There is no question that Gabriel Jesus has transformed a once stale and one-paced attack since he arrived from Manchester City in the summer. But after a five-game goalless streak, his finishing ability has come under some scrutiny – so what better time to delve deeper into the underlying data?
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Jesus broke into the Palmeiras side as a wide forward in 2015, before being moved through the middle to great success. During those early days, his shot selection was wild in comparison to the goal poacher-esque shotmaps shown above for the period 2016-17 to 2019-20, where he averaged 98% of all open-play attempts inside the box. However, his final two seasons in Manchester tell a different story.
At that point, it was clear the Brazilian, who was now primarily being used as a utility forward, would not be Sergio Ageuro’s heir and as a result his final years at City were impacted in terms of numbers.
Last season’s Premier League season saw 25 different players take more shots than the Brazilian and although you can be more forgiving of that figure when you consider that Pep Guardiola used Jesus as a wide-forward or as a facilitator – his shooting output was still modest. For context, Harry Kane took more than twice as many shots, and fullback Cancelo even had more attempts than his teammate.
This season, however, Jesus ranks fifth in goal attempts – a figure in line with his best Premier League season in terms of overall rank. Wobbles in front of goal are conceivable as he adjusts to being the leading man after spending so long as a rotation option in City’s plethora of attackers.
Despite the mini-drought, it’s reassuring to see him ranked 3rd in non-penalty expected goals (per Opta via FBRef) – a metric that quantifies the fantastic goal-scoring positions he’s regularly finding himself in.
It’s easy to forget that Bukayo Saka led Arsenal for npxG last season (ranked 21st) in the Premier League, while Alex Lacazette was putting up similar numbers to Daniel James down in 46th place.
Even so, the elephant in the room is Jesus underperforming his non-penalty goals to npxG conversion rate in 3 of 5 full Premier League seasons, resulting in a total of 9.8 fewer goals than expected according to Opta’s xG model.
The question is, how much of it, if any, was due to the pressure of having a generational talent like Aguero ahead of him — knowing his next opportunity might be weeks away unless he took every goalscoring opportunity? And will being the main man act as the catalyst in awakening a killer instinct in front of goal?
Early signs so far this season suggest it’s neither as his losing battle against expected goals continues. While very few forwards continually manage to outperform their xG, Jesus’ rolling 10 shot average of goals vs expected — shown above using the publicly available data on Understat (whose values are a little harsher than Opta’s) — depict a striker whose attempts fall below expectation more often than not.
But is it really that clean-cut? Gabriel Jesus rarely attempts low xG shots – he’s never scored from outside the area and as a result, has rarely registered low xG goals that would help in offsetting any deficit. Indeed, since his debut in the 2016-17 season, no player in the Premier League has scored more goals exclusively from inside the box (60).
The average npxG of a Jesus chance per 90 this season is 0.58, which is high and betters any Arsenal player since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in 2018-19.
His attacking metrics when compared to other strikers in 2022-23 are some of the best in the league. So far, no forward has offered more touches in the box, successfully completed more dribbles that led to shots or won more fouls. He has eased the creative burden on Bukayo Saka and played no small part in the on-pitch development of Gabriel Martinelli.
A striker is judged on goals, but I’d be more inclined to worry if Gabriel Jesus wasn’t finding himself in goal scoring positions regularly and if he wasn’t posting some of the league’s best npxG numbers.
After all, the real skill isn’t finishing; it’s being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of so many big opportunities. If he continues in the same vein, the goals will undoubtedly follow.
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