Gabriel Jesus is the unsung Man City hero who showed what it means to be Blue – Alex Brotherton
Manchester City performed a 93:20 tribute in completing a dramatic come-from-behind win against Aston Villa, a victory that secured a fourth Premier League title in five years.
After 75 minutes of sub-par football had seen City fall two goals behind, it looked as though the Blues were going to throw away the title race they had enjoyed full control of since December. Remarkably they then scored three goals between the 76th and 81st minutes, a five-minute period that turned despair into ecstasy and the Etihad from a funeral into the party of the year.
After such an incredible win, the usual suspects were in the headlines. Ilkay Gundogan, with his two goals, was lauded as the hero. Superlatives to describe Kevin de Bruyne had run out by the time the full-time whistle blew. And Pep Guardiola was hailed a genius, after clinching the 10th league title of his 13-season managerial career.
But where there are stars to hog the limelight, there are unsung heroes quietly going about their business. As has been the case throughout his five-and-a-half seasons in Manchester, on Sunday Gabriel Jesus played the role of the latter.
In a season where many expected Jesus to finally prove his goal-scoring credentials, to take up the mantel of Sergio Aguero without another senior striker to compete with, Jesus the striker never really clicked.
Yes, Jesus did score 13 goals in all competitions this season, but his reliability in front of goal came in fits and starts. For six-and-a-half months he didn’t score in the Premier League, until he nipped in to score a crucial goal in City’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool in April.
Two weeks after ending the drought he scored four against Watford, half of his league tally for the campaign, before scoring at Leeds a week after that. He also scored big goals in big games away at Chelsea and at home to Real Madrid, but as Guardiola admitted early in the campaign, Jesus doesn’t really have the ‘smell of goals’ necessary to play as an out-and-out striker.
Despite constantly switching position between winger and striker, false nine and not even being on the pitch at all, some of Jesus’ other qualities ended up playing a crucial role in City’s title triumph.
His energy, pressing ability and work rate are second-to-none – not even Bernardo Silva – and typified a player who, despite not playing as much as he would like or in his preferred position, was nevertheless desperate to contribute in any way he could.
Against Villa on Sunday, despite playing in a central role, Jesus was often the first City player to press the opposition full-back in possession.
It is these qualities that make him such a valuable member of Guardiola’s Premier League champions, but in the end it comes back around to the goals conundrum – it is because of that that he might leave the club this summer.
With Erling Haaland leading the line next season, Jesus could find it even harder to find minutes in Guardiola’s starting XI. With Riyad Mahrez set to stay and City keen to keep hold of Raheem Sterling, there is no guarantee that he would be able to nail down the right-wing berth either.
Juventus, Tottenham and Arsenal are reported to be interested in signing the Brazilian, the latter’s sporting director Edu having held talks with the player’s representatives last week. For all his quality off the ball, Jesus still longs to be a first-choice striker, something that just isn’t going to be possible at City next season.
“About my future, it’s still uncertain,” Jesus told ESPN Brazil after City had clinched the title. “I have a contract with City and I have already expressed my desire to the City people and to my agent.
“I have in my head very clear what I want. On vacation, I decide about my future.”
In the final moments of Sunday’s match, the final minutes of the season and perhaps his last in a City shirt, Jesus had no qualms about doing the kind of dirty, unglamorous work he has become loved for, shielding the ball in the corner to bleed precious seconds off the clock.
Whether or not the 25-year-old departs, his legacy will be one that City players – and even supporters – can learn from. Even when times were hard, when the goals wouldn’t come and the substitutes bench became all too familiar, when the club signed a generational talent to play the role he wanted for himself, Jesus always, always gave his all.
Jesus may not go down in history as a City legend, but his lesson in perseverance and dedication can be an inspiration to us all.