Jesus saves. Jesus’ second was coming. Jesus on a Sunday. Thank the lord for Jesus. I believe in Jesus. Jesus walks. Sweet Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth might have boasted 12 disciples 2,000 years ago, but Manchester City’s new Jesus has at least 50 times as many. The bad news is that I’ve got more of these; the good news is that I’m not even going to touch on the Gabriel/Gabrielle puns.
At the current rate, we might need every single one of those laboured gags. If Pep Guardiola took a chance in leaving Sergio Aguero on the bench against Swansea City, his faith in Manchester City’s new 19-year-old striker was repaid handsomely. When City needed a hero and a saviour (OK, I’ll stop it now), it was their youngest player who forced victory over the line. The Brazilian’s movement created the space and his anticipation earned him the goal after his initial header was saved.
Only six younger players than Gabriel have started a Premier League game this season, and none of them only arrived at a new club in a new league in a new country on a new continent three weeks ago. Do not underestimate the maturity displayed at the Etihad on Sunday. Gabriel was not just entrusted to start but to lead the line ahead of probably the best striker in the country. If that could have provoked a bout of nerves, his response was the opposite.
Gabriel having more shots than any other player on the pitch against Swansea may not have been surprising, but creating one fewer chance than Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Yaya Toure combined might be. Watching him play, it is easy to see why he was regularly used as a wide forward at Palmeiras. He is comfortable dropping deep to pick up the ball and at his best when running at defenders, which allows him to dovetail with City’s other two young forwards. Sterling, Sane and Gabriel each touched the ball eight times in Swansea’s penalty area. As a counter-attacking trio, they look incredibly dangerous.
If Gabriel’s link-up play with other young, quick forwards is not a shock, his composure in the penalty area is. The sample size is too small to make even the most meaningless of conclusion, but Gabriel clearly has the confidence to take an extra touch and seek to bring others into play rather than attempting rash shots from unlikely locations. All eight of his shots thus far have come from inside the penalty area.
Football and excitement can often seem like uncomfortable bedfellows, however joyless that sounds. We must take care not to get ahead of ourselves, for that places pressure on young players and establishes unrealistic expectations. We must try not to over-estimate a young player’s ability and overlook their age, for both make the subsequent regression to the norm feel like reason for criticism, not support. Gabriel has scored three goals in three league games for his new club in a new country. Like Marcus Rashford last season, expecting that to continue is foolish.
Yet there are moments when reason is rightly thrown out of the window and our minds in favour of joy. There are the moments when sport takes us by surprise and lifts us up. Watching a 19-year-old score his first and second goals in his new stadium in front of an adoring crowd is enough to lift you off your seat and applaud. It really was impossible to not smile as widely as Gabriel did. An impossibly small sample size doesn’t detract from the intuition: This boy is a bit special.