Goals win games. An adage repeated again and again in football at any level. It’s something I hear in the North Bank every other week, and it’s something my first football coach would repeat every week. As a logical argument it follows with little fuss. To win a game of football you have to outscore your opponent, simple. Accepting this conclusion, you might be tempted to go even further. Go as far as saying that goals are all that matter in football. Without them you cannot have victory, without victory you cannot have glory. To the brain this is a fairly convincing argument, and yet it cannot convince the heart. In our hearts, there has to be something more. To best explain this, I call upon one of the modern game’s great entertainers.
Enter Gabriel Jesus.
Since his arrival at Arsenal, no player has dropped jaws quite as consistently as Jesus. Whether it’s his superglue first touch plucking the ball out of the air or a mazy run through a non-existent gap in the defence, Jesus seems to make time stand still in the Emirates. This was established within the opening exchanges of his Premier League debut for the club at Selhurst Park, with a hop, a skip, and a nutmeg he danced into the penalty area. Unfortunately he could not find his feet to finish.
If you were to ask any given Arsenal fan to describe the Brazilian in a word you can make a fairly educated guess as to what the most common answers would be. Magical. Audacious. Outrageous. What you may notice at this juncture is that none of these words relate to his finishing ability.
Indeed, Gabriel Jesus is a striker who is adored more for what he does with the ball than where puts it. In his first season for Arsenal he finished with 11 goals in 26 Premier League appearance, 14 goals is the highest he has ever reached in the competition. Anyone who has seen him play would agree that he could never be described as prolific. This is to the extent that over the course of the 2022/23 season it became a running joke on Twitter over the excitement of celebrating the first Jesus BCM (big chance missed) upon his return from injury. Naturally this came within minutes of his return against Fulham, picking up the ball in midfield he ended a sequence of tight interplay with Fabio Vieira by smacking the ball straight at Bernd Leno. Quite simply Jesus is a scorer of great goals – see his confident finish against PSV in the Champions League and an expert in almost spectacular ones.
So how does this relate to the concept of football being more than scoring goals? The answer lies in Jesus’ natural foil and the man who replaced him at Manchester City, Erling Haaland. In his first attempt Haaland scored 36 goals in the Premier League, breaking the record for the most in a season. When Haaland plays there is an air of the inevitable, a sense that one way or another he is going to get his goal. What stands out in comparison to Jesus is the number of goals Haaland scores with just one touch from occupying excellent positions.
Style aside, Haaland simply scores more goals than Jesus.
Yet, if you were to ask Arsenal fans if they would accept a trade you might be surprised by the answers. Being rational and objective the answer would have to be yes, after all who would turn down the most prolific striker in world football? The reality here though is that is not how we consume football. Football fans do not simply flock towards whoever scores the single highest number of goals.
Instead, football is accepted as having and valuing a certain sense of beauty. It all comes back to the concept of ‘o jogo bonito’, the beautiful game. When we watch football, we are primarily watching to be entertained. The by-product of this is that the players who transfix us the most are not simply the most efficient ones, but the ones who do things that we did not dream to be possible. The reason why Gabriel Jesus has won so many hearts in North London is because he does things with a football that our eyes cannot believe. As spectators we simply cannot imagine being so skilled at the game that we could sit down multiple defenders in one swift sequence or chip the ball towards goal with total control.
To focus only on his individual actions would be to do Jesus a massive disservice, another factor which we have to consider is the impact he has on others. The language used to describe Jesus is often that he is a ‘level raiser’. In essence, Jesus has that very rare ability to make everyone around him better. Given he is a striker such a concept is especially impressive, as positions go in football this is widely seen as one that can adversely affect others due to the sheer pursuit of goals. This is clearly no issue for Jesus.
Over the last year it would be fair to say that all of Arsenal’s very best performances came with Gabriel Jesus on the pitch. A ball magnet, Jesus’ presence routinely opens up acres of space for his teammates. The best examples come in the form of Granit Xhaka and Gabriel Martinelli. Xhaka in his final year turned into a constant goal threat, arriving late to attack space created by Jesus. Take his goal against Leicester at the start of last season, from Jesus occupying the defence and pinching the ball off the goalkeeper you see Xhaka finding time and space to finish.
Similarly, the space created allowed Martinelli to drift centrally, cutting inside and shooting. A neat example of this was Arsenal’s rapid opener against Liverpool. You can see Alexander-Arnold tuck in to get closer to Jesus, allowing Martinelli to make a run around the outside and finish well. Whilst Jesus himself may never be prolific the creative output of the team is heightened so much by his presence that no one need have any complaints.
Taking all of this into account, it is clear that Jesus is a match winner for Arsenal. Tuesday’s win away at Sevilla was the Brazilian at his dazzling best. For the opener he delicately controlled a high clearance, Cruyff turned his way into space, and set Martinelli on his way. This was followed up with a sensational finish into the top right corner, having found himself out on the left flank. In two moments, I saw exactly why I fell in love with Gabriel Jesus. For all the jokes about questionable finishing, he is fundamentally a player who is highly capable of the spectacular.
So if we’re trying to explain that feeling in our heart for football, it might just be best explained by performers like Jesus. If goals were all that mattered then you would only ever check the final result, players like Jesus make you want to savour every second of the ninety minutes.