Six years ago, before he was setting new benchmarks for strikers at Palmeiras, Gabriel Jesus used to do his damage out wide.
On Wednesday night at the Bernabeu, it was a surprise that he had started ahead of Sergio Aguero, but more baffling was his role as a left-winger with a defensive slant while Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva operated as false nines in a 2-1 win over Real Madrid.
Jesus was excellent both with and without the ball on that flank and was core to Manchester City’s biggest statement on the Champions League stage. He was denied with an off-the-line clearance that took Sergio Ramos, Casemiro and Federico Valverde to thwart his volley, but got the equaliser and Real’s captain sent off.
Jesus supplied three key passes, two tackles, two clearances and eight possession gains, keeping the dangerous Dani Carvajal quiet. He was City’s first point of defence and a reason why the hosts managed just three shots on target on their own turf.
“There is not in the world one striker to have that intensity without the ball like Gabriel,” manager Pep Guardiola enthused post-match.
“He’s so fast and so good. We decided to play without a proper striker for the way they defend, so high, so aggressive and when that happens you make the pitch wide. We wanted to give diagonals as much as possible.”
Jesus’ touch map reflected just how much relentless work he put in at both ends of the pitch. “It doesn’t matter if I have to run back or forwards,” he explained. “I have to help my team-mates.
“I can remember my time in the Palmeiras academy and I played like a winger and before I became a striker. We have to play different positions sometimes.”
De Bruyne, who edged out Jesus as the game’s standout star, saluted his complete performance. “His record is so underrated, but with ‘Kun’ in the side it is not easy to get chances as a striker.
“He played on the left side and he did really well. He scored an important goal and did the job we needed.”
While Jesus was a key component to City’s triumph, his display will have done the club a slight disservice too as Juventus and other suitors will no doubt escalate interest in the 22-year-old as the summer approaches.
But that can wait. City have a huge advantage to press home and have Jesus to thank.