There was a moment a couple of minutes after Manchester City had taken the lead against Real Madrid last Friday when the ball was played to Dani Carvajal, deep in the right-back position. He half-paused, almost visibly relieved at the time he imagined he would have on the ball, a second or two to gather his thoughts and consider his options. Except there was no time because there, scampering towards him, a remorseless bailiff intent only on repossession, was Gabriel Jesus. Carvajal’s pass was hurried and City soon regained the ball.
It is easy to see why Jesus is considered a Pep Guardiola-type of forward. He scored 14 league goals in 2019-20 but otherwise his stats are essentially those of a midfielder. He is skilful and diligent. He has an instinctive understanding of when and where to press, how to block off the passing lanes. Sergio Agüero, whether through something innate or because he was introduced to pressing later in his career, is not quite so effective – although there is no doubt he has improved under Guardiola. “Gabriel is the best striker at making the high intensity pressing in the world,” Guardiola said last October.
Jesus may have a tattoo on his arm of a boy looking over a favela that matches one Neymar has on his calf, but there are few other stylistic similarities between them. That is perhaps one reason why the two seem to work together so well with Brazil: Jesus is happy to harry and chase, but also to get out of the way when Neymar drifts in from the left.
In the league last season Jesus averaged 0.8 tackles and 0.5 interceptions per 90 minutes played. It is difficult to make precise comparisons, in part because City tend to have so much of the ball that it rarely needs winning back, and in part because he plays both wide and through the centre, but Agüero regained the ball less than half as often. Again, it is hard to offer relevant statistics given issues of fitness and where a match arrives in a sequence of games, but there has been a sense in the past 12 months, when all else was equal, Guardiola preferred Jesus to Agüero in big games. The most notable example was the victory at Real Madrid in February – when Jesus was deployed initially on the left, being moved to centre-forward after Raheem Sterling came on for Bernardo Silva, who had been playing as a false nine.
With Agüero still recovering from knee surgery, this is Jesus’s moment. If City use anything like an orthodox centre-forward on Saturday night against Lyon in the Champions League quarter-final he has to play: at 23, it is time for him to emerge as a star in his own right.
This is key for City’s future as they look to redevelop their squad. Agüero is 32. He has been one of the greatest of Premier League forwards but he will have to be replaced, or at least his workload reduced, sooner rather than later. Can Jesus become an out-and-out first-choice striker? Is that even the best thing for him and City, or is he better as a player who can play through the middle as a cover for a striker, shifting to the left against high-class opponents to press the full-back when a more traditional winger might struggle with his defensive responsibilities?
If there is a concern about Jesus, it is his finishing – despite a smartly taken goal in each leg against Madrid. In the 2019-20 league season he scored a goal with every 7.5 shots. Last season it was every 6.33. Agüero scored every 4.7 shots during the same campaign and every 5.38 in 2018-19. That is, clearly, a very crude measure. It does not take into account where the shots were from, what pressure the player was under, the stage of the game or the opposition. But it is some kind of confirmation of what appears true to the naked eye. “In the smaller spaces, Sergio is unstoppable,” Guardiola said last October. “He has control with the quality in the smaller spaces.”
The stats show that, as you would expect for somebody who often starts on the left, Jesus takes a greater proportion of his shots from range. And given the traditional measure that roughly one in nine shots results in a goal, his ratio is still extremely good. But the question is whether it is good enough for a club of City’s stature and expectation (by way of comparison, Sadio Mané scored from every 4.40 shots in the 2019-20 league season, Robert Lewandowski from every 4.09, Ciro Immobile from every 3.80 and Jamie Vardy from every 3.58). That is a particular issue for City given how often they come up against teams who sit deep against them, when quality in the smaller spaces is key. In that regard, the present set-up with Agüero and Jesus is probably close to the ideal.
It does happen that players suddenly become deadly in their mid-20s. Mohamed Salah, for instance, flickered at Roma as he turned 24 and only really ignited at Liverpool at 25. It may even be that the issue is in part psychological and that as Agüero fades, Jesus will naturally take on a more dominant role.
That is why the next week feels crucial for him. With Agüero not there, Jesus is the No 1 striker now, even if he does end up playing on the left. He is a brilliant presser, a vital asset defending from the front against top sides; the opportunity, perhaps the need, is now there to score career-defining goals against them.