Arsenal need strikers. It’s not rocket science. Both Manchester City and Liverpool comfortably surpassed 90 goals over a 38-game Premier League season. Meanwhile, in north London, the Gunners merely scraped over the 60-goal mark, a substantial difference when compared to the elite.
To suggest Arsenal can increase their tally by an additional third is unrealistic, but this is the ambition; to compete with the big boys and kill teams off. An improvement on this front is only possible by strengthening the forward line, with uncertainty then arising over the specific profile of player the north Londoners must target.
To answer the latter point, comparing Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah will provide greater clarity; two players drilled into Mikel Arteta’s system. Regarding the former, Lacazette should be admired for the responsibility taken, especially in the absence of former club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Guiding the younger players around him, offering a strong dressing room presence and acting as a facilitator for attacks. The Frenchman showed desirable traits in deeper areas but unfortunately, his flaws became detrimental as he failed to contribute to other phases of play.
Lacazette struggles to pin centre-backs with authority, meaning that he isn’t a suitable out-ball in situations where build-up is stifled and his quality inside the attaching third leaves much to be desired. The now Lyon striker fails to attack both the front or back post with conviction, doesn’t position himself across the width of the goal consistently to latch onto crosses or cutbacks, has an inability to create separation from his marker, slow to get shots off and essentially lacks a ruthless touch in front of goal.
Nketiah on the other hand showed the importance of having a ‘mover’ lead the line, whilst offering the key qualities Lacazette provided. Rewind back to a year and a half ago and the 23-year-old’s performance levels were dictated by pressing and goalscoring, showcasing himself as a poacher, which isn’t sustainable.
But what has been witnessed over the past twelve months is a player who has made significant strides in refining his overall game, with the final eight Premier League games illustrating this. The 5 ft 11 in striker showed greater security between the lines, a willingness to run the channels in both settled possession and when acting as the outlet to kick start counters, whilst still possessing sharp movement inside the 18-yard area, scoring 5 goals during the business end of the season.
It seemed increasingly likely that the England U21 international would seek regular first-team football elsewhere, but the faith Arteta eventually showed in him was enough to secure Nketiah’s long-term future at the club. With the incorporation of the five sub-rule along with the increase in the number of fixtures to play, plenty of opportunities will be available for Nketiah to continue his progression in the first team, but he alone is not enough.
Arsenal need another forward at the very least. Tammy Abraham, Gianluca Scamacca, Dominic Calvert Lewin, Victor Osimhen, Alexander Isak and Dusan Vlahovic have all been strongly linked to the Emirates in both past and present transfer windows, suggesting that Arteta’s centre-forward preference falls into the category of a tall reference point, which certainly offers multiple advantages.
But a favourable opportunity within the heavily inflated transfer market became available in Gabriel Jesus, a player who the Spaniard admires, despite not fitting the aforementioned criteria of being above six foot.
Signed for a fee believed to be in the region of £29 million from Palmeiras in 2017, Jesus has experienced five successful years in Manchester, winning four Premier League titles, three EFL Cups and an FA cup. The Brazilian international offers a plethora of versatility, a key trait Arteta demands from his players and when diving into the player at a slightly deeper level – keeping in mind the similarities observed between Arteta and his teacher Guardiola – it’s a signing that makes perfect sense and one that Gooners should be excited by.
1) Right flank threat
Last season, a key success story in Manchester City’s league campaign was the promise Jesus showed as a traditional right winger, with the below heat map demonstrating the heavy bias he had on the flank.
High-frequency space occupation is noticeable in the channel and whilst a different role to what Jesus is usually tasked with, the 25-year-old was still able to produce desirable output levels, scoring 7 goals and assisting an additional 6 in 13 Premier League starts. When discussing Guardiola, the modern revolutionary of positional play, it’s important to dissect different forms of superiority, whether that’s qualitative, numerical, positional, dynamic or cooperative.
Firstly, let’s briefly discuss Guardiola and his sides are set up with a combination of both maximum and minimum width. During settled possession inside the opponent’s half, the first two lines of structure within the 2-3-5 shape offer minimal width, so that sufficient transition control is provided in anticipation of potential counterattacks.
Players are positioned in central zones to aid counter-pressing but it also gives them the platform to deliver incisive passes or crosses into the most threatening zones on the pitch, as shown from the xG (expected goals) graphic below (notice how the danger points are highly populated through the centre).
Maximum width however occurs across the offensive line (five lanes of attack), if full-backs or wingers are on their strong side and similarly to Raheem Sterling, Jesus ensured that the threat down the line is established by giving natural width.
Against an organised defensive block, central spaces are congested. One way to cause disruption is by baiting the opponent before attacking the wider zones and capitalising on the artificial transition created (attracting pressure before exploiting the space present in behind), with the frame below illustrating this.
Speed of thought, natural instinct to run in behind and perfection in timing; Kyle Walker’s side rule pass is latched onto by Jesus, who delivers a precise ball across the face of the goal for Sterling to convert. Whilst a simple goal and one scored against poor opposition quality, it’s a great way to show the dynamic and qualitative advantages Jesus provides in these situations.
Dynamic superiority refers to execution speed; being quicker in both the mind and action against the opponent. As shown above, Norwich left-back Bali Mumba is slow to react to Jesus’ run, thereby placing him at a severe disadvantage to stop the Manchester forward from capitalising on the open space. Qualitative superiority is also established (1 v 1’s) since Jesus is in an individual duel against Mumba, but has the upper hand because of his proactive off-the-ball movement.
Generally speaking, when full-backs are given more conservative roles, utilising conventional wingers encourages natural discontents, which is what Jesus does here by separating Mumba from centre-half Ben Gibson. Also notice how the entire back line has been dragged closer to Tim Krul, which opens up central pockets of space that weren’t evidently present initially.
These exact principles can be applied in the build-up to Jack Grealish’s goal in the same fixture.
It is, however, important to note that Jesus isn’t just constrained to offering cutbacks and crosses on the right; he has more layers to his game. His ability to switch the play is a great weapon that allows the Citizens to overload one side and isolate the winger against his marker on the opposite flank. Likewise, when roles are reversed and Jesus is on the receiving end of diagonal passes, he is able to control them with ease.
Switching the play is perhaps a simple action to the masses, but one that is incredibly underrated in football. As previously mentioned, defensive blocks that are well structured and coached pack the middle. Space is present out wide and hitting long, well-weighted cross-field passes offers a great avenue to exploit these areas; a quality Jesus possesses and statistically, this is supported, with the 5 ft 9 in forward ranking in the 91st percentile for long pass competition rate per 90 (70%) when compared to other wingers across Europe, albeit from very few attempted passes on average (1.92).
2) Centre-forward prowess
Unsurprisingly, the majority of the action Jesus has seen in a Manchester City shirt has come through the middle. In the 99 Premier League starts given, he has spearheaded the attack on 78 separate occasions to which he has managed to net 40 goals whilst assisting an additional 14. Surrounded by an abundance of creativity but the numbers remain impressive regardless.
Jesus however offers more than just goals, which is what will appeal to Arteta. During an interview with Arsenal women’s coach Jonas Eidevall, the former Manchester City coach provided an insight into his managerial approach.
“It’s a lot to take, so that’s why you have to rely on principles,” the Spaniard said in response to Eidevall discussing the high volume of information coaches must process in today’s game.
“Whatever we do, we rely on principles, so we rely on certain principles and concepts and we apply them with whatever (the opposition) they do.
“Your position can change, instead of being here, you’re there and when the ball is here instead of there, but it’s the same!’
Reading between the lines and the former Gunners midfielder is essentially stressing the importance of maintaining the adopted footballing philosophy (a non-negotiable) although tweaks in both structure and player roles must be made to combat what the opposition is attempting to achieve at any given moment. The centre forward, for example, should be able to drop deep and connect attacks together; aspects that Jesus offers superbly.
Referring back to the term ‘advantage’ and when operating as a number 9, Jesus gives consistent numerical superiority (more players in one area off the pitch with respect to the opposition). His ability to remain technically secure between the lines and act as a ‘+1’ whilst being able to deliver quick accurate passes ensures that the attacking tempo is maintained.
But it’s not just his passing that stands out (84.6% pass completion rate in the 2020/2021 season where he was primarily deployed up top, ranking him in the 96th percentile), Jesus’ general prowess on the ball is a huge strength of his. Very rarely does he give it away cheaply and in fact is a great release valve during pressured situations, frequently able to take control of the ball under contact before either riding challenges on the half-turn or winning crucial fouls, thereby allowing his team to reset.
Furthermore, to operate in a Guardiola side, one must be able to facilitate build-up and play a crucial role in the team’s overall ability to sustain pressure so it’s no surprise to see the former Manchester City number 9 excelling in possession. Flexibility however is imperative and huge importance must be placed on being able to stretch the pitch vertically; pushing the entire backline closer to the box and offering a significant threat when stationed on the last line in central areas, all of which Jesus does regularly.
His best quality is movement, both outside and inside the 18-yard area. A trademark move of his is staying touch tight to his man, before subtly peeling away at the last second upon receiving any pass, cross or second ball.
In terms of inside the box, this is where his footballing qualities are primarily defined. Jesus frequently manages to get in between centre-backs to meet crosses, showcasing sharp movement whilst also being completely aware of his surroundings and understanding when to drop in the pocket to receive the ball.
On top of this, his ability to take control of the ball instantly and fire a shot from minimal touches is brilliant. He is frequently able to weave out of tight spaces and separate himself from the defender before testing the keeper.
The majority of his goals, whether that’s with his feet or in the air, have come from him taking up great positions inside the box; always managing to distance himself from his marker. When analysing Arsenal under Arteta, almost every situation generated in the final third eventually results in a cutback or crosses delivered. In order to make the most out of these actions, players must have the knack of picking up clever positions inside the box, which Jesus does regularly.
The lack of consistent cutting edge however could lead to frustration, with Jesus underperforming his xG by a whopping 12.49. On the other hand, this metric provides further evidence of the 25-year-old’s ability to get on the end of chances regularly and his presence alone will give Arsenal both a direct and indirect threat.
3) Inside forward ability
The sample size of Jesus starting games on the left in the Premier League isn’t large but immediately upon evaluating his performances in this role, it’s clear that angles are more favourable in comparison to when deployed as a traditional wide attacker.
Jesus is an influential figure in the latter position, as already discussed, but there is an element of predictability that can’t be forgotten. Very rarely will he beat a man in 1v1’s by taking it on the inside and instead, he prefers to recycle possession or deliver a cross with his stronger right foot out wide.
On the left, however, the Brazilian possesses greater variety as he can combine with teammates nearby more fluidly, drift infield, attack the box or even drive forward down the channel.
All the aforementioned principles discussed in this piece regarding Jesus’ movement can be applied when analysing him as an inside forward and statistically in the Premier League, he’s managed to notch 4 goals and 1 assist in 6 starts, which again suggests a player who is more than capable of producing output across the entire frontline.
But it’s worth noting that Jesus isn’t necessarily an out-and-out winger. The likes of Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Bukayo Saka for example, all thrive in isolation whereas Jesus isn’t someone who will offer that same level of devastation despite the tactical flexibility installed within his attractive profile.
4) Final thoughts
Jesus will go down as one of the signings of the summer, especially for £45 million. Juventus, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Spurs were all interested in his profile and given the fact that the Gunners aren’t able to offer Champions League football, it’s a big statement made and one that provides substantial evidence that the phrase ‘The Arsenal’ continues to hold significant weight.
Technical security in his touches across all areas of the pitch, sharp movement, intelligence inside the box along with being described by Guardiola as ‘the best in the world’ when it comes to providing intensity without the ball up front.
Without a shadow of a doubt, there are areas he must improve on such as being more clinical when chances arise as well as needing to be more efficient in his decision-making when the game is moving at a fast pace.
During quick transitions and in situations where the Brazillian has a lot of time on the ball, he has a tendency to favour a shot instead of choosing the simple option of playing a pass to a teammate who is stationed in a more advantageous position. But perhaps this is the striker’s instinct drilled inside of Jesus.
It is however well documented that he prefers to play out wide, although when looking at the current dynamics at Arsenal regarding the left-wing role, Arteta instructs the player operating in this position to stay high and wide.
Although he’d have no issues in performing the role, Jesus isn’t someone who will consistently provide direct success on the flank in isolation, a trait Arteta looks for, hence the persistence of Gabriel Martinelli over Emile Smith Rowe since tweaks to the system have been made.
In terms of playing on the right, Saka is Arsenal’s talisman but will need to be managed carefully in order to avoid the risk of burnout and Jesus certainly offers an adequate backup option, which is what makes his acquisition very attractive.
But it’s expected that as of today, the main minutes will be handed upfront and given the style of play advocated at Arsenal and the structural similarities with Manchester City, there is enough evidence to suggest that Jesus will shine in north London.
I really hope you enjoyed the read and any comments would be much appreciated. If you would like to know more about me, follow my Twitter account @RjArsenalBlog, which is where you can access all previous articles.
All numerical data is taken from fbref.com
25-year-old Gooner who loves talking and writing about football