Gabriel Jesus provides unorthodox solution to Arsenal’s recurring dilemma

An Arsenal icon turned into the voice of the fanbase. “We need a killer,” came Ian Wright’s post as they exited the FA Cup: with 18 shots, no goals and a match that served as a microcosm for a school of thought. He was only expressing what many others thought. Arsenal don’t have a modern-day Ian Wright.

Gabriel Jesus was not playing when Arsenal’s wastefulness brought that defeat to Liverpool, yet he seemed the face of the problem. Jesus is many things – an assister, a runner, a worker – but not a killer. That Wright’s message came at the start of the transfer window, amid talk of Ivan Toney, rendered it all the more topical. The regular refrain around Arsenal is that they need a striker, a finisher; someone likely to add a clinical touch.

Instead, their January is set to end without additions but with a resounding endorsement of the No 9 they do have, the altruistic attacker in a position where others have selfish strikers. Arsenal beat Nottingham Forest with a Jesus goal, a Jesus assist and a lot of Jesus running.

Which, it transpired, was even more admirable than it initially appeared. Fluid on his knee had threatened to rule him out. “Gabi started to win the game two days ago,” manager Mikel Arteta said. “He had an issue with his knee and everyone was trying to protect him and saying: ‘Don’t go outside’. But he was saying [matchday] minus two, [matchday] minus one: ‘I want to be there I want to help the team to win the game’. When you have that mentality, good things are going to happen.”

Since that defeat to Liverpool, good things have happened to Arsenal. Perhaps there was something quintessentially Jesus about his performance against Crystal Palace: the centre-forward did not score or even register a shot on target in a 5-0 thrashing, but got an assist, four key passes and expected assists total of 1.08.

Perhaps, too, the shot he drilled against the post at the City Ground looked like Jesus in a nutshell; almost ideal, but he just was not enough of a goalscorer. It was 0-0 then and, had the scoreline stayed the same, it would have reinforced the theory Arsenal had a vacancy for a predator.

Yet when they broke the deadlock, it was Jesus, from an improbable angle, with a precision that could bely his ability to miss rather simpler chances. Then came an example of why the Brazilian is such a fine colleague: a counter-attack was capped when he picked out the advancing Bukayo Saka to score Arsenal’s second goal.

Arsenal's Gabriel Jesus celebrates after scoring (AP)
Arsenal's Gabriel Jesus celebrates after scoring (AP)

A goal, an assist and plenty of hard labour: it felt pretty much the perfect Jesus performance. “He was magnificent today,” said Arteta. “He did the same against Palace but didn’t score. He could have scored more today when he hit the post. His general activity, when he had to link play and generate chaos, he was there.”

Arsenal were confronted with a deep-lying defence and a packed penalty area. Convention has it that that is when they would require a poacher, someone to sniff out an opening, a finisher who might take their only chance. Instead, they had Jesus: sometimes swapping positions with Gabriel Martinelli, popping up outside the box. It was an inimitable display.

It was not one to end an argument. Not when there are still 40 players with more Premier League goals this season, and that number will surely be higher by the time Jesus plays again. He has four goals in 17 games; four from 41 shots, four from 1099 minutes. He has missed six big chances. He has been more profligate than prolific.

In the interests of fairness, it is worth pointing out that only four players have scored more in the Champions League and that Jesus’ domestic goal return was better last season. Nevertheless, three teammates still outscored him.

Gabriel Jesus celebrates scoring for Arsenal (Action Images via Reuters)
Gabriel Jesus celebrates scoring for Arsenal (Action Images via Reuters)

But part of the case for deploying a team player is that the team benefits. Arsenal’s next Premier League victory with Jesus will take him to 150; so far he has only played 202 games. His is a remarkable win rate and if such statistics are buttressed by the reality the majority of those matches came for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, they also provide some of the context.

The Jesus compromise is that he can require others to score more to compensate when he does not. But they, in turn, will stand a better chance of getting goals when he plays. For much of his City career, Sergio Aguero’s presence meant Guardiola had a specialist scorer as well as Jesus; it was only in the Brazilian’s final two years that, either with a declining Aguero or after his departure, there was no potent centre-forward. But City were champions in each of those two years. Now the notion has been that Arsenal must acquire their answer to Aguero, their finisher. They haven’t got one this month.

But if there is a recurring question if Arsenal can win the title with Gabriel Jesus, Arteta might think they can’t win it without him.