Gabriel Jesus no more than a supporting character for Arsenal as title race happens around him

Will Ford
Jesus Arsenal
Gabriel Jesus is no more than a supporting character in Arsenal's title challenge.

Gabriel Jesus won the penalty for Arsenal but watched from the touchline as his replacement scored. The Brazilian joined the Gunners as a lead character, but has been reduced to a supporting role in their title challenge.

Even last season, despite being the tangible reason – along with Oleksandr Zinchenko – to explain how and why Arsenal had gone from a team not quite good enough to qualify for the Champions League to one challenging for the title, and being arguably the best player through much of that season, people were questioning whether the Gunners could do better than Gabriel Jesus.

11 goals in 26 games wasn’t enough for a central striker against the backdrop of Erling Haaland depriving the Premier League of a sufficient supply of match balls, and though he would lose any popularity contest among the Arsenal fans against Gabriel Martinelli or Bukayo Saka for a spot on the wing, as was the case at Manchester City, and then for Brazil, Jesus finds himself in that place he would rather not be.

“Obviously when I chose to move from City to Arsenal, Edu and Arteta spoke to me, and I made it clear that I’d like to play 9. That was Arsenal’s idea, for me to play 9, loose.”

That’s no longer the case despite Arsenal not signing a ‘proper striker’ in the interim. Kai Havertz is now the preferred option to lead the line; with good reason after his goal at the Amex – a ‘proper striker’s’ tap-in at the near post – made it eight goal contributions for the former Chelsea man in his last seven Premier League games. He could easily have had another couple of assists but for Jesus’ poor finishing.

After Bart Verbruggen turned a very decent effort of his round the post from the edge of the box, Jesus got a header all wrong from a delightfully dinked Havertz cross, then powered another wide in the second half when he again should have done better. They were moments to strengthen claims that he’s not as telling a contributor as the other options available to Mikel Arteta.

Few people would now put Jesus anywhere other than fifth in the pecking order of Arsenal forwards. He’s clearly superior to Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson, but below Saka, Havertz, Martinelli and Leandro Trossard. An Arsenal team featuring Jesus above any of the other four now doesn’t feel typically Arsenal, with the Brazilian no more than a supporting character in their title challenge.

His continued casting in that role wasn’t at all helped by Trossard racing away from halfway to put the win beyond doubt. It will be the Belgian’s name in the headlines after he was booed on to the pitch by the home fans before silencing them with his smart finish over Verbruggen. But Arsenal may not have won this game were it not for Jesus.

Trossard Arsenal Brighton
Leandro Trossard celebrates his goal for Arsenal against Brighton.

They probably would have done. Had he not won a penalty by running at Tariq Lamptey, who got some ball but more man, the Gunners likely would have broken the deadlock in different fashion: they looked as though they had another gear or two to go through. But it was an even contest up to the point where Jesus drew that challenge – a crucial intervention in the game that won’t count for anything when a season’s contribution is ultimately judged by the masses on the number of goals and assists a player provides.

Few forwards are exempt from that rudimentary assessment, and Jesus is never going to enjoy immunity like Roberto Firmino, partly because we know he has it in him after consecutive seasons of 20+ goals for Manchester City, where he averaged a goal or an assist every 102 minutes, but also because of a goals minus expected goals score of -1.6 this season – the worst of any Arsenal player except Emile Smith Rowe (-1.7).

He get chances, but misses them. Like the header at the back post. That’s not even a chance if it’s Martinelli or Trossard – they wouldn’t have attacked the ball like Jesus. It should therefore, if anything, be seen as a positive, but of course isn’t. We think of the miss not the fact that he was there to miss it.

This was a decent performance from Jesus; he rarely plays poorly. But it wasn’t a memorable one, and being stuck on the wing as he now is and looks set to continue to be if and when he does play, will only serve to increase a feeling that he’s not particularly involved in games, or indeed this season, in which he’s no more than a supporting character having joined less than two years ago as the lead.

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