Gabriel Jesus hit the ground 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 line-up and City legend Sergio Aguero was on the bench.
Five and a half years later, it is clear he has not become Aguero’s long-term successor, an impression reinforced by City’s acquisition of Erling Haaland. With the Norway international joining the club alongside Argentine striker Julian Alvarez, Jesus is clearly concerned about being left out of first-team matches in the few months leading up to the World Cup. Jesus is ready to move south to Arsenal with his career at a crossroads and with a key question hanging over him: What kind of striker?
In 2017, it seemed clear. He was a versatile, mobile player capable of operating across the front lines, but was on the cusp of maturing into a top-tier attacking player. By the time he joined City, Jesus already seemed to be the solution to what had become a surprisingly long-running problem with the Brazilian national team. He was thrown into the deep end of the World Cup qualifiers in September 2016 as center forward, winning his first away game for Ecuador and never looking back. He scored seven goals in nine World Cup qualifiers, and snatched the winner when Brazil played a friendly away to Germany and went to Russia 2018 with a staggering record nine goals in their first 15 matches.
And then things went wrong.
Jesus failed to score a single goal in Russia. Brazil have previously had strikers who have gotten really bad – Serginho in 1982 or Fred in 2014, for example. But they at least managed to get the results sheet. Coach Tite admitted that he wished he had changed the situation during the competition. He said he should have brought in Roberto Firmino to replace Jesus. For the player, the 2018 World Cup left a trauma that persists 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 could not be more reliable; It was Ronaldo himself. Nowadays, it’s not the comparison anyone might make, and it’s not necessarily a criticism of Jesus. It has simply evolved in different ways. Ronaldo turned into a powerful attacking position. Jesus did not go through the same physical process, and there are doubts about his absence in the penalty area.
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But what is the origin of these doubts? Is it a lack of physical strength? Or does it come from question marks in the player’s mind?
Brazil have rarely used Jesus as a central midfielder since Russia 2018, but that is partly due to his selection. Titi called him and asked him where he would like to play. He replied that he had no advantage. The coach pushed him harder to get an answer, and he finally declared his happiness at the attack from wide.
The intrusion of the wings certainly fits some of its characteristics. He’s an elegant ball-driving figure who is excellent at appearing as a surprise element to put pressure on opposing defenders. But was he escaping from the striker’s goal-scoring responsibilities? If he could do the job for his country five years ago – and could be chosen for a city before Aguero – why not now?
Of course, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was present at City in Pep Guardiola’s staff when Jesus made a promising start in Premier League life. Arteta certainly has a vision for how his new signing will fit into the Arsenal squad. 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 netted for Brazil in an away friendly against South Korea, breaking a long streak of 19 matches and nearly three years without a goal. He had plenty of chances: seven World Cup qualifiers plus four off the bench, four last year’s Copa America and four other friendlies. He showed an understandable sense of relief, having cut into the right to plant a left-footed shot inside the far corner. It was a great effort, but it was a goal in stoppage time in a 5-1 friendly match.
Meanwhile, a lot of other Brazilian strikers have appeared, especially over the past 12 months. Competition for a place in Qatar is fierce. If teams had to contain the traditional number of 23 players, then, despite its versatility, Jesus was sweating in the slot. Increasing it to 26 gives him a much better chance of making the cut. Playing time at club level could be important in getting him on board and a ranking higher – which is certainly a big factor in his desire to move away from Manchester City.
This, then, is a player in a hurry. Jesus is not going to Arsenal expecting a nice period of stability. He’ll want to go fast – just like he did for the first time at City – but with a different ending at the next World Cup.