Monday, August 15, 2022

Can Gabriel Jesus Rise Again?

Gabriel Jesus is a player that I have watched right from the very start of his career. I have also advocated that a smart club should buy him for a few seasons now. The upside in the player is, in my view, significant. Shortly before joining Manchester City, Jesus was the driving factor behind Palmeiras winning the Brasileirão title in 2016.

He also broke into Brazil’s starting line-up at the age of 19, taking the number 9 shirt on his debut and immediately scoring twice in a crucial World Cup qualifier in Ecuador. Ordinary talents do not achieve such feats at such a young age. I also think it is true is that Gabriel Jesus has not entirely achieved his potential yet.

A lot of Arsenal’s best signings have been ‘broken eggs’- for want of a better phrase. Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira all endured a tough time in Italy upon joining. Marc Overmars was undervalued in the market due to a serious knee injury. Robin van Persie was considered something of a ‘wild child.’

Even last summer, Arsenal acquired Martin Odegaard who struggled to assert his talent in the shark infested waters of Real Madrid. I guess I would put Jesus into the same basket as Alexis Sanchez, as a very talented player whose candle did not burn as brightly in a dressing room full of lava lamps. Arsenal are taking something of a gamble on the signing of the Brazilian.

I think the downside is relatively small, he was very far from a bust at Manchester City. He played important games, scored important goals and won four Premier League titles. He was never banished from the squad, his ability to play as a wide-forward, where he started his career, just meant that he became a rotation option in City’s attacking carousel rather than the long-term heir to Sergio Aguero’s throne.

The worst Arsenal are getting is a good, adaptable attacker. However, I think there is a really high upside here. Like some of those friendly ghosts from Arsenal’s past- like Henry and Bergkamp- Jesus needs to reawaken the killer instinct that he absolutely possesses. Jesus broke into the Palmeiras team as a wide-forward- Robinho was his idol growing up.

In early 2016, then Palmeiras boss Cuca had the idea of playing him through the middle and he never looked back, scoring the goals that shot O Verdão to the league title. In 2016, when Tite took over a languishing Brazil side, he too needed a striker. The Seleção had not truly filled the gap left by Ronaldo around a decade earlier. Tite called on a teenage Gabriel Jesus and he absolutely delivered.

In my dalliances with Brazilian football let me promise you one thing- there are few greater pressures in football than being Brazil’s centre-forward. Brazil were in a post-2014 World Cup funk and in serious danger of not qualifying for the 2018 edition under Dunga. Gabi Jesus was assuming enormous pressure on his shoulders and he delivered emphatically. For a while, at least.

Obviously, his trajectory plateaued- albeit at a high level. Let’s face it, he wouldn’t be coming to Arsenal if it hadn’t. At club level, waiting in line behind a generational talent like Sergio Aguero meant that his progress stalled- but that was only half the story. At the 2018 World Cup, in which Brazil were eliminated at the quarter-final stage, he failed to score a goal.

Now, to repeat the earlier clause, in my dalliances with Brazilian football, let me tell you, Brazil at the World Cup is the biggest pressure that I have observed in the sport- by a long distance. Brazil is a young nation, with no history of military conquest. It is the fifth largest country in the world yet it feels ignored, mired in the shadow of Europe and the United States.

Winning the World Cup five times is a big part of the country’s brand, beyond football. It’s a lie that everyone in Brazil lives football every minute of every day. When it comes to the World Cup though, EVERYONE watches and everyone expects. The World Cup is one of the few times when the world looks upon this enormous nation as a global superpower. Performing at the World Cup is a matter of national urgency.

Jesus’ failure to score at the 2018 World Cup was a national discussion. When 200 million people are talking about you, nuance becomes lost. Nobody cares that your most significant tactical role is to make the runs that make space for Neymar. France won that tournament and their starting centre-forward, Olivier Giroud, didn’t score either.

That he was there to buttress the efforts of Antoine Griezmann was more widely tolerated because France hoisted the trophy. If you are Brazil’s number 9, you don’t score and the team does not win the tournament, nobody gives a flying fuck about the tactical nuance of your role. Jesus was clearly upset by the criticism and made the error of trying to engage with it, which just made things worse.

For my money, Jesus did not wilt under the pressure of that World Cup- Neymar did. Jesus and Neymar had an unbelievably effective partnership in the two years building up to Russia 2018.

Jesus was so good as a facilitator for Neymar in the 9 position that he kept Roberto Firmino, considered by many to be the best false 9 in the business, firmly on the bench. That’s how good he was at it.

It was Neymar who broke that relationship, he reverted to trying to be a virtuoso and trying to win games on his own, which he hadn’t done at all under Tite’s tutelage. That isolated Jesus and his frustration was palpable when he took the heat for it.

He has always been an emotional player, just look below at his reaction to being sent off in the 2019 Copa América Final. It’s astounding to me that Premier League defences have yet to work out that he is quite combustible. Red cards were an occasional feature of his career at Palmeiras and his career with Brazil too. He can allow emotion to control him.

The upshot of the 2018 World Cup was that Jesus decided he didn’t want to be Brazil’s striker any longer. He went back to being a wide forward and has done so well enough for his country. The issue for him is that Brazil has ridiculous depth on both flanks. Vinicius Junior, Neymar, Raphinha, Richarlison, Rodrygo and Gabriel Martinelli fight for those roles currently.

Likewise, at Manchester City he made the decision to fall into the malleable pack of superstar forwards rather than as the arrowhead. It seems pretty clear to me that Arsenal want him to be the arrowhead they have craved since the outset of the Arteta project. That means reawakening his desire to be the main man again, to be the centre-forward and carry the responsibility of scoring goals.

My contention has always been that Gabriel Jesus needs to be the main man again, as he was for Palmeiras when he shot them to the title as an 18-year-old. As he was for his country as a teenager. My working theory has always been that he needs that level of faith placed in him to reanimate that killer instinct.

I think one of the reasons that his finishing was a little wayward at City was because he put too much pressure on himself. He knew that, with Aguero ahead of him, his next opportunity might be several weeks away unless he did something earth shattering.

However, my assessment of Jesus needing to be the main man might not be right- he decided to relinquish that status for club and country after all. Arteta is backing himself to recover that pinch of spice in the ingredients that made Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Manchester City grapple for his signature when he was 19-years-old.

It’s not a sure thing that Arteta can succeed with that project but the sure thing is out of Arsenal’s reach. In fact, Manchester City probably signed the sure thing themselves earlier this summer. Arsenal have to shop in the aisles with the yellow stickers and, for my money, Gabriel Jesus is absolutely the place I hoped that they would look.

The player already knows the coach and the Technical Director very well indeed. He is 25 and already has five league titles in his career. There is risk apparent in this transfer but I think it’s low, insofar as I can’t see it being any sort of disaster. If Arteta can unlock the full reward that this player is capable of, then I think the club have done some incredibly smart business here.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook

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