Gabriel Jesus will have more spectacular games than this. He will no doubt make the highlights reel more often and contribute more eye-catching moments of skill and craft than he did in Manchester City’s 1-0 victory at a relentlessly boisterous Stamford Bridge.
This, though, was something else, a performance of deeper attacking gears from City’s inside-forward, turned-false-nine, turned out-and-out central striker. Up front on his own, Jesus played with real heart and skill at the Bridge, never faltering in his energy and movement, never letting his levels drop, and doing just enough at just the right time to help nudge this match Manchester City’s way.
Chelsea sunk by Kevin De Bruyne winner for Manchester City
Kevin De Bruyne will deservedly take the headlines for a supremely well-executed first league goal of the season, centrepiece of another fine performance. But Jesus, who came here as City’s only striker, was in his own way just as vital to what was, for all the flood of goals in previous games, City’s most compelling Premier League performance so far.
From the start it was clear Chelsea had set out to provide a genuine defensive test of that attacking momentum. Indeed, for just over an hour this was a match of furious interlocking midfields, of almost-chances, of near-near-misses, a pair of aggressive, tightly packed defences aided by the absence of both teams’ chief central attacker.
Premier League teams are not supposed to be able to defend like this, but here John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi were both excellent; and excellent in an encouragingly simple kind of way, holding their position, staying tight, making tackles, covering the space.
At the other end Jesus found a similarly resolute blue wall. At times he was buffeted to the edge of this game. Who knows, he might not have played at all had Sergio Agüero been fit. Agüero was, of course, absent having broken his ribs in a taxi crash coming back from a reggae-pop gig in Amsterdam. Readers of these pages will know this by now. But this doesn’t preclude repeating those words just for the sheer oddity.
Deprived of the company of Agüero, absent – did we mention this? – after breaking his ribs in a taxi crash coming back from a reggae-pop gig in Amsterdam, Jesus ran relentlessly as a lone central striker. So much so it is easy to forget that he is still a bit of a punt as a first-choice No9.
In Brazil Jesus played centrally, as a wide player or as part of a roving three. But he is still basically learning the role on the job, and doing so in a the kind of game where finding an edge would test the most hard-honed of career No9s. Early in the piece he almost charged down a Thibaut Courtois clearance, deflecting the ball just over the bar. Otherwise he was jounced and harried and made to scamper, strong-armed by Antonio Rüdiger when he pulled to the left, crowded out in the middle.
Chelsea lost their own first-choice centre-forward, Álvaro Morata limping off after 34 minutes to be replaced, for some reason, by Willian. Perhaps unsurprisingly a first half that ended with 11 midfielders on the pitch became knotted and snagged, the blue and purple shirts merging into a single block of colour around the centre circle.
There were plenty of close-fought duels. N’Golo Kanté’s position slightly to the right took him into direct dinky-bald-warrior conflict with Fabian Delph. Tiémoué Bakayoko twice loped back and extracted the ball from Leroy Sané’s forward gallop with a beautifully surgical thrust of the left toe.
And so it went on until City’s moment finally arrived, a pocket of space opening up in front of the Chelsea defence as Bakayoko and Kanté briefly left their posts. De Bruyne looked up and whipped a thrillingly powerful shot past Courtois, a moment of unarguable brilliance from the dominant creative player in the division right now. It was Jesus who made the space, producing out of an otherwise bruising night perhaps his most precise single touch of the game, a lovely little lay-off perfectly weighted to meet De Bruyne’s run.
From there the game opened up a little. Jesus had a goal-bound shot headed away and never stopped running as City held on for another clean sheet and another win. Afterwards Guardiola was glowing in his praise for his team’s high press and for his central striker’s “fantastic” defensive movement. And really Jesus has been nothing but good news so far, his integration so frictionless it is easy to forget he is still 20.
In the Premier League, City with Jesus now reads played 16, won 12, drawn four, with 45 goals scored. His personal contribution to that is 11 goals and five assists from a player who always seems to be lurking with purpose or moving intelligently, and who produced here a performance that was in its own way quietly irresistible.