|2022-23 (so far)||5||5.9|
Gabriel Jesus has consistently underperformed his XG throughout his career. For all his qualities, finishing is not his most prominent, even if he is not especially terrible at it. But why is this the case? Follow me into the realms of pop psychology.
He’s not a natural striker
Contrary to popular belief, Jesus became a central striker late in his career trajectory. When he started playing on the wing more often after the 2018 World Cup (more on that later) it wasn’t a repositioning, it was a return to his natural habitat. He broke into the Palmeiras team as a teenager as a wide-forward- his childhood idol was Robinho.
It was only during the 2016 season, when Palmeiras had an injury crisis at centre-forward, that Jesus’ then coach Cuca decided he had the qualities to play through the middle. It worked immediately, he scored four goals in three starts in the Copa Libertadores group stage and scored 12 goals as Palmeiras won the Brazilian title.
His national team were mired in a decade long search for a central striker, with the Seleção trialling the likes of Robinho and Diego Tardelli as false 9s, with good but not great options like Fred and Jô winning more caps than you might expect for a national team of that stature.
Upon taking the Brazil Head Coach job in August 2016, Tite decided to throw the dice on Jesus, not only picking him for the squad but tossing him straight into the starting line-up. It was as much about a paucity of other options as it was a belief in Jesus’ talent (though Gabriel Barbosa was a formidable peer).
The teenager bagged two goals in an absolutely crucial World Cup qualifier in Ecuador on his debut in September 2016, taking advantage of his hot streak at club level. Everything was coming up Jesus. But it’s important to remember that being a striker is not his grounding, he is not a natural finisher even if he is a consistent goal threat, both in the number of chances he gets and creates for others.
He puts a lot of pressure on himself
One of the reasons I believe that he underperformed his XG at Manchester City was psychological. Jesus is a sensitive character, see below his response to being sent off in the 2019 Copa América Final. He was given an additional ban for pushing the VAR station over on his way off the pitch that night. After being so strongly criticised for failing to score at the 2018 World Cup, he was absolutely desperate to prove a point in the subsequent tournament. He scored in the game and Brazil won but he was still wound up like a spring.
Gabriel Jesus já tem cara de chorão e ele chorando de verdade é uma graça pic.twitter.com/jb53oU6JLC
— melo (@amandmeloo) July 7, 2019
At City, he spoke often about the conundrum of playing second fiddle to a club legend like Sergio Aguero. On the rare occasions that he was able to start upfront, he knew that he needed to pull rabbits out of hats to even be considered for the next game. My assessment is that it led to a tension in his finishing.
He was very roundly criticised in Brazil for his failure to score in the 2018 World Cup. The criticism was harsh and lacked context but those are the breaks when you play for a nation of 210 million people, for whom winning the World Cup is a big part of the national identity. Many who watch Brazil in the World Cup are not year-round football fans and plenty are and just don’t really care for the tactical nuances or the team mechanics that might drive this outcome.
If you have the number 9 on your back and you don’t score a goal, you have failed and you can fuck off. It really is that simple. The criticism stung Jesus enough to ask to be considered a wide player again at both club and international level. Occasionally, he is a player who carries the weight of expectation, both his own and others.
Jesus’ relative recent “goal drought” had gone relatively uncommented on until this weekend, when he missed presentable chances in the 1-1 draw at Southampton. He brings so much else to the table that not scoring in five games does not carry the same cache as when someone like Aubameyang, for example, endures a similar streak.
Also, Arsenal didn’t win at Southampton so the misses carried more weight. Again, this is pop psychology but I think this was the first time that I detected that tension in his finishing, the first time that maybe the ‘drought’ was in his mind a little as he bore down on goal. What is interesting about his Premier League numbers at Manchester City is how opposed they are to his numbers in the Champions League.
Again, my pop psychology assessment is that Jesus scored the majority of these goals in the group stages where, firstly, he was often started ahead of Sergio Aguero as a matter of course. Secondly, group stage football is terrible precisely because it lacks jeopardy and tension. These were relatively low-key games that City were overwhelming favourites to win. He did, however, score some big knockout round goals too- he was largely deployed as a wide forward in those games and wasn’t expected to be the principal goal threat.
He expends a lot of energy
As we have seen extensively, Jesus has a level of omnipotence worthy of his name. He runs a hell of a lot, he is not a big guy and yet he relishes physical duels with bigger, burlier centre-halves and he often wins them. Upon his departure from Manchester City, Pepe Guardiola waxed lyrical about his effort.
“Even if you play him for five minutes; he gives you the best five minutes of his whole life.” All that effort, possibly, comes at a cost in front of goal. Players with less involvement around the field, or bigger built players for whom a physical duel does not require every single ounce of their being, are probably more able to show serenity in front of goal.
When Odegaard put Jesus through on goal at St. Mary’s, you could almost see the oxygen leaving Jesus’ lungs as he ran towards goal. He has a right to look tired at the moment but it’s not just the number of minutes in Jesus’ legs contributing to the lactic acid but the amount of effort that is injected into every performance. It would make sense if all that heat and light had a trade off when the moment comes for a deep breath.
Overall, there was enough data over a long enough period on Gabriel Jesus for Arsenal fans to know that a touch of profligacy is baked into the Gabriel Jesus cake but that there are plenty of other ingredients to salivate over. Arsenal’s position in the football food chain is such that they shop for elite players with a wrinkle or two and this, for now, is Gabriel Jesus’.