Gabriel Jesus – Ready to Explode

For the first time in English football history, for the upcoming season, the 20 Premier League clubs will have the opportunity to make five substitutions during league matches. There are benefits and drawbacks to that rule change which won’t be elaborated on here – but there’s also an opportunity. Here’s why.

Firstly, for the last few seasons, Arteta’s Arsenal have been attempting to play further and further up the pitch while in possession, as seen below. Field tilt is a measure of final third possession – in general, the further up the pitch you play, the higher your field tilt. Simple.

Secondly, when out of possession, we’re committing more defensive actions in the final third and attempting to win the ball higher up the field to stop other teams from transitioning on us. Year on year, Arteta is turning up the dial on Arsenal’s press; 1289 final third pressures in 20/21 moved to 1464 in 21/22. I expect this stat to increase and Arsenal’s PPDA (passes an opponent makes per defensive action) to decrease significantly next season. In December we were mixing with the relegation fodder, and as you can see, the good teams tend to press more.

If you’re looking to press more and sit further up the pitch, there may be an opportunity here facilitated by the five substitutions rule. Lack of quality options this season meant that it wasn’t worth asking Bukayo Saka or Gabriel Martinelli to press too hard in case of injury or fatigue. Next season, with greater depth, Saka, Martinelli could press high and hard for 60 minutes, have an early shower and be ready for mid-week.

In previous windows, Arsenal have signed more front footed players who can facilitate ball progression from the first and second third in Aaron Ramsdale, Benjamin White, Thomas Partey and more to provide a platform for these intended shifts. However, there’s no point having great ball progressers if you don’t have people who can receive it in high quality positions, turn and go. And there’s no way you’re staying there when you lose it if you don’t have the personnel who can carry out the defensive actions to stop the transitions.

So for a team whose clear intent is to play further and further up the pitch, get the ball forward to quality receivers and press more… who would be the perfect player for the vacant centre forward position?

“When we need players who can help with the intensity in the high press – he is the best in the world. Thanks to him we can stay high [up the pitch].” Pep Guardiola, 2022

Sounds good to me.

25-year-old four-time Premier League winning forward Gabriel Jesus has joined Arsenal Football Club, putting pen to paper on a 5-year deal. Jesus has chosen Arsenal over 5 other clubs and will spend at least some of his peak years at Arsenal under Mikel Arteta. In my view, we should be very, very excited.

PG: “He can play in all three positions across the front.” 

If you want to be a top club, you better act like one. Just like Liverpool and Manchester City, Arsenal want a stable of top-class, versatile forwards, all capable of playing in at least one other position – and it’s there that we’ll start to unpack the brilliance of Gabriel Jesus.

He really can play anywhere.

In-game he swaps zones with ease, able to operate centrally and out wide with comparible quality. At Palmeiras he played the majority of his minutes off the left in his debut season, before shifting further forward in 2015/16, getting 21 goals and assists and winning the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A (Brazil 1st Division) in the process, playing centre forward… at 18 years old.

Real Madrid, Bayern, Barcelona, Manchester United and more were after his signature. Madrid were especially keen having missed out on Neymar – but he chose City, and more importantly, Pep Guardiola.

The ‘Firmino Role’ has become synonymous with a player who can drift around, facilitate others and drop into the midfield to collect and receive balls. In 2020, Statsbomb had Jesus as the closest stylistic analog to Roberto Firmino under-23 years old, and Jesus was preferred to Firmino at the 2018 World Cup to play the ‘False 9’ role. In terms of the quality of movement and technique to receive the ball in good areas to link play, Jesus has it all; right, left & centrally. All three of these situations led to a goal.

Clearly these are just three cherry-picked examples – but watch him in a game, and you’ll see the excellent positions he picks up all over the pitch to receive, how well he receives it and how dangerous he can be as a facilitator.

And the stats don’t lie.

His creative, passing, receiving and carrying scores are all at an elite level.

So Jesus is a facilitative forward who is more than capable of being a link man in any area of the pitch. His technique is excellent, opening his body well and using both feet to find inventive passing channels. The biggest compliment he can get is watching the players around him. See how and where they move, expecting Jesus to find them. It’s not secondary movement around a typical ‘9’ in our heads – they know he can create. He can also use his terrific pace and movement to create – as seen here.

But Jesus can not only create and get Arsenal through to the final third – he can also keep them there. Let’s look at his famous pressing.

