Saturday, February 24

Arteta gives Gabriel Jesus spotlight to transform Arsenal’s upward ambition

It took 85 seconds for Gabriel Jesus to offer a convincing precis of what Mikel Arteta had sought above all else in this transfer window. Arsenal were 2-0 down in Friday’s friendly at Nürnberg and while that was hardly anything to get worked up about, their manager was entitled to expect a half-time change of gear.

Within moments of his introduction Jesus had seized on loose control from a defender, found a tramline through which to surge towards the box, played a one-two with Eddie Nketiah and scored off the inside of the near post from a tight angle.

By the time proceedings ended he had deftly flicked in another goal and, if that is about as much description of some knockabout pre-season fare as anyone can bear, at least the suggestion was that Arsenal’s new £45m forward had not been mis-sold.

In May, after Arsenal had barely laid a glove on Newcastle and frittered away their Champions League hopes, Arteta spoke of top-four rivals who “have a very different profile of player to the one we have”. He was referring to proven winners: players who knew what it took to turn a bright performance into a winning one and to do it with such consistency that trophies followed.

In order for his side to evolve he would have to bring Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Gabriel Martinelli and Ben White to that level while signing individuals who were already there.

That is not easy when you can offer only Europa League football, but they have found one in Jesus and time remains tantalisingly on the Brazilian’s side.

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“When we find that player, maybe the top priority won’t be the age in that position,” Arteta said of his search for summer reinforcements, signalling that last year’s policy of signing under-23s would be tweaked when necessary.

But Jesus is hardly a gnarled 30-year-old with a sprinkling of years left in him: he turned 25 in April and with four top-flight winner’s medals already it is reasonable to think Arsenal have hit a sweet spot with his acquisition.

“He is used to winning and he knows that winning is the only way to do it; I think he will set different standards at the club,” Arteta said after his arrival was confirmed on Monday.

The deal would have had little chance without Arteta’s close working relationship with the Brazilian from their time at Manchester City. He knows exactly what he is getting, which adds to the sense of an uncommonly good match. When Jesus, prowling with intent as soon as the ball had become live, pounced on that sloppy touch to set his first goal against Nürnberg in motion it was as if he had resolved to demonstrate each of the facets that made him so attractive.

Gabriel Jesus and Mikel Arteta
Gabriel Jesus and Mikel Arteta after the final whistle against Nürnberg. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Under Arteta, Arsenal have to start games quickly: when they do not, the warning signs are generally obvious and the prospects distinctly wobbly. Jesus works ferociously off the ball, is capable of forcing chances and territory through terrier-like pressing, but knows how to use it, too. He is a player who gives you a foothold.

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Will he provide enough goals? From the No 9 position he has long craved, perhaps: he has only twice scored more than 10 in a top-flight season, although 38% of his league appearances for City were as a substitute and he was often deployed out wide.

Arsenal scored 38 fewer goals than City last term and were 15 shy of third-placed Chelsea. “Somehow you need those goals in the team,” Arteta said two months ago. “Don’t ask me how, but you need them.”

As he approaches his peak, Jesus should provide part of the answer. The intention, too, is that his running and movement create more opportunities for Saka, Smith Rowe, Martinelli, Martin Ødegaard and Nketiah – who Arteta thinks can be a useful foil for Jesus late in games – to demonstrate their own efficiency.

It feels the right time for him to take the mantle of leading man that never fell his way at City, but Arsenal still need more and their transfer activity over the next seven weeks will define how capable they are of lasting the course next time out.

There is still faint hope of landing Raphinha, who would blow Nicolas Pépé out of the water as an option to rotate with Saka, although Chelsea and Barcelona remain favourites. Enquiries have been made about Lille’s Kosovan winger Edon Zhegrova but he is just one of several potential alternatives.

The Ajax defender Lisandro Martínez may decide his old manager Erik ten Hag shades a popularity contest against Arteta, who would perhaps reflect he cannot win them all, while Youri Tielemans would be an outstanding addition to the midfield if Leicester agree a deal. Fábio Vieira, the vaunted Portuguese playmaker, has signed from Porto but will be given time to settle.

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The gap between Arsenal’s top performers and their understudies has been too wide for some time: Arteta wants quality as an alternative to quality, especially when five substitutions are there to be made. Jesus’s arrival stands as the flagship statement for now.

“From day one he has shown that passion, that anger and that decisiveness every time he was doing something,” Arteta said.

Those who were exercised by events in Bavaria could see exactly what he meant.

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