It’s not easy leading the line for Brazil when your predecessors are Pelé, Romário, and Ronaldo Fenômeno. Just ask Fred, Luís Fabiano and even Robinho; anything other than bringing home the Copa do Mundo is regarded as a failure. So you could imagine the pressure on a 21-year-old Gabriel Jesus’ shoulders knowing that an entire nation was expecting him to follow in the footsteps of recent legends.
There was an overwhelming feeling of optimism towards Tite’s Brazil in the build-up to Russia 20118. They were the first team to qualify for the tournament, they were beating every team in South America, and they looked to had finally found a formula that suited them to a T. Gabriel Jesus was right at the heart of that newfound optimism. After leading Brazil to Olympic glory in Rio, he helped them cruise to the top of the CONMEBOL qualifying table, scoring 7 goals in 10 games. His role was simple: score the goals that Neymar creates. There was a simplicity to his game that complimented the exuberant flair of Philippe Coutinho and Neymar, and the fact that he made up for their lack of defensive work with his relentless pressing, made for a front three to be reckoned with.
Even before breaking out in the Brasileirão, Gabriel Jesus was a household name in the Palmeiras fanbase. Whilst playing for their youth teams, he was the club’s leading goalscorer in 2013, with 54 goals in 45 matches. He scored 37 goals in 22 games for Palmeiras in the 2014 edition of the state under-17 championship, but he did not make any senior appearances that campaign with the club threatened by relegation. With the young prodigy shut out by both Ricardo Gareca and Dorival Júnior, supporters began a petition for him to leave Palmeiras. The following year, he began to catch fire, winning the “Best Newcomer” award. In 2016, in the span before the summer break, he scored 12 goals en route to the Verdão’s first title since 1994, being voted as the “Bola de Auro” for best player. Teams across Europe scrambled over his signature, and in August, Palmeiras accepted a £27 million bid from Manchester City for the youngster. Jesus later revealed that it was a phone call with Pep Guardiola that swayed him to the blue side of Manchester, rather than the red side of Manchester or Barcelona.
The price tag raised eyebrows: were City paying that much for another CFA investment, or were they really going to integrate a kid from Palmeiras straight away?
After leading the Verdão to their first title in 22 years, we all got our answer, or so we thought. He had an instant impact that none would’ve expected, with 11 goal involvements in just 10 league games. It wasn’t just his impressive numbers that caught everyone’s eye though: it was the way in which he seamlessly slotted into Guardiola’s front three, providing the off-the-ball work and link-up play that an aging Sergio Agüero was lacking. Many City fans believed it was time for a change: with the Brazilian prodigy replacing the Argentine veteran.
Fast forward 18 months, and the situation couldn’t be more different. Jesus is without a City’s second-choice striker behind Agüero, although many would argue he should be 3rd choice: they believe that in the face of an Agüero injury, Sterling should be shoe-horned into the false 9 role. After all, Sterling has 9 goals in the Premier League this season; Jesus has 3. This is far more than just a goal drought however, this is a period where confidence levels are at an all-time-low, despite having scored the iconic injury-time goal that secured the record-breaking 100 point mark just eight months ago.
His goal record raises a key debate, considering the fact that he has a higher xG and shots per 90 than last season. Was he overperforming last season, or is he simply underperforming this season?
It’s unfair to expect every young prospect to be Kylian Mbappé, although the Frenchman is nearly two years his minor, but given his poor finishing in recent weeks and all-round clumsy link-up play, this has now moved beyond just another goal drought.
There are a combination factors behind Jesus’ regression, but none can be brought up without rewinding back to around this time last year, when he tore his MCL, an injury that would keep him sidelined for 3 months, his second long-term injury in the space of 9 months. Any 20-year-old Brazilian striker would be losing his cool if that happened to him in a World Cup year.
Neymar may have been the poster boy, but there was a sense that Gabriel was the people’s boy. He painted the favela roads just four years ago, and he watched from afar alongside the rest of the fanss they Brazil were humiliated in Belo Horizonte. Jesus, a devout Christian, felt like God had granted him the gift of football to lead his nation to glory once more. Yet all of that looked in doubt on New Year’s Eve at Selhurst Park.
Jesus healed quickly, but he admitted to playing with fear in the last few months of the season, and when Sergio Aguero is fit and firing, you can’t get away with playing with fear.
The World Cup itself was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for Jesus. His performances looked sluggish and rusty, and despite starting in each of Brazil’s five matches, Jesus failed to score in every single one of them. All of the dramatic build up and recovery led to nothing, and all of that brand-new hope turned into all-too-familiar heartbreak for the Selecão supporters.
And now here we are, confidence shot to bits and an unclear pathway back into the starting line-up, with Agüero and Sterling both on fire. Guardiola may get stick for not playing Jesus, but he can’t be expected to play an out-of-form striker when challenging on all fronts and when trailing Liverpool by 4 points.
Jesus must improve. Whilst others in the squad have seen their development skyrocket under Pep, Jesus has stagnated, and if he doesn’t fix up, he’ll be left behind. At this rate, he’s not on track to become the next Sergio Agüero; he’s on track to be the next Álvaro Morata. Like Morata, he’s been embarrassingly erratic this season, but like Morata as well, he’s a confidence player who scores in clusters. Perhaps a return to top form will come after scoring one of those trademark tap-ins that set the Blue Moon fanbase alight with excitement in 2017. A return to top form could be on the cards for Jesus, with Kevin de Bruyne having returned from injury. The Belgian assisted 5 of Jesus’ 17 goals in 2017, and there’s nothing ‘Gabby’ loves more than a pinpoint low-driven ball into the six yard box from KDB.
Two years ago, Jesus was seen as the heir to Aguero’s throne; today, many question whether he will ever be good enough for City’s aspirations. He does have a future with the club, who are not going to simply abandon one of Pep’s first ever transfer targets at City. On his day, his skillset is perfectly suited to City’s attack, but can a player who is so hot and cold realistically be the leading man for one of the most ambitious clubs in Europe? The last few months have unfortunately suggested otherwise, but time will tell.
By: Lewis Lord