Jesus makes 0.6 tackles per 90 in the final third, which is in the 94th percentile when compared to other forwards in the top 5 leagues. When you consider he plays for Manchester City, who had 68% of the ball on average over 38 Premier League games last season, that is seriously impressive. He’s in the 99th percentile for defensive Goal Creating Actions, i.e. tackles or interceptions that lead to a goal, and the 95th percentile for passes blocked.

But it’s not only the volume of the press, it’s the intelligence with which he does it. He is quick and aggressive, thinks fast and acts decisively. This can be seen no clearer than in Manchester City’s match against Real Madrid in the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League Round of 16.

Having a player who is so adept at pressing just casts that doubt in the opponent’s mind. That extra second dawdling on the ball, like the extra space a centre back with top quality on the ball gives you, makes all the difference. The examples shown have obvious positive outcomes for illustrative purposes, but the real tell is the amount of difficult zones and decisions he forces defenders into – much more imperceptible, and necessary to see across an entire 90 minute game to understand its true value.

But when attempting to defend from the front, Jesus’ pressing prowess is not only useful in one direction. When defending, you want to create as little space as possible for your opponent to operate in as you can, and you can squeeze that space not only with a high defensive line, but with your forwards pressing from the back too. Jesus is excellent at this – I lost track of how many clips I saw of him regaining the ball by running back to the midfielder or defender advancing towards his goal, stealing it off them and playing it forward.

Same game, similar situation.

Winning the ball quickly, efficiently and with real intent to play forward is such an asset. When you regain the ball you have a very small window before the opposition return to their defensive shape, so you have to act quickly and try to find ways to bypass as many men as possible in as short a time as possible. Taking it off their CB or CM is certainly a way to do that, rather than nicking it off their CF 15 seconds after and having to run all the way back up the pitch.

Anyway… whatever, right? Who cares? He’s got the number 9 on his back, he’s a striker… does he score goals?!

Let’s address the elephant in the room; Jesus’ goal tally, or perceived lack of goals and finishing ability. Many rival fans and online publications have taken great pains to point out that Jesus has never scored more than 14 goals in a Premier League campaign. This is absolutely true, with his best goal-scoring season coming in 2019/20. But let’s not forget that we’re talking about a man who has the 7th best minutes to goal involvement ratio in Premier League history. Look at the names he’s there with.

Jesus has played a total of 9,304 Premier League minutes in his entire career. For context, Harry Kane is 3 years older, and in just 2 more seasons as a recognised first team player, Jesus has played 23,408 minutes. Until this season, Jesus was playing second fiddle to arguably the greatest striker of the modern Premier League era in Sergio Agüero, and Jesus is still Man City’s third top scorer of all time. So there really is a context here of just how “bad” his output is, considering how many minutes he’s spent on the pitch. In fact, only five out of Gabriel Jesus’ 58 Premier League goals have been scored as a substitute. When Jesus starts for Man City, he gets an average of 1 goal every 2 games – the hallmark of a top Premier League striker and on par with the likes of Robin van Persie and even Alan Shearer.

However, when you look at the numbers, it becomes clear that Jesus is significantly under-performing his xG, running at roughly 25% less than the goals he would be expected to score, fairly consistently, for the last 6 seasons. In terms of his underperformance, he’s in company there with Dwight Gayle, Nathan Redmond and Aleksandar Mitrović. Not great.

So what’s that about?

Well, it’s probably a few things. Firstly, when you’re in and out of the team, playing with different players around you, you might struggle to get a rhythm and build understanding with your teammates – but the top players find ways to score anyway, so that caveat doesn’t wash for me particularly. From the games I’ve seen, I don’t think his ball striking is particularly excellent. He is much more adept at the final ball or the kind of “right place, right time” finish, rather than a player who will shoot from distance or can create separation and rifle it in the bottom corner from 25 yards. Look at his shot map here (the yellow circles indicating goals and the size of the circle indicating the quality of the chance) – as you can see, he’s really a penalty box striker, scoring most of his goals from the centre of the box, as would be expected.

It’s not a question of accuracy – Jesus is a very accurate shooter. The average forward puts 30-40% of their overall shots on target according to Scott Willis of Crab Stats, and of his medium quality chances Jesus puts 61% on target. Of his high quality chances, he puts 79% on target.

The bottom line is he just doesn’t finish enough of the chances he gets. In a way it’s exciting – he’s getting and missing a lot of his chances and he’s still profiling among the elite. If the coaching team can work on it and his finishing improves we could have a 25 goal-a-season striker on our hands considering the volume he gets. It is a concern, but having goals all over the pitch is the real priority. One to watch.

Another criticism that could be levelled at Jesus is his physicality. At 5’9″ he’s one of the smaller nominal ‘9s’ in the Premier League. I was an advocate before the window of signing a “tall forward” – be that at CF or someone who plays out on the wings. But my arm is being twisted to think a bit differently.

You don’t get large spaces to work in at the top level in the Premier League any more. Teams are far too compact, well drilled and smart to leave huge gaps to “lump it up to the big man to win the second balls” as any kind of long term strategy. If Arsenal want to play higher up the pitch, they’ll need technical quality to keep it there and recycle it. The best way to ensure a team don’t beat you is to keep the ball – so the priority should always be technique over physicality.

But when you don’t prioritise physicality, you risk losing the duels on the ground and in the air. So then you have to be smart – and in the box, Jesus is whip smart. Watching him has allayed my concerns about our lack of aerial threat in those zones – it’s all about movement and creating separation.

His box movement is subtle but controlled. He reminds a little of Diogo Jota in his springiness and how he gets across the box in a flash to be in the right place. Considering the balls into the box from the likes of Ødegaard, Tielemans and Vieira from the half-spaces, Jesus’ movement could unlock a whole new dynamic to our team.

I also want to note the calibre of opposition from the moments I’m highlighting. Chelsea, Real Madrid and strong Premier League sides (save Norwich). The suggestions that Jesus “can’t do it on the big occasions” as I’ve seen levelled is simply untrue. Two decisive goals in a UCL tie against Real Madrid. The goal to make them the Centurions. He’s scored 5 goals in 12 appearances against Liverpool, the closest team in quality – all while not necessarily starting every game.

PG: “The best moments in your career as a manager are when you can work with humans like Gabriel Jesus. He never complains – if he plays 5 minutes, he plays the best 5 minutes he can do. He never bad-mouths his teammates or my decisions.”

In 2014, Gabriel Jesus was painting murals on the streets of São Paolo to celebrate Brazil hosting the World Cup. By 2018, he was leading his country to the finals with the famed number 9 shirt on his back, previously worn by Ronaldo Nazario and Tostao, part of the 1970 team with Pele and Jairzinho. His rise was meteoric.

But Brazil’s underperformance in 2018 was not taken lightly in his home country. He’s been in and out of the squad, and he reportedly considered quitting the Seleção over criticism of his performances. At Manchester City he has never been seen as indispensable. His versatility can offer so much, but it does mean he is sometimes overlooked – he’s averaged 26.5 Premier League appearances (not starts) per year since his arrival – not quite undroppable. For a man tipped for the very top, his recent times speak of unfinished business.

For Arsenal, a club who can’t pay for an Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe, there is a value in going after players who undoubtedly have the talent, but whose reputation has been dented after a strong start to their career. Martin Ødegaard springs to mind. If you can reignite whatever it was that excited fans and clubs at the start of their career and maximise their potential, you could have a real player on your hands for a fraction of the price.

As Arsène Wenger once said: “We don’t sign superstars, we make them”.

Pep Guardiola can’t speak highly enough of him as a person. After his magnificent performances scoring 4 goals against Watford earlier on in the season, Guardiola said that he was sure not a single person at the club wasn’t happy for him. At Arsenal, he will find open arms with Mikel Arteta, a growing contingent of Portuguese speaking players and Edu, his countryman. Arteta’s reported desire to bring him in as a top target tells you how highly they rate him. Brazilian football expert Tim Stillman said that Brazilian players tend to form a tight bunch, eating and socialising together. It used to be that the Brazilians in London would convene at David Luiz’ house. I wonder who it will be now. Perhaps Gabriel at Arsenal. No, not that one. No, not that one. No, not…

There’s a small concern perhaps over his temperament. Tim also said that in his early years he was feisty on the pitch, something you so rarely see at Manchester City when they’re beating teams 4/5 nil every week. It’s one to watch again, but perhaps maturity, and recently becoming a father may quell those worries. He speaks fluent English and his injury record is great too, only two significant injuries in the 16/17 and 17/18 seasons. Look forward to him doing his ACL minute 6 at Selhurst Park.

Though I think the fee is a touch high, it’s hard to argue with a club who don’t need the money so credit to Arteta and Edu for getting this deal done. With no adjusting to the league needed, and a relatively similar playing style to Manchester City, he has the potential to really hit the ground running.

There’s work to be done and he has a lot to prove. But at 25, there’s so much that could come from him. One more thing: is your number 9 a four-time Premier League winner or just an Audi cup winner?

Thought so.

Alexander Moneypenny

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