Last year, in the midst of the 2019 Copa América, I was sat in the passenger seat of the slightly messy Toyota Yaris of one of the most talented No.9s Brazil has ever produced. He had kindly offered a lift from the training ground of the club for which he works to the center of the city where he lives and as we got to chatting about Brazil’s chances at the tournament, the obvious question to ask a striker of such repute was what he thought of the Seleção’s current attacking options.
I cannot remember the opinion he proffered on Roberto Firmino, but I can still hear his verdict on Gabriel Jesus as clearly as I hear the cars that drive past my front door as I write. “If you look on the pitches around here”, he said as we drove past the ramshackle, red-brick houses on the edge of town, “you will find thousands of players like Gabriel Jesus.”
Not a glowing endorsement but not a surprise. Since his no-goal-in-five-games showing at the 2018 World Cup Jesus has been the subject of much disdain in his homeland, especially from ex-pros. How can a Brazil No.9 – a Brazil No.9 – go to the World Cup and not score a goal? For a player as gifted as my driver, who has watched and played alongside so many technically magnificent footballers, you can see how Jesus’s spot in the squad of one of the world’s leading clubs and guaranteed starting berth in the Brazil team might feel like an incongruity.
Gabriel Jesus cannot dribble like Neymar. Gabriel Jesus does not pass like Falcão. Gabriel Jesus has never been able to take free-kicks like Rivelino. Gabriel Jesus can’t cross like Cafu. Gabriel Jesus does not link play like Pelé. Gabriel Jesus cannot run with the ball like Ronaldo. Gabriel Jesus cannot finish like Romário. Gabriel Jesus, an elite soccer player, excels in none of technical skills you would expect of a truly elite soccer player.
And yet, there he is and there he stays: an integral part of one of the best club teams on the planet; an integral part of Tite’s Seleção. And, on Friday night in Manchester, as Pep Guardiola put it: “The man”. A goal and an assist: the eye-drawer, the attention-grabber, the true difference maker in a Champions League game against the La Liga winners and 13-time European champions Real Madrid.
The most incredible thing was perhaps not the performance itself but the overwhelming sense of déjà vu. We saw these headlines five months (and what seems an eternity) ago. Somewhere nestled deep in the blissful glow of the before times, after the first leg of this partitioned last-16 tie, the story was the same: ‘Gabriel Jesus inspires City to a 2-1 win over Real Madrid’.
It might not be pure talent or virtuoso ability on the ball, but Gabriel Jesus, it turns out, does have something that separates him from the rest.
It is there, just above his cherubic cheeks and behind his callow stare: an insatiable, earth-shattering desire to do all that is required to win; a force of spirit forged in the tough streets and rough, dirt-pitch soccer games of the northern suburbs of São Paulo; a single-minded focus, an ability to go again and again and again, following the orders set out for him by a manager who has devised the perfect plan to squeeze the life out of the opposition.
Jesus is the perhaps the arch modern-day soccer player, the perfect man for the era in which controlling time and space has become the paramount aim of top-class teams. He has a preternatural ability to be in the right spot at the right moment to pounce on mistakes. He is a whirlwind of straining neck ligaments and single-minded energy who brings a few ounces of extra effort out of those who line up alongside him and corrals opponents into a position from which they feel there is no escape.
Ask anyone who has spent a significant amount of time with him and they will tell you the same thing: what makes Jesus Jesus is not in his toes but between his ears.
“I think it’s all about belief,” he told City’s official site after the game on Friday. “Belief that there would be mistakes. They are humans. You can make a mistake if you are pressed a lot. It’s one of my powers to press all the time to help my team. I was happy to score, too.”
It was a wonderful little insight into his mind. He did believe – both in his manager’s plan and his own ability to make that plan work – and he was not intimidated by the reputation of the eleven humans who stood before him. They will, just like anyone, commit mistakes if forced to. And the last little snippet is wonderful; pressing as a superpower and, oh yeah, a goal, too; almost forgot about that.
That unusual set of priorities and odd, lop-sided skillset will likely see Jesus maligned throughout his career as a player not quite good enough for the very top level. But the mental capacity that has brought him to where he is will almost certainly keep him there.
For the modern manager, a Guardiola or a Tite, he is the perfect conduit through which to translate ideas from the tactics board onto the field. “He is the best guy at making these kinds of actions,” said City’s Catalan boss after defeating Real. “Gabriel was the man of these two games.”
So, technically, our ex-Brazil striker friend was right. Technically, Gabriel Jesus doesn’t have a great deal going for him. But Gabriel, playing an essential role as the hard-working right-winger, went on to win that Copa América, adding to the Brazilian title, Brazilian cup, two Premier League PINC trophies, FA Cup, two League Cups and Olympic gold medal he already had in the cabinet by then.
This season, following on from the Copa América, he managed a goal contribution every 96 minutes in the Premier League and, so far, a goal contribution every 55 minutes in the Champions League; a decent record for someone who appears in word and action to prioritize work-rate above sticking the ball in the back of the net. In this oddest of years he has already won one more League Cup and could now feasibly go on to add a European crown. He is 23.
Technique, clearly, is not the only thing that matters.
Through willpower and determination, through an insatiable desire to win and a belief that even the best will wilt if you push them hard enough, Gabriel Jesus has earned his place among the elite. So, here’s a doff of the cap to Gabriel Jesus; the greatest average soccer player in the world.