Gabriel Jesus ended his wait for a goal with a smart header for the opener in Manchester City’s 4-1 win over Arsenal in the Carabao Cup quarter-final at the Emirates. But on the night that Sergio Aguero made his return from injury as a second-half substitute, the Brazilian’s performance will only reignite the debate about his ability to succeed the legend.
Jesus was impressive. His movement in the lead up to that goal helped set up the opportunity. He had Mohamed Elneny and Shkodran Mustafi in the book inside the first half an hour.
But was this first goal in eight games enough to persuade the doubters that he should be the long-term successor to Aguero with the Argentine out of contract in the summer? Unlikely.
His critics will point instead to the one-on-one chance that struck Arsenal goalkeeper Alex Runarsson rather than finding the back of the net. The problem for Jesus, as former Manchester City defender Micah Richards noted, is that the standard is so daunting.
“He just needs to be more clinical,” Richards told Sky Sports.
“The comparison is with Aguero. It is very hard to compare to him, but he does work hard for the team. He has different attributes.
“What he does give is the press. They have become a bit of a possession team but when you have a striker who is willing to run it just gets the players up the pitch.
“I am a big fan of Jesus. I think he is a very good player. I just don’t think he is at the level to compare. I don’t think it is fair to compare him to a great of the Premier League.”
It might be unfair but it is the reality for Jesus as he approaches the four-year anniversary of his debut for the club. His contribution in that time has been significant. Nothing can take away his part in history – the scorer of the goal at Southampton that took City to 100 points.
But it has also been a very public trial period for one of the best jobs in football – the task of leading the line for Manchester City. He already has the number nine but can he be the main man?
On the face of it, his statistics are strong. Compare his record to the Premier League’s deadliest strikers of the previous decade and Jesus is up there with one of the best minutes-per-goal ratios around. The hope would be that more game-time leads to more goals.
Jesus is no super sub either. His strike rate when coming off the bench is far worse than when he starts. It would make sense if he was coming on with the game won and helping himself to easy goals but that is not what his record reveals.
Given his age – Jesus is 23 – and the chance to develop under Pep Guardiola, it would be logical to believe that the time is approaching for him to step up and claim the role. It is what makes his recent dip in form feel like it has come at a particularly unfortunate time.
Aguero’s injury has allowed this prolonged period as first-choice striker but the chance has not been fully seized. In fact, it has brought the worst goalscoring form of his City career.
Even more worryingly, chances have not just been missed, such as the volley against Manchester United, often they have not come at all. That was his only effort in that game. In the previous fixture at home to Fulham, Jesus did not have a single shot in 90 minutes.
Indeed, he has not had a shot on target in any of his last five Premier League appearances. Nevertheless, Guardiola remains a huge admirer and has defended him throughout this run.
“I love him so much,” he said recently. “What he is able to do is one of the reasons why we concede few goals, and few chances is thanks exclusively to him. Without him we would concede more chances. And sometimes I give credit to the other ones.
“Of course he wants to score goals and he will do it. I want his goals but his contribution is as the best striker in the world doing something that [not] any striker can do for the team.”
Jesus has become a very effective defensive forward in a team that needs that help in cutting out moves at source, protecting the high line. Guardiola appreciates that and when the goals come from elsewhere, as they did in the 5-0 win over Burnley, it is not an issue.
Perhaps he has also been unlucky to step into the side at a time when it has not been functioning as it should, a victim of the fact that City as a team have not been creating quite as much as before. Aguero might have been just as reliant on good service as Jesus.
Even so, the concern is that for much of past four years there has been that feeling that if Jesus was just given an extended run – and the belief that comes with that – he would be able to fulfil his potential. Now the risk is that important figures will lean the other way.
The load on him has been unusually high of late. The recent run of games in which he played the full 90 minutes in six consecutive Premier League matches was unprecedented for him.
Jesus’ longest previous run like that had been four games. Other than that he had never been asked to play the full 90 minutes more than twice in a row in the Premier League in a single season.
Aguero’s return to fitness means that he is unlikely to be asked to do so again. Maybe that will bring the best out in the Brazilian – even Aguero’s presence on the bench might have helped contribute to his quick start against Arsenal on Tuesday evening.
Sharing the workload once more could be good for Jesus in the short-to-medium term. The problem is that, in the long term, it is likely to persuade Manchester City and their supporters of something some will have long suspected. When Aguero does finally depart, they will be looking for a new number nine rather than a deputy for his long-time deputy.