Gabriel Jesus started running when he joined Manchester City. Still a teenager at the start of 2017, the striker made such an impression that he was in the starting lineup for a time and City legend Sergio Aguero was on the bench.
Five-and-a-half years later, it’s clear he hasn’t become Aguero’s long-term successor, an impression reinforced by City’s acquisition of Erling Haaland. And with the Norway international joining the club along with Argentina striker Julian Alvarez, Jesus is clearly worried about being dropped from the first team in the vital few months before the World Cup. Jesus is set to move south to Arsenal with his career at a crossroads and with a key question nagging at him: what kind of striker is he?
In 2017, it seemed clear. He was a versatile and mobile operator capable of working across the entire front line, but would go on to become a top-notch centre-forward. By the time he joined City, Jesus already seemed like the solution to what had become a surprisingly long problem with the Brazilian national team. He was thrown into the deep end in World Cup qualifying in September 2016 at centre-forward, won his first game in Ecuador and hasn’t looked back. He scored seven goals in nine World Cup qualifiers, claimed the winner when Brazil played a friendly against Germany and went to Russia 2018 with an impressive record of nine goals in his first 15 matches.
And then everything went wrong.
Jesus failed to score a single goal in Russia. Brazil have fielded much maligned centre-forwards in the past – Serginho in 1982 or Fred in 2014, for example. But at least they managed to get on the scoresheet. Coach Tite admitted that he would have liked to change position during the competition. He should have brought in Roberto Firmino, he said, to replace Jesus. For the player, the 2018 World Cup left a trauma that remains to this day.
At first, while scoring goals for his country, a comparison was made between Jesus and the original Brazilian Ronaldo. The source could not have been more authoritative; it was Ronaldo himself. These days, that’s not a comparison anyone would make, which isn’t necessarily a criticism of Jesus. It just evolved in different ways. Ronaldo has turned into a centre-forward powerhouse. Jesus didn’t go through the same physical process, and there are doubts about his lack of presence in the penalty area.
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But what is the root of such doubts? Is it a lack of physical strength? Or does it come from question marks in the player’s mind?
Brazil have barely used Jesus as a centre-forward since Russia 2018, but that’s partly their choice. Tite called him and asked him where he would like to play. He replied that he had no preference. The coach pushed him harder for an answer, and he eventually declared himself happier attacking from distance.
Cutting from the flanks certainly suits some of its characteristics. He is an elegant figure who runs with the ball and is excellent at appearing as a surprise element to put pressure on opposing defenders. But has he shied away from centre-forward goalscoring responsibilities? If he could do the job for his country five years ago – and could be selected for City ahead of Aguero – then why not now?
Gunners boss Mikel Arteta was, of course, present at City in Pep Guardiola’s squad when Jesus made such a promising start to Premier League life. Arteta surely has a vision of how his new signing will fit into the Arsenal squad. It’s important that the two are on the same page, not only for Arsenal, but also for Jesus’ World Cup future.
Earlier this month, Jesus found the net for Brazil in a friendly against South Korea, breaking a long dry streak of 19 games and almost three years without a goal. He’s had plenty of opportunities: seven World Cup qualifiers plus four games off the bench, four Copa America games last year and four other friendlies. He showed an understandable sense of relief then, after cutting from the right to plant a left-footed shot into the far corner. It was a fine effort, but it was a stoppage time goal in a 5-1 friendly win.
Meanwhile, many other Brazilian forwards have emerged, especially in the last 12 months. Competition for a place in Qatar is fierce. If teams were to contain the traditional number of 23 players, then, for all his versatility, Jesus would really sweat on a slot machine. The increase to 26 gives him a much better chance of making the cut. Playing time at club level could be important in getting him on the plane and higher up the pecking order – and it’s surely a huge factor in his desire to get away from Manchester City.
He is therefore a player in a hurry. Jesus won’t go to Arsenal expecting a smooth settling-in period. He will want to step up – as he did for the first time at City – but with a different end at the next World Cup.