For the first time in his near three-year tenure as Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta has signed a center forward. He did not need to look too far and wide to find the one he wanted, returning to his former club, Manchester City, where he was assistant manager to Pep Guardiola, to sign Gabriel Jesus in a £45 million deal.
The Brazil international has signed a five-year contract at the Emirates Stadium and will wear the No. 9 shirt. He is, by any reasonable measure, the guy for Arsenal. He may have been coveted elsewhere, but Arteta and Edu had put in lengthy groundwork to get the deal done, first broaching the prospect of bringing Jesus from City early in the new year.
“We spoke a couple of times about the club, the players, the project and the future,” Jesus said after signing. “I believe 100 % in Mikel. I had a very good time with him before, he’s a very good guy and a very good coach as well.
“He helped me a lot [at Manchester City]. We would always stick together after the training sessions and do some finishing or something. He’s a very intelligent guy and was an amazing player, so if he knows something, he can teach me or the young players.”
It may seem like Arteta is playing it safe by going back to what he knows … and to an extent he is. Jesus is a known commodity, but Arsenal zeroing in on him came after what scouts and agents have described to CBS Sports as one of the most extensive scouting operations in Europe. A process that began well over a year ago and lasted until the final games of the 2021-22 season, saw in-person scouting and background checks on a string of targets, among them Victor Osimhen, Alexander Isak and Dusan Vlahovic. The Serbian was the one who came closest to tempting the Gunners to look elsewhere, though for all the talk of bids in the January window, Arsenal had concluded that the then Fiorentina striker did not want them by the time 2022 rolled around.
There were no such issues with Jesus. There was a clear vision laid out for the 25-year-old Premier League champion as to the role he’d fill in north London; even the most cursory of glances at the roster after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was allowed to leave for nothing showed that Jesus could be assured of regular game time.
With a World Cup on the horizon and none of Tite’s options through the middle appearing to be a lock for the position in Qatar, Arsenal held the trump card of guaranteed minutes in Europe’s most competitive league. It has been a while since Jesus has been afforded them, and the arrival of Erling Haaland was going to make it even harder.
At Arsenal, the starring role is there. The new striker has been the transfer that has hovered over Arsenal for more than a year, the missing piece of an ambitious and expensive rebuild. Without that player, Arteta will freely admit his side are significantly hamstrung.
“He puts the ball in the net, that’s priority number one,” he said in March when asked what his top priorities were in any incoming forward. “Goal threat. Any successful team needs enough goal threat in the squad. Without it, you have nothing. You can play good football, but you need enough goal threat in the team.”
Jesus’ arrival might bring goals but it will also bring questions for his new manager. For all that Arteta has shown, an ability to stamp his mark on Arsenal’s culture, to invigorate dressing rooms and develop young players, the great issue of his tenure has been what he has got from his center forward. The Gunners have largely been a goal-shy team since Christmas 2019 when they appointed their rookie head coach, scoring around one and a half league goals per game in a period where Manchester City have averaged 2.4, Liverpool 2.1, Manchester United and Chelsea both 1.8. Their scoring return is the eighth-best in a sample of 96 games, what Premier League success they have had largely built around a tightened defense.
In 2021-22, Arteta’s Arsenal showed they could create more chances and score more goals, but those were not coming from the marquee center forwards with which they began the season, both of whom cost slightly more than the club have paid for Jesus. Both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (22 non-penalty goals) and Alexandre Lacazette (17 non-penalty goals) struggled to find the net across the totality of Arteta’s tenure. Whether the former, one of the English game’s deadliest strikers when Unai Emery was sacked, fell off a cliff because his position was continually changed by his new manager or because he lost motivation after signing his major new contract rather depends on whose camp you ask.
As for Lacazette, the answer seemed clearer. The Frenchman, who was signed as the club’s marquee striker half a season before a panic-struck Arsenal moved for Aubameyang, spent so long trying to facilitate partnerships with those around him that by the end of his time in north London he seemed unable to get into the box and take shots. Whether the travails of the Gunners’ frontline are down to subpar squad building (to which one might also add Nicolas Pepe’s awkward fit in a Liverpool-aping triumvirate that never looked as effective in the flesh as it did on paper), the players themselves, Arteta’s management or a combination of the three, the center forwards clearly weren’t working last season. That was made starkly apparent on the final day of the season when Eddie Nketiah became the top-scoring striker of the campaign. He had found the net five times.
The youngster did at least show signs of being able to do a little bit of everything that Arteta wants from his strikers. They must be able to help win the ball back, involve themselves in build-up play as Lacazette did but only as a prelude to attacking the penalty area with the precision of Aubameyang in his best years.
Jesus certainly promises to be that. In the 2020-21 season, when he played mostly as a center forward for Guardiola, the Brazilian ranked in the 99th percentile of strikers for progressive passes received according to fbref, whilst also averaging 0.15 expected assists per 90 minutes. The “best [striker] in the world” at winning the ball back, according to his now former manager at City, can do plenty with it when he wins the ball back.
Then there are the shots. Since the start of the 2017-18 season only two players — Sergio Aguero and Cristiano Ronaldo — average more expected goals (xG) per 90 Premier League minutes than Jesus’ 0.66. Discount last season, when he played more frequently as a winger, and that number skyrockets to 0.7. That is top 10 in Europe territory.
One might say that of course he ranks highly in xG with Manchester City’s supply line behind him. And one would also note that unlike Aguero, Erling Haaland or Robert Lewandowski, he does not outperform the quality of his shots. In layman’s terms, a good striker is generally one who gets a high volume of good shooting chances and performs on par with them. The very best can be expected to slightly outperform their xG. In the last five Premier League seasons, Jesus has 49 non-penalty goals from nearly 60 non-penalty xG.
There are missed sitters aplenty in his resume but so many of them only come from the instinctive penalty box skills that Jesus shows in abundance. Take for instance, this immaculate show of control with his back to goal to fire in the winner against Chelsea early this season (there is another example of perhaps even more impressive quick feet against West Ham later in the campaign).
The second of four goals he scored against Watford in a 5-1 win last season showcased Jesus’ off-the-ball qualities. The run itself isn’t remarkable but its timing is judged to a tee. As the ball goes towards Kevin De Bruyne on the City right, visiting center back Samir is staring right at Jesus, who seems to be posing little threat. Then the moment Raheem Sterling runs across the eyelines of the Watford defense, the Brazilian makes his move, looping around the back of Christian Kabasele and into space.
Two seconds later he is flicking home De Bruyne’s cross having found himself a sizeable seam to attack.
How often will Arsenal construct chances like this for him? They got better as a creative force in the second half of last season and are replete in creative talent, it is just nowhere near the array of superstars that City have to feed their forward with. With club and country, Jesus has only been viewed through the prism of what he offers when played alongside some of the best players in the world.
Jesus might have worn the No. 9 shirt, but when placed alongside the likes of De Bruyne, Sterling and Neymar, the spotlight does not shine as brightly as it might. He has never had to be the star, the player in whom hopes are invested and on whose shoulders expectations lie. That changes now.
Here is the player the Emirates Stadium has been waiting for, that three years of the Arteta project has been building towards. A cog no more, he is the jewel in the Arsenal crown. That might make him. It could break him.