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Gabriel Jesus's disappointing World Cup counts for nothing this season

With the clock ticking towards the hour mark in their World Cup quarter-final against Belgium and his Brazil team trailing by two goals, manager Tite knew something needed to give. He turned to look at the options available and summoned Douglas Costa. But who would the flying Juventus winger replace?

When the fourth official thrust his oversized, watch-brand-advertising board towards the sky, it was displaying the number 9. Gabriel Jesus had kicked his last ball in Russia.

The forward, who last week signed a new five-year deal with Manchester City, sprinted over to the side of the pitch, a charming reminder of how he will give everything for the team until the last possible second. But the look of disappointment was etched into his furrowed brow.

With head hung and eyes pointing towards the ground, he shook the manager’s hand and gave a high five to all of the players and staff sat on the bench. There was no tantrum or fit of rage – he’s not really the sort, is he? – but inside, Jesus was hurting.

The fact that Tite had decided to take off his starting centre-forward with his side chasing goals in a match of such importance said everything about the sort of tournament the player had endured.

Five appearances did not yield a single goal, and whilst scoring is not Jesus’ only function within the Brazil team, it remains a difficult statistic to overlook. After that Belgium game was over, he told the media that “it feels like they have taken away a piece of me.”

In truth, it was not just the World Cup. The first seven months of 2018 had not been particularly kind to the boy from the northern suburbs of Sao Paulo. There was the shared glory of the League Cup and Premier League double, of course, but on a personal level, Jesus had experienced the most frustrating spell of his still-nascent career.

After damaging his medial collateral ligament on New Year’s Eve, he spent the first few months of this year in recovery and even when he came back for City, did not look at his sharpest. “When you are in the game,” he said after his return in March, “without wanting it, you end up thinking about the previous game where you got injured, you have a bit of fear.”

In hindsight – which is always 20/20 – that looks an ominous sign leading up to the World Cup, especially when you consider that he was keeping an in-form Roberto Firmino out of the team. But Jesus had played the entire qualifying campaign as the first-choice number 9 and had excelled.

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In Brazil, many theories have been aired as to why he did not perform at his best in Russia. Many have pointed to the amount of ground he covered – he ran more than any other Selecao player during the campaign – saying that he was asked to give too much for the team, thus inhibiting his output in front of goal.

This week, ex-Brazil manager Mano Menezes even told television programme ‘Bem, Amigos’ that he believed Neymar was to blame for Jesus' below-par performance.

“The problem is not with Jesus,” he said, “I think it is to do with our great protagonist, Neymar. He really centralises our offensive actions… Neymar doesn’t set it up for the centre-forward, he concludes the play, he sets it up for himself. Then the centre-forward suffers.”

It may also be that the City player was still feeling the effects of those injuries, either physically or psychologically, or maybe we just wanted too much from an inexperienced player going to his first major tournament.

A similar thing happened to Selecao striker Tostao in 1966, when he went to the World Cup as a 19-year-old and failed to score as Brazil, the favourites, crashed out in the group stage.

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In his newspaper column on Wednesday, he opined that Gabriel Jesus disappointed at the World Cup because he “made too many errors and was confused when he left the box to receive the ball, and because people created an expectancy greater than the reality.

“He is a good centre-forward,” Tostao continued, “but not among the best in world football. He is second choice at Manchester City, where he has a good goal average because the team creates numerous chances. Gabriel has a great chance to develop [as a player] before the next World Cup.”

That development is where the youngster must now focus his attention.

With the new contract he has signed, it is clear that Guardiola sees him as an integral part of City’s long-term future. But, as Tostao alluded to, it is likely that Jesus will start the season on the bench, with Sergio Aguero set to be City’s lone striker in a tough away fixture against Arsenal on Sunday afternoon.

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To take that next step into the upper echelon of world-class strikers, alongside the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Harry Kane and Luis Suarez, he needs to develop his composure and movement inside the area.

As mentioned, the Brazilian works tirelessly for the collective, running off the ball and pressing defenders, creating passing options for his team-mates and cutting them off for the opposition. It is something for which Guardiola has praised him, saying recently that he “has never met one striker who fights like he fights.”

But Jesus could learn a little from the man who will be starting ahead of him at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. Jesus is a bundle of energy, but Aguero is the master of the pause, of staying still at just the right moment to create the space in the penalty area that allows him to score so many goals.

When the tournament in Qatar comes around, Gabriel Jesus will be 25 and at the peak of his powers. One would expect him to be City’s main man and one of the world’s foremost strikers.

If he wants to get there, though, he will have to take the negatives from Russia and use them to drive him on to bigger and better things. The hard work starts now.

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