In England, Brazilian forwards carry very specific associations. In fact, within these shores the notion of Brazilian footballing culture appears informed by an entirely different decade. The days of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho decorating the seleção are well over, with its more modern equivalents characterised by obstinance and graft, but the perception survives: where there is a Brazilian, there will follow a flurry of stepovers and tricks.
To most of us who didn’t know better, that was the expectation of Gabriel Jesus. When Manchester City signed the young forward, it was August 2016 and six months ahead of his actual arrival at the club. The time between, then – not least because of the club symmetry – was spent scouring YouTube and imagining the influence this “new Robinho” was likely to bring.
But he’s proven an entirely different player. While still flecked with a certain flamboyance, his Premier League career to-date has been characterised by efficiency and by an ability to amplify the effect of those around him.
Prior to the injury at the Vitality Stadium, Jesus made quite an impression on those who had watched him in person. His performance at London Stadium in City’s 4-0 win over West Ham was particularly striking and it sent most of the gathered journalists home dizzy. Interestingly though, it was a contentious sort of excellence; because he didn’t do typically Brazilian things – teasing defenders, dancing with the ball – much of that praise was initially shouted down. It was tempting to attribute his early impact to City’s broader strengths and to the quality of the chances created by Pep Guardiola’s attacking midfielders. That’s hardly unfair: Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane are all dynamic players capable of contorting defences and so it was logical to portray Jesus as their beneficiary.
But that rather misses the point – and actually shows the influence of expectation. Rather unusually, Jesus is simultaneously an inferior goal-scorer to Sergio Aguero and yet also a preferable option to him. Aguero has always dealt in volume, scoring all manner of goals from all sorts of different situations. His interpretation of the forward role is quite dated, though, particularly at a club of Manchester City’s size. While Europe’s elite teams will always need goals in bulk, the modern preference is for forwards who offer a more diverse tactical contribution. Players who run away from goal rather than always towards it and those with an instinct to manufacture a shooting angle for a teammate rather than trying to force one for themselves.
To be mildly pretentious, perhaps that marks the movement towards a situation where, instead of consisting of individual components, forward lines are thought of more as single entities? Rather than their worth being calculated through their literal goal-return, the strength of an attacking unit is assessed by its propensity to create wider trauma and its ability to ask a more extensive range of questions – and to do so in many more phases of the game.
Jesus’s importance to City is best viewed through that prism. It’s interesting to note that he’s not actually that visible when he’s on the field and that he doesn’t attract the sort of attention typically afforded to traditional centre-forwards. Again, that’s a major difference between him and Aguero – between a conventional apex predator and one who hunts with more craft. While the latter’s touches around the penalty-box have always created the expectation that something is likely to happen, Jesus typically seems relatively peripheral until he scores or until replays show some subtle contribution he’s made to a successful move. A dragging run, perhaps, or a smart pass. He’s the kind of forward who seems woven into his team’s fabric.
That probably partly explains why City look more potent when he plays. While Pep Guardiola’s managerial career is intertwined with some of the greatest players of this or any other generation, his success has always relied on cohesion rather than gaudy emblems. His various Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams all boasted fabulous attacking talent, but they were all still remarkable for what they were able to do together. Particularly in the attacking zones, his sides have always been known for a curious selflessness. Those who have played under him may have produced dozens of personal highlights, but within those moments are usually layers of additional detail; revisit almost any Leo Messi goal and look beyond the surface genius – there are always half-a-dozen other things going on.
Jesus is not in any way comparable to Messi, but that he has so quickly become first choice at Manchester City signifies their intent to move in a vaguely similar direction. He is the false-focal point; the forward who is as much about continuity as goals and who acts a symbol of that attack-as-a-system mentality.
It’s easy to miss that. Given his nationality, confirmation of Jesus’s worth in this country seems like it should really come in the form of something more vivid. But there’s the trick: the validation of his transfer is seen in what he allows to happen, rather than in what he actually does. Even in 2017, a Brazilian forward who doesn’t entertain is still be treated as an oddity, or even as mid-sold goods. But that’s not the case here: Jesus is the tip of modernity and Manchester City are evidently trying to follow him into the future.