Why Arsenal made Gabriel Jesus their priority summer signing

·6 min read
Why Arsenal made Gabriel Jesus their priority summer signing - GETTY IMAGES
Why Arsenal made Gabriel Jesus their priority summer signing - GETTY IMAGES

Last summer, Arsenal spent £50million on a defender whose most attractive attribute was not his tackling or aerial power, but his ability on the ball. This summer, they have invested a similar amount on a striker who has been described as the “best in the world” - at defending from the front.

Defenders who attack, and attackers who defend. This is how Mikel Arteta sees football, as a sport where all outfielders are aligned, and the Arsenal manager knows there are few players more suited to his system than Gabriel Jesus. Just as Ben White, last season’s big-money addition at centre-back, helped to transform the team from the back, Arsenal hope that the signing of Jesus will help them to further evolve in attack.

The 25-year-old has long been Arsenal’s priority target, in large part because they know him so well: Arteta worked with Jesus during his time as Pep Guardiola’s assistant, while technical director Edu did the same in his previous role with the Brazilian national team.

In short, Arsenal know what they need and they know what they are getting with Jesus. He has Premier League experience, considerable technical skill and a familiarity with the style of play that Arteta demands. Tick, tick, tick.

“I am very excited,” said Arteta. “The club has done a tremendous job to recruit a player of this stature. I know Gabriel personally very well, and we all know him well from his time in the Premier League and being really successful here.”

The challenge now for Jesus is to take his individual game to another level. For years he has been an effective attacking weapon at City, without ever becoming the undisputed leader of Guardiola’s frontline. At Arsenal he will have to shoulder that burden and score the goals they need from their primary centre-forward.

Is he capable of doing so? A return of 58 goals and 29 assists from 159 Premier League appearances for City is encouraging but not staggering, although it should be noted that he has not always been a guaranteed starter under Guardiola.

The numbers look more impressive when they are broken down into minutes, rather than matches. When it comes to goals and assists per 90 minutes, only two players (Sergio Aguero and Mohamed Salah) have been more effective than Jesus since he joined City in January 2017. In other words, he has contributed goals and assists at a faster rate than the likes of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Raheem Sterling.

There are more chances to be finished at City than at Arsenal, though, and more high-quality players to combine with in attack. City scored 99 Premier League goals last season, compared to Arsenal’s 61. Jesus will not have the same level of service or the same number of chances in north London.

It is here where he will have to answer some of his doubters. Can he show himself to have the killer instinct that Arsenal need? His finishing has often been erratic at City - which is perhaps why he never established himself as their main No 9 - and it is an interesting aspect of his potential move that he spent much of last season on the right wing, rather than as a central forward.

In August, Guardiola even said that Jesus was more of a winger than a striker. “He is a player who likes to be in more of a wider than central position,” said the City manager. Arsenal and Jesus evidently disagree with that particular assessment, although there is no doubt that the forward’s flexibility makes him even more appealing to Arteta.

“I am a number nine,” said Jesus. “I am a striker. Then I can play in three or four different positions, but I think my position is nine. My best qualities are being on the pitch to help with and without the ball. Of course I am a striker, I have to score goals. I come to score goals, to help with the assists, with everything, with my work. I want to score goals.”

Until now, Arteta had not signed a striker since his appointment in December 2019. It has taken the departures of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette to create room for a new centre-forward, and Jesus will compete with Eddie Nketiah (who has signed a new deal after impressing at the end of last season) up front.

An attack containing Jesus or Nketiah is far younger, hungrier and more energetic than one containing Aubameyang or Lacazette. Jesus and Nketiah certainly defend high up the pitch with more aggression and intensity than Aubameyang and Lacazette were able (or willing) to offer, and the hope for Arsenal is that this will make them a far more difficult team to play against.

In December 2020, Guardiola said of Jesus: “One of the reasons why we concede few goals is thanks exclusively to him. Without him we would concede more chances.”

Gabriel Jesus celebrates with teammates Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo - Getty Images
Gabriel Jesus celebrates with teammates Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo - Getty Images

And in February this year, the City manager said: “He can play in the three positions up front. And when we need runners and players that help a lot with our high intensity and high pressing, he is the best in the world.”

As proof of this point, Guardiola would regularly select Jesus against the most challenging opponents. When City wanted to play with their highest defensive intensity, Guardiola would usually turn to Jesus. The Brazilian started all three games against Liverpool last season, including the FA Cup semi-final, and he played in both matches of their Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid.

In all, Jesus started seven of City’s 11 games against their “big six” opponents last season. In those seven games, he was involved in six goals (three goals, three assists). Of City’s forward players, only Phil Foden started more games against those top teams. Guardiola trusted Jesus in big games, and Jesus did not let him down.

Arteta has a similar level of faith in the striker, and the Arsenal manager is clearly delighted to have completed the deal. Arsenal were in urgent need of a centre-forward, and it is not hard to see why Jesus was the man they targeted.

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