The hysteria from Gabriel Jesus’ Manchester City debut reverberated much further than the north end of the Etihad Stadium.
Others would have buckled under the commotion that met his arrival, but Jesus was different. The teenager was already spearheading Brazil’s attack – where he was flanked on one side by Neymar – and had collected both individual and club honors with Palmeiras. So, on a January evening in 2017, the cocksure frontman only needed a 13-minute cameo against Tottenham Hotspur to begin justifying the hype. Jesus nearly gleaned a win for his new club as he had a goal chalked off for offside and came close with two headers. It was, quite fittingly, the best City debut since Sergio Aguero scored twice and assisted in a substitute appearance five-and-a-half years earlier.
Jesus had an unpredictability and toughness that was honed on a rough, dirty pitch in the grounds of a military prison in northern Sao Paulo. Despite injuries threatening to derail his start in English football, Jesus possessed the raw talents to establish himself as the focal point in Pep Guardiola’s attack. Aguero, meanwhile, was forced to revive the South American elements of his game or, as a barrage of reports suggested at the time, leave the club.
But Jesus has since hit a snag, while Aguero is arguably playing the best football of his City career. Last season, Jesus ensured Aguero’s absence wasn’t felt on a trip to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. Ahead of Saturday’s latest edition of that matchup, Guardiola must be wondering whether Jesus – with only one rather innocuous goal in a demolition of Huddersfield Town on his Premier League record this term – should be fielded in the injured Aguero’s stead. Jesus’ status as his manager’s second-choice center-forward may be slipping.
Jesus’ pneumatic press has lost its punch. When he has chances, he seems to dally or hurry – his calm and callousness gone. “Some of the footwork on display from (Leroy) Sane, David Silva and (Riyad) Mahrez was breathtaking,” the Guardian’s Amy Lawrence wrote on Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Watford. “There was almost sympathy for Jesus, whose low confidence and spurning of chances in front of goal really stood out.”
Jesus celebrated his assist for Mahrez at Vicarage Road like a goal – perhaps through relief at fashioning quantitative proof of some attacking contribution. He otherwise lashed at chances and didn’t nip at the Watford defense with a single challenge. His aggression has tempered, demonstrated by the fact that he’s attempting around a quarter of the tackles per 90 minutes (0.6) than he did last season (2.3). It’s taking him 150 minutes to win one tackle and he’s yet to produce an interception, reducing the likelihood of him gaining possession in dangerous positions.
“It’s important he had the chances, creating the spaces, and the second goal he create for himself,” Guardiola said after the midweek win, using Jesus’ assist to underpin a defense of his forward. “(He) does many, many other things, in terms of the pressing, in terms of helping in many, many situations.”
The 21-year-old’s tactical intellect is one of the chief reasons Guardiola initially preferred him to Aguero. He’s one of the most gifted forwards in England without the ball. However, his individual press isn’t creating as many openings as it once did. The difference from his influential outing at Chelsea last season to his form going into the latest meeting is stark.
Jesus’ assist in west London last year – he shepherded Andreas Christensen aside while cushioning a neat touch for Kevin De Bruyne’s thumped winner – wasn’t even the best bit. Thibaut Courtois was panicked by Jesus charging at him, with his rushed hack deflecting off the forward and just over the bar. The Brazilian displayed a thrilling disrespect for Chelsea’s back-three, hassling them at every opportunity and closing off passing routes. His defending from the front shook Chelsea out of shape, prying space for De Bruyne and David Silva behind the wing-backs and in front of Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger, who were stationed on either side of the backline trio.
He couldn’t have followed his boss’ instructions any better if Guardiola had fitted him with an earpiece and dictated his movements throughout.
If Guardiola overlooks the alternatives – like deploying Raheem Sterling in a central position, with Sane and Mahrez on either side – and starts Jesus at Stamford Bridge this weekend, the mandate must be simple. He needs to be a nuisance again, to fetter the opposition backline with his running and rediscover his bite in the challenge – basically, do just as he did last season. Once those hallmarks of the youngster’s game are strengthened, Aguero will again feel the heat from Jesus.