Soccer

Is Gabriel Jesus ready to take Sergio Aguero goalscoring mantle at Manchester City?

How many more Manchester derbies are left in Sergio Aguero’s tank? The Argentine, one of the greatest players ever to don City’s sky blue shirt, has been ruled out of the starting lineup for Saturday’s game as he continues to battle with the injury issues that have limited his game time in 2020.

Though it would be exceedingly unwise to doubt a player of Aguero’s consistent excellence in front of goal — particularly after a poacher’s finish in midweek Champions League match against Marseille — age and injuries would appear to be catching up with him. 

As Pep Guardiola noted, there will be qualities Aguero has that will possibly still be there long after he has hung up his boots. “His instinct to score will always be there,” the City boss said in midweek. Even after “three or four” training sessions there was a sharpness to the 32-year-old when he was around the Marseille area. Against an extremely ordinary defense, he sensed the chance to get goals; when the chance came his way one knew he would not waste it.

Even on the sidelines Aguero will exude no little menace for Manchester United’s slipshod defense. In 13 Premier League matches against the Red Devils, he has eight goals against them. He may not start, but if the game is in the balance late on, few would bet against him making an impact off the bench.

Whether Gabriel Jesus, Aguero’s replacement, will inspire such fear at Old Trafford is another matter entirely. In eight meetings with United, he is yet to score. That comes with the significant caveat that the vast majority of those appearances were off the bench but his opposing defense on Saturday will hardly concern themselves with such factors.

Jesus’ record against Manchester United rather speaks to perhaps the most fundamental question that City face as they prepare for their post-Aguero future. Is Jesus the man to lead the line on the biggest occasions over the coming years?

For a time in his City career such a question felt redundant. Of course, Jesus was City’s future, he looked like being their present as well after his $35 million arrival from Brazilian giants Palmeiras in January 2017. While Guardiola mulled whether Aguero’s off-ball deficiencies overshadowed his goal return, the youngster hit the ground running with seven goals in 11 games.

More than that it was the intensity of his pressing, the sharpness of his link-up play and the diligence with which he got into defensive shape that won him admiration in England. In his first Premier League campaign with the club, he won 71 percent of his tackles, a tally bettered by only one forward (Marcus Rashford) with over 500 minutes of play in the 2016-17 season.

Those qualities away from goal are still there now. He averages 3.39 ball recoveries per 90 minutes, just under one more than Aguero. Last season in the Premier League, he pressed more frequently than any City outfield player bar Phil Foden, according to fbref.com.

As Guardiola himself noted in October 2019: “Gabriel is the best striker at making the high intensity pressing in the world.”

Similarly impressive is Jesus’ ability to bring others into scoring position once he regains possession. Per 90, he creates around 1.36 chances in the Premier League, a figure that puts him ahead of Rashford and has 16 big chances to his name.

His assist tally of 18 is bettered by only four players Opta categorises as centre forwards – Roberto Firmino, Rashford, Harry Kane and Aguero – since the Brazilian’s arrival in England. Per 90 Jesus vastly outstrips those regular starters, with 0.28 assists in every game he finds himself alongside the likes of Eden Hazard, Heung-min Son and the best creative players in the Premier League since 2017.

Perhaps most impressive of all, since his arrival in England no centre forward has begun more plays that ended with the ball in the net, Roberto Firmino the only player to match his compatriot’s 13.

Indeed Jesus profiles somewhat as a Firmino-Rashford hybrid, both similarly forwards who are undoubtedly excellent. They all score plenty but perhaps could offer more — of strikers to score over 35 top flight goals since January 2017 they are the three least clinical in terms of converting their expected goals (xG). If you made either the chief source of goals at their respective clubs it is hard to see a ceiling of Champions League and/or Premier League winner.

Perhaps Jesus could be to Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez what Firmino is to Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. Certainly that City front three would be one of the best in Europe, but compare it to their Liverpool counterparts and you might not favor any of the forwards who play in sky blue.

Gabriel Jesus in the Premier League

2016-17

10

7

6.82

2017-18

29

13

14.18

2018-19

29

7

11.46

2019-20

34

14

18.49

2020-21

5

2

1.19

It is a more even fight if Jesus profiles as becoming a goalscorer on par with Aguero. Indeed were that the case this would not even be a debate, if at 23 the No. 9 were on the right path then you would trust that his golden years are ahead of him.

Certainly Jesus’ raw scoring output is impressive, joint-ninth in goals since he arrived in England and ahead of Rashford, Anthony Martial and Alexandre Lacazette, among others. As a starter, he averages 0.7 goals per 90, a tally bettered by just five others in the top flight. Aguero, Kane and Salah won’t surprise you with their presence on the list, Patrick Bamford might. At some stage he will surely drop behind more illustrious names, excellent as his start to Premier League life with Leeds United has been.

Seemingly then, there you have it. Jesus profiles among the Premier League’s top strikers, what is there to be worried about? Yet you can’t quite shake that feeling, can you? That he’s not quite the razor sharp finisher that those around him are.

His expected goals — a measure of the probability that any given shot leads to a goal — would offer endorsement to that sense. Of the top 25 scorers since Jesus arrived in the Premier League, he has by far the greatest negative differential between his xG and actual goals.

A tally of 43 is rather impressive, but with the chances presented to him Opta’s xG model would expect the average striker to score 52. Prior to this season, which would fall into the small sample size category, the difference between his goals and expected goals was trending in the wrong direction; he was becoming less clinical than he once was. That may be down to the injuries that hampered him from 2018 onwards, but equally even after a run of games he does not give the impression that he has found his shooting boots again. He remains inconsistent in front of goal, capable of real genius but also of missing plenty of chances.

Herein lies the intriguing problem with Jesus. City have seen that he can be a good goalscorer, and at 23, there is plenty of time to rediscover that form in front of goal again, to develop into a consistent goalscorer in his mid-20s much as other top Premier League strikers (Salah, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Son) have.

If that were the case then there are few center forwards who would be worth swapping for Jesus, who as Guardiola has noted brings defensive qualities at a level beyond that which many more consistent scorers do.

Equally, City do need someone to put the ball in the net, a problem that has dogged them in particular this season. As Aguero’s availability becomes more infrequent, so Jesus loses time to fulfill his potential. If City hope to compete for the Champions League this season and re-establish themselves in the title race, they will find their task far easier with a striker who makes the most of the chances presented to him.

Jesus is a forward of real promise, already a very good striker who could go on to become a great one. Whether the odds are sufficient for City to entrust him with the post-Aguero mantle remains unclear for the time being.



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