When the transfer window finally reopens on 1 January, fans are always desperate to see new players posing awkwardly with a shirt in the bowels of their new training ground, grimacing towards the camera as they await to be immortalised on their team’s Twitter feed with #WELCOME emblazoned across their face. After all, clubs have known that this day was coming for months, so why aren’t new signings hurried through the door while the sound of Jools Holland is still ringing in our collective ears?
Inevitably, it doesn’t work out this way – for a whole host of reasons – to the frustration of supporters of every stripe. But occasionally a club has the sufficient foresight and forward planning to get their business done in advance of January. Such is the case with Manchester City, who signed 19-year-old forward Gabriel Jesus from Palmeiras for a reported £27 million, but allowed the youngster to stay in Brazil until the end of their league season, before joining up with the City squad at the beginning of 2017.
Football fans aren’t the most patient bunch and don’t tend to deal well with delayed gratification; a league awash with the riches of colossal television deals has exacerbated the demand for shiny new toys at every opportunity and the omnipresence of football, as enabled by the likes of Sky and BT Sport, means that fans of the Premier League are no longer used to having to wait for anything.
And, with Pep Guardiola’s revolution hitting a rough patch over the last few months, there was a feverish sense of anticipation at the Etihad, knowing the imminent arrival of Jesus could provide them with greater cutting edge to compensate for their defensive fragility and, in turn, potentially kick-start their season.
So it’s easy to understand the bemusement of City fans when Guardiola, in his typical bristling, taciturn fashion, simply said of Jesus that he “cannot play” during his press conference last week. When pushed, he did elaborate and hinted that there was an issue between Palmeiras and the FA regarding his registration, despite the fact that the player has been in England for the last two weeks.
As frustrating as it might be for the blue half of Manchester to know they have a player with genuine talent waiting in the wings – one who excelled on home soil during the 2016 Olympic Games and has subsequently established himself as Brazil’s first choice number 9 – but who is currently unavailable to them, City should be applauded for the way they’ve managed the transfer of the young player thus far.
The ever-increasing disparity of wealth between South American and European football has meant that the flow of talented players moving across the Atlantic has developed from a trickle to a torrent over the past few decades. A 2013 study by the CIES Observatory Group put the number of Brazilians plying their trade in UEFA’s 31 leagues at 515; the second most popular set of expatriates was the French, with 269 dotted around Europe. With plucky teenagers seeking their fortune in (for now) football’s most opulent continent, and clubs trying to steal a march on their rivals by acquiring the next big thing, players from Brazil and Argentina have been making the move at continually earlier ages, and in greater volume.
In part, this exodus is driven by Brazilian clubs themselves. The state championships followed by the Série A create a jam-packed schedule for fans in South America’s biggest nation. The massive amount of games, coupled with the accessibility of popular, more illustrious global leagues televised throughout the week means that a majority of clubs have to contend with miniscule attendance figures and, as such, struggle to make ends meet. Therefore, to compensate for their partially filled stadiums, the sale of young players is vital to stave off the financial disarray that plagues a number of Brazilian teams.
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With these young men moving to an alien culture before they have a chance to mature, both in psychological and footballing terms, European club football is riddled with stories of youngsters who promised the world but then fizzled out. For every Marcelo, Roberto Firmino or Ronaldinho, there’s a Kerlon, Denìlson or Douglas.
Guