It is a little over a year since Gabriel Jesus made his debut for Brazil but, with all that has happened since, it must seem like an eternity for the man himself. His performance for Manchester City against Liverpool on Saturday showed just how far he has come in that time. There were also moments, however, that demonstrated he still has a little way to go if he wants to become one of the best in the world.
Before that international debut, an exceptionally difficult away qualifier against Ecuador in Quito, he was still somewhat of an unknown quantity. He had been having a terrific season with his club side Palmeiras but nobody was certain he would have the necessary mental fortitude to make the step up to full international level. Indeed, in the Olympic tournament that Brazil had won earlier in the year he performed poorly when deployed as a central striker in the first two group games.
Against Ecuador, though, he quashed any doubts as he won a penalty and scored two late goals, sealing a man-of-the-match performance and cementing his place in as Brazil’s first-choice number 9. After the game, brimming with excitement, the first call he made was to his mother, Vera Lúcia. Gabriel expected a delighted voice to answer the phone but dona Vera was stern; “Gabriel,” she said, “you spent the whole of the first half offside.”
She was right. Of course, Vera Lúcia was thrilled to see her son make such a positive debut but she knew he still had a lot of aspects to his game that could be improved and she was never one to let him rest on his laurels. Straying offside was always a problem for the young attacker and, judging by Saturday’s game, it still is.
Towards the end of the first half he rose above the Liverpool defence to nod home what would have been City’s second. The crowd cheered, Pep Guardiola turned to the bench to rejoice and Jesus wheeled away, about to do his now-famous phone call celebration, itself a tribute to his mother and that phone call. The linesman had other ideas, however, raising his flag and annulling the goal.
Undeterred, Jesus continued making the right runs into the danger area and just before the break met another magnificent Kevin De Bruyne cross with his head to find the back of the net. He looked across to the linesman but there was no infringement; this time it stood. A few minutes before he was substituted he grabbed his second, finishing with his left foot after his strike partner Sergio Agüero had selflessly played Jesus in.
The very facts that he had the ball in the net with his head twice, as well as winning another offside header from a first half free kick, and scored with his left foot show how much Jesus is willing to work to improve.
His heading, left foot and propensity to stray beyond the last line of defence were the main questions surrounding his game before he made his move to Manchester and he seems to have made progress on at least two of those fronts.
That he is working in the presence of a coach whose minute attention to detail and desire to see his players improve is well known must be of great assistance. Without Jesus’ application, though, the progress would be a great deal slower.
The last question to address is the offside, then. Of course, a player like Jesus who often lurks on the shoulder of the last defender will sometimes be caught out by the defence stepping up, but there are some situations, like crosses from wide positions and dead-ball deliveries, where being caught out is easily avoidable. Pep will surely be working on this with him in training and dona Vera will no doubt have some harsh words to say after games. He is, we must remember, still only 20, so there is plenty of time for learning.
We must also recall that he played this game after an international break in which he had flown a total of 15,000 miles and almost 40 hours. That is why Pep withdrew him despite the player being on a hat-trick.
It was certainly the correct decision and bodes well for the rest of the season, both in terms of Jesus’ performances for Manchester City and Brazil. His manager knows how good he can be but also knows that he is still young and needs to be protected both physically and mentally.
The Premier League season is long and hard, hopefully, his manager will offer him the necessary support (and that will include being rested at points) to make it through to the end with just enough energy to make his mark in Russia next summer.