Gabriel Jesús started running when he joined Manchester City. Still a teenager at the start of 2017, the striker made such an impression that for a while he was in the starting eleven and City legend Sergio Aguero was on the bench.
Five and a half years on, it is clear that he has not become Aguero’s long-term successor, an impression reinforced by City’s acquisition of Erling Haaland. And with the Norway international joining the club alongside Argentinian striker Julián Álvarez, Jesus is clearly worried about being dropped from first-team action in the vital months leading up to the World Cup. Jesus is ready to move to Arsenal with his career at a crossroads and one key question about him: what kind of striker is he?
In 2017, it seemed clear. He was a versatile and mobile operator capable of working the entire front line, but he was going to mature into a first-class centre-forward. By the time he joined City, Jesus already seemed to be the solution to what had become a surprisingly protracted problem with the Brazilian team. He was thrown into the background in World Cup qualifying in September 2016 as a centre-forward, won his debut match in Ecuador and hasn’t looked back. He scored seven goals in nine World Cup qualifiers, scored the winner when Brazil played a warm-up friendly against Germany and came into Russia 2018 with an impressive record of nine goals from his first 15 games.
And then everything went wrong.
Jesus failed to score a single goal in Russia. Brazil has fielded much-criticized centre-forwards in the past: Serginho in 1982 or Fred in 2014, for example. But at least they managed to get on the scoreboard. Coach Tite confessed that he would have liked to have changed positions 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 lasts to this day.
In those early days when he was scoring goals for his country, a comparison was made between Jesus and the original Brazilian Ronaldo. The source couldn’t have been more authoritative; It was Ronaldo himself. Today, it is not a comparison that anyone would make, which is not necessarily a criticism of Jesus. It has just developed in different ways. Ronaldo became a powerhouse of a centre-forward. Jesús has not gone 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 lack of physical strength? Or does it come from question marks in the player’s own mind?
Brazil have barely used Jesus as a centre-forward since Russia 2018, but it is partly his own choice. Tite called him and asked him where he would like to play. He replied that he had no preference. The coach pressed him harder for an answer, and he finally declared himself happier attacking from the flanks.
Cutting from the flanks certainly suits some of its features. He is a graceful figure who runs with the ball and is excellent at appearing as a surprise element to put pressure on opposing defenders. But has he been on the run from centre-forward goalscoring responsibilities? If he could get the job done for his country five years ago, and he could get selected for City before Aguero, why not now?
Gunners boss Mikel Arteta was, of course, there at City in Pep Guardiola’s coaching staff when Jesus got off to such a promising start in Premier League life. Arteta surely has a vision of how his new signing at Arsenal will fit in. It is important that they are both on the same page, not only for Arsenal but also for Jesus’ future in the World Cup.
Earlier this month, Jesus found the net for Brazil in a friendly away from South Korea, snapping a long dry run of 19 matches and nearly three years without scoring. He has had plenty of opportunities: seven World Cup qualifiers plus four games off the bench, four games in last year’s Copa América and four other friendlies. He showed an understandable sense of relief, after cutting from the right to plant a left-footed shot into the far corner. It was a good effort, but it was an injury-time goal in a 5-1 friendly win.
Meanwhile, many other Brazilian strikers have emerged, especially in the last 12 months. The competition for a place in Qatar is fierce. If squads were the traditional 23 players, then for all his versatility, Jesus would really be sweating in a slot. The increase to 26 gives you 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 this is surely a huge factor in his desire to move away from Manchester City.
This, then, is a player in a hurry. Jesus will not go to Arsenal expecting a smooth period of adaptation. He will want to hit the ground running, just as he first did at City, but with a different finish at the next World Cup.