On November 8, Gabriel Jesus turned adeptly before slotting a shot past Alisson Becker. The immediate significance was that it drew Manchester City level against Liverpool. Six weeks later, it is notable for other reasons: it remains the last shot on target the Brazilian registered in the Premier League.
City have become the sterile centurions, the team who registered 102 goals last season and now have fewer than Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace. One cause is evident: Sergio Aguero has been limited to 111 minutes’ top-flight football by a variety of ailments.
Yet that reflects on the man who seemed his long-term successor, then appeared his eternal deputy and whose fate is tied to the Argentinian’s. The Jesus-Aguero job-share has largely been a successful affair, with the senior man’s status as the first choice occasionally interrupted when City’s record scorer has been benched for a man whose high pressing Pep Guardiola believes is the best in the world. But it has been a productive partnership of sorts: in three full seasons together at the Etihad Stadium, they scored 146 goals.
Jesus got 61 of them, hauls of 17, 21 and 23 coming at an impressive rate per minute but facilitated by the excellence of team-mates and the reality that he often faced the weaker opponents. It was a choice between opposites: Aguero is the natural predator and clinical finisher versus Jesus, the man who underperforms his expected goals every year. They could be called the selfish and the selfless.
And yet Aguero’s ever more regular absences have highlighted the shortcomings of the alternative. Saturday’s stalemate at Old Trafford illustrated the bluntness of the Aguero-less attack, but the previous week Jesus failed to record a shot of any variety against Fulham; seven days earlier, he did not muster one on target in City’s habitual 5-0 thrashing of Burnley. It borders on the inconceivable that Aguero would have passed up the opportunity to add to his tally against relegation-threatened teams in such self-denying fashion.
Jesus seems to be going through a familiar phase for forwards who are not natural goalscorers, overcompensating with industry, running to free up room for others, ensuring he doesn’t miss by not shooting. But this state of affairs cannot continue forever.
Aguero’s contract expires next summer. Argentina may beckon for him, and then a decision does for City. Jesus has existed in a kind of arrested development in groundhog seasons – a man who struck home and away against Real Madrid last season has some goals against the elite, more against the underdogs, plenty of cameos and time on the bench – waiting for the future to arrive. And yet to go back to the spring of 2017, when he made a stunning early impression, and he has proved the anomaly in a youthful forward line. Raheem Sterling has transformed himself into a more regular goalscorer than Jesus has ever been; Leroy Sane became the player the all-conquering Bayern Munich wanted. The paradox of the relentless runner Jesus is that he has stood still.
Then the assumption was that he would take over from Aguero and perhaps sooner rather than later. Now? The suggestions that City are interested in Erling Braut Haaland make sense. Much as Guardiola likes a false nine, replacing Aguero, the greatest goalscorer in their history, probably requires someone more potent and more predatory than Jesus. He has been the likeable, uncomplaining understudy, waiting patiently for his chance. Yet his profligacy has meant they cannot always rely on him taking those opportunities, and now a strangely shot-shy figure is not attempting them. Perhaps, instead of Jesus ending Aguero’s City career, the opposite will happen if the older man goes home next summer.
Signing a striking superstar could cement Jesus’ status as the second choice and risks sending him to the exit. Yet it may be what City need in the post-Aguero era.
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