57%||Jerome Opoku – 0.5||Joe Jacobson – 1.1||Reece James – 2.3||Jerome Opoku – 1.3|
*Excluding left wing-backs
JJ is the only left-back in the division within the aforementioned parameters to rank in the top ten in each of the ‘core’ defensive categories. Unfortunately, there’s no comparable data for last season openly available, but the ‘eye test’ alone ought to be enough to recognise the marked improvement the 33-year-old has made in defensive terms – getting back to his best and then some.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of that is how few goals we’ve conceded from the right this term: four so far (10% of our total goals against) versus 18 (26%) in 2018/19 – three (7.5%) and 15 (22%) once you remove the games in which Jacobson didn’t play. It’s a significant drop and while the renaissance of Darius Charles at left centre-back – which needs to and will be appraised in its own right – has been little short of a revelation and helped his team-mate have the season he’s had, take absolutely nothing away from JJ himself.
Certainly in terms of situations resulting in goals, possibly only once have we left that flank as worryingly exploitable as it was on countless occasions last time around – and that didn’t come until February’s 3-1 defeat at Doncaster, the last time we kicked a ball but more impressively, fixture number 34 out of 44. JJ did well to stay with Jason Lokilo but was ultimately turned inside out with ease by the nifty footwork of the hosts’ right winger, whose cross into the corridor of uncertainty ended up in the back of the net by way of Jason McCarthy. It was an unusual sight.
His regained robustness – as further demonstrated by his solid record in 50-50s below – hasn’t merely quashed the threat, though. Our direct approach means that more often than not, as soon as he’s won the ball, we’re set to launch an attack of our own. Fifteen League One full-backs have completed more passes into the final third per 90, but more than half of them play or were playing in the seven most possession-focused systems in the league. JJ’s rate of 7.3/90 represents an excellent return for someone playing in a long-ball side who see the least possession in the division.
League One Left-backs* by Duel Success
|Ground Duel Success||Aerial Duel Success||Overall Duel Success|
|1|1|1||Connor Ogilvie (Gillingham) – 71%||Nathan Ralph – 71%||Connor Ogilvie – 68%|
|2|=2|2||Liam Ridehalgh (Tranmere) – 64%||Connor Ogilvie – 65%||Nathan Ralph – 67%|
|=3|=2|=3||Adam Chicksen (Bolton) – 63%||Lee Brown – 65%||Liam Ridehalgh – 60%|
|=3|4|=3||Nathan Ralph (Southend) – 63%||Joe Mattock (Rotherham) – 62%||Joe Jacobson – 60%|
|5||Joe Jacobson – 62%||Jerome Opoku (Accrington) – 58%||Jerome Opoku – 59%|
|6||Lee Brown (Portsmouth) – 61%||Josh Ruffels (Oxford) – 57%||Joe Mattock – 58%|
|7|=7|=7||Brandon Mason (Coventry) – 60%||Joe Jacobson – 56%||Adam Chicksen – 55%|
*Excluding left wing-backs
* * *
Onto the obvious stuff then: the magic. Legend has it Warner Bros. wanted Jacobson’s left peg to play Harry Potter’s wand but it was beyond their budget. We got it for free in the summer of 2014 – daylight robbery. Only three players – Mo Salah, Brentford’s Bryan Mbuemo and Leeds’ Patrick Bamford – have bagged more left-footed goals in the top four tiers this season. It pretty much goes without sayint that our vice-captain is the top-scoring defender in the country and one of only four – all full-backs – to register twice or more from outside the box – all comprising that hat-trick which no words can do justice.
Of course, six of those nine goals have come from the penalty spot, but you know what, you’ve still got to put them away – and when you consider that he’s done so three times in single-goal victories, twice to win it at the death, it becomes much less of a caveat. Bayo Akinfenwa has shown himself to be a dependable understudy in the main man’s absence, but penalty-taking is a specialism and JJ has it down to a fine art. Case in point: he’s tucked away twice as many spot-kicks as Manchester City in the league this season.
Top-scoring Full-backs 2019/20 (Premier League – League Two)
|Luke Ayling (Leeds)||4||2||0|
|Kristian Pedersen (Birmingham)||4||1||0|
|Connor Ogilvie (Gillingham)||4||2||0|
|Ibou Touray (Salford)||4||2||0|
|Aaron Creswell (West Ham)||3||1||0|
|Patrick van Aanholt (Crystal Palace)||3||1||0|
|Ricardo Pereira (Leicester)||3||1||0|
|Matty Cash (Nottingham Forest)||3||1||0|
|Josh Ruffels (Oxford)||3||1||0|
We all expect to see the back of the net ripple whenever Wycombe’s number 3 steps up from 12 yards, but have you noticed that, whether intentionally or not, he follows a pattern? He’s scored middle, middle, left, left, right, right. Now, I don’t want to give would-be thwarters any ideas, but it would seem that he doesn’t like to stay in one place for too long. The only (almost) constant on that front has been his propensity for going low. In fact, he’s aimed high just once, against Ipswich’s Inspector Gadget-armed Tomáš Holý – the first stopper to keep out one of his penalties since Luton’s James Shea in controversial circumstances 15 months earlier. As for his run-up, it remains identical no matter where he’s aiming – including the little stutter about two strides in. He must be a nightmare to read.
Jacobson Penalty Map 2019/20
A stark, if maybe simplistic, way of measuring Jacobson’s indispensability is to look at where we’d be without his goals. The basic answer is ‘screwed’. The more exact answer is 12th and nine points off the play-offs instead of eighth and level on points. Take away his assists and pre-assists (the pass directly before an assist) and we’d find ourselves another three points and a further place worse off.
Wycombe Players 2019-20 by Goal Contribtions/90
From the graph above, we can see that JJ leads the way in pre-assists – and is one of only two Wanderers players to record more than one. What do these pre-assists (or secondary assists) actually look like, though? Well, unsurprisingly, three of them have been set-pieces: the corner leading to Fred Onyedinma’s ‘third debut’ goal in the opening day win over Bolton and free-kicks resulting in Darius Charles and Rolando Aarons’ deciders against Sunderland and Shrewsbury respectively. The other? A first-time hook down the left channel for Fred to entangle the Tranmere full-back and cross for the Beast.
Obviously the ‘Jacobson hook’ is never going to catch on like the Cruyff turn or the Panenka, but that ball is something of a trademark move of his. Take the game prior to the Tranmere at home – the 2-0 victory away to Bolton – for example: Fred ultimately won a penalty after being hauled down by Remi Matthews, but he’d never have found himself bearing down on goal without David Wheeler’s own trademark flick-on or Jacobson’s attack-initiator in the first place. To cynics, it might look like an aimless hoof, but it’s done with a very clear purpose, as touched upon earlier: to bypass the opposition and advance the ball to our danger man quickly. We know we lack goals from open play, but, assuming the season does resume, that might well prove our most successful avenue – especially with Fred back in the fray.
We also know that we’ve managed to compensate with our hugely effective utilisation of set-pieces, though. Fourteen of our 45 goals have stemmed from them, nine from JJ deliveries – so add penalties and we have him to thank in some way for exactly a third. There’s no point in digging much deeper without xG (alas, not freely accessible) to hand to gauge the quality of chances, but in addition to assisting Bayo’s opener in the win at Tranmere, he’s played 21 key passes (passes resulting in a shot) from free-kicks alone – another high in the English professional game this season. In the lead-up to his being dropped from the side last spring, his deliveries had begun to go slightly awry; it’s clear now what a blip that was.
Wycombe 2019/20 set-piece goals per taker
|Set-pieces Resulting in Goals|
Looking at key passes as a whole, with two per 90, JJ ranks 15th out of League One players to make the equivalent of ten full appearances or more, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Marcus Maddison – the top midfielder, some might say top player full stop, in the league before his loan move to Hull in January – and Ipswich’s Alan Judge, a Republic of Ireland international with several years of Championship experience. Among full-backs alone, he sits top of the pile. And while big chances (Opta definition: “A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score”) account for only a small proportion (approx. 10%) of his overall key passes, his raw total rivals the divison’s very best full-backs in that category.
* * *
The player of the season vote should be a close-run thing this year, but in Joe Jacobson we have one of the big contenders. If, as I’m sure we all hope, we’re able to play the remaining ten games, he’ll no doubt continue to stake his claim to the prize he’s not claimed during his time with the Blues. He’s also never played in the Championship, but that in itself would be a thoroughly well-earned reward…