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After failing to sign Lionel Messi, Man City need a big season from Gabriel Jesus - can he take his chance?


After failing to sign Lionel Messi, Man City need a big season from Gabriel Jesus - can he take his chance?

Only Christian Benteke has underperformed his Expected Goals numbers more than Jesus in the Premier League.

"DO you believe in Jesus?” A long-standing question for many societies but also one with particular significance when it comes to Manchester City’s attacking unit as the club prepare to begin their season with a trip to Wolverhampton on Monday night.

Wolves away is possibly the most problematic start City could have been handed (technically Pep Guardiola’s team should have started with a vastly more agreeable home fixture against Aston Villa but their quasi-involvement in the latter stages of the Champions League triggered an additional week off). The Midlands side won home and away against City in 2019-20, thereby inflicting 5% of the league defeats Guardiola has ever experienced, in the space of 180 minutes.

Guardiola did four seasons as Barcelona manager and just three at Bayern but 2020-21 is an unprecedented fifth in charge of Manchester City. What mark would you give the Spaniard so far? Two league titles, an FA Cup and approximately 363 League Cups would be enough for most coaches, but the Champions League remains frustratingly out of reach. Guardiola hasn’t won it without Lionel Messi in his team and hasn’t even reached a semi-final since the iPhone 7 came out. And seven (out of 10) feels about right as a score for Guardiola thus far.

Gabriel Jesus is also starting his fifth season at the club and it is perhaps trickier to get a grasp on how the Brazilian is faring. Still young (he’s a couple of weeks younger than Harry Wilson, which somehow is true), raw numbers-wise Jesus had his best season yet in 2019-20, with 14 goals and seven assists both personal bests in the Premier League. He’s also got the knack of scoring as often away from home as at the Etihad, which is invariably more valuable.

41 goals at a conversion rate of around 18% also looks reasonable enough. Glenn Hoddle once attempted to criticise Andy Cole by saying he needed five chances to score a goal, not realising that elite strikers generally score with around 20% of their shots. As is so often the case in life, take the information and ignore the sentiment.

Gabriel Jesus is slightly below that figure as it stands, but as discussed earlier, he’s younger than Harry Wilson so let’s not go full Hoddle. Even so, we have moved on from iron age information such as mere “shots” and we can now work out whether those efforts at goal were any good or not. And this is where the Gabriel Jesus experience starts to lose some kudos.

As shown in the table below, since the City man started in the Premier League, only the relentlessly unfortunate figure of Christian Benteke has underperformed his Expected Goals numbers more than Jesus, who, based on the position and quality and clarity of his shots, could reasonably expect to have scored 10 additional goals. Benteke at least has one of the best consolation goals in Premier League history (aka the best overhead kick scored in front of the East Stand at Old Trafford, sorry Wayne Rooney), while Shane Long, in third place, has wasted chances but has also scored the fastest goal in Premier League so balançoires et ronds-points as they say in France.

Rounding out the five potentially-most-wasteful players of the past four years are Paul Pogba, who has four penalty misses in that period (at 0.78 xG a pop, ouch) and David McGoldrick’s Extraordinary 2019-20 Season, as it’s known, when the Sheffield United man spurned opportunities on a scale not seen since Jimmy Muir’s day.

You might remember that there was a point during 2016-17 when it seemed that Jesus had managed to rapidly and permanently usurp Sergio Aguero in the City XI, with Guardiola saying that a front three of Jesus, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane was his preferred choice and that he wasn’t sure whether Aguero would be there the following season, implying that the Argentine was second choice and would probably not be happy to be so.

It’s to Aguero’s great credit that he fought back from this and heads into 2020-21 with a reasonable chance of reaching 200 Premier League goals. Even so, Jesus’s failure to kick on has also benefited Aguero, even if his absence from City’s doomed Champions League mini-tournament this summer was curiously underplayed in some places.

Along with “how would Timo Werner have improved Liverpool?” one of this season’s great What If scenarios is: how different would Manchester City have been had they managed to lure Lionel Messi to the club? Would Guardiola have built the entire team and approach around Messi? Would Kevin De Bruyne and Messi have formed a partnership as productive as John Carew and Ashley Cole at Villa (don’t laugh, they combined for more Premier League goals than Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp)?

And who would have suffered most from the parachuting of football’s greatest ever player into the Etihad? It feels like that man could well have been Gabriel Jesus, especially with the relative success of the Phil Foden False Nine Experiment late on in 2019-20. Well, Messi is not coming to Manchester City and Gabriel Jesus has every chance of serving up an excellent campaign for his club, he just needs to take that chance. Even narrative has an xG value.

 

 


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