Why Gabriel Jesus – not Sergio Aguero – is the future for Guardiola's Man City
No two clubs currently exemplify the pace of the news cycle more than West Ham and Manchester City. Slaven Bilic's side, having survived the early season's choppy seas and the Dimitri Payet affair, suddenly find themselves in a healthy 11th place; City, as a consequence of the constructed commentary around Pep Guardiola, appear to oscillate between micro-crisis and great promise every few weeks.
Football doesn't really do light-hearted judgement, but if it did it might conclude that, in each team's case, it's still too early to tell what they definitively are.
- Jesus became the second-youngest Brazilian player to score his first Premier League goal (19y 304d), after Rafael for Man United in November 2008 (18y 122d).
The Payet fractures are healing at West Ham. Consecutive wins over Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough have them heading north, but more importantly they perpetuated a growing harmony. Imperfect team though they remain, Bilic does at least seem to have his players rowing in the same direction.
And what of Manchester City, they of the flickering power surges and spectacular collapses?
Style and substance
In retrospect, it's entirely reasonable for them to be what they are. Guardiola is celebrated for his agility in selection and so, with a squad not of his own creation, City were likely to suffer these peaks and troughs. But on Wednesday night at the London Stadium, some continuity: while Sergio Aguero, Gael Clichy and Claudio Bravo were left on the substitutes' bench, City retained the shape that had served them so well against Tottenham.
A four-man backline was shielded by Yaya Toure in the holding role, while four attacking midfielders supported the exhilarating Gabriel Jesus. The Brazilian is the natural point of interest, his slight, dainty physique attracting the usual pejorative cliches relating to South Americans' adaptation to English football.
He may look like one of them, a lightweight – all edited highlights and ethereal talent – but he's absolutely not. Having already skipped between the hailstones at Selhurst Park at the weekend, he exerted a tremendous influence in City's 4-0 win. He's no long-term project who needs gradual immersion in the culture, but rather a right-now factor who can alter this season's trajectory.
"You never know, it is like a watermelon, you have to open and see if it is good or not," Guardiola told Sky Sports in the aftermath of the victory which moved his side level on points with Liverpool in fourth place.
"The perspective was good. He's a young talent and he has a huge mentality. He's so aggressive."
In the background, a friendly war reportedly rages between Guardiola and the once-pivotal Aguero. As recently as November, the Argentine was evidently deemed pliable enough by his manager who, publicly, talked of his intention to improve an already elite player.
- Gabriel Jesus became the first player to both score and assist a goal on their first Premier League start for Manchester City.
Aguero was urged to increase his energy without the ball and he dutifully did, drawing plenty of initial praise. Nevertheless, something remains amiss and stories of his impending departure appear increasingly credible. And while that appears baffling given Aguero's productivity and his historic importance to City, Jesus offers an explanation: weeks into his Premier League career, he appears better suited to leading the line for a Guardiola side.
Bear with us for a moment here. His movement is more lateral than Aguero's and, as his instinctive square ball for Kevin De Bruyne's opening goal showed, his feel for this kind of multi-movement attacking system might be superior. Not, of course, because he's a better player – he isn't – but because he's a more suitable component. Aguero is an apex predator, paid to score goals and win games, whereas Jesus seems at this early stage to be something more subtle; a dark-corners-and-shadows forward, all quick feet, feel and imagination.
Five minutes before half-time and after David Silva had doubled City's lead, Jesus himself added the game-ending third, tapping in Raheem Sterling's selfless assist. It was a team move, one of half a dozen passes which knifed through West Ham in the first period, but the instinct shown in moving so easily into a scoring position was typical of the teenager's performance – and, pertinently, probably instructive as to why he was included in the first place.
City have roared before this season and they've shown their teeth at this stadium already, but not quite like this. Whereas the win over Barcelona relied on smart counter-attacking and the thrashings of West Brom, Stoke, and Hull were really descriptive of the squad's superior resources, this was another kind of victory and a barometer of the growing chemistry between the players.
Within that context, it's tempting to view Jesus as the connecting point between the attacking parts, or at least the grease in their gears. It may sound like hyperbole, but his level of involvement justifies the description, appearing as he did across the width of the pitch and being continuously relevant to the attacking phases.
Guardiola's tenure at City is interesting principally because it will likely involve so much reconstruction. That's not limited solely to the trading of players, either, because his coaching career has relied as much upon the how as the who. His success in England will depend on recruitment to a degree, but also on his ability to affect change in players' habits and tendencies; how quickly they release the ball, where they move once they do.
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It's a long-term project because, ultimately, superstars at big clubs are typically resistant to that kind of tinkering. So for his type of coaching to work, the squad as a whole will have to bend to his purpose; early impressions suggest that Jesus is of that personality, both the right type of player and the right sort of person.
City will not default into being a recognisable Guardiola team within the space of a single 90 minutes, nor by virtue of adding a single player. In fact, if this season's patterns are followed, discounting an impending, galling loss to Swansea on Sunday would be foolish. Nevertheless, there's now at least the suggestion of some permanence: the more regular formations, the thread of continuity in selection and a forward capable of binding together that Guardiola DNA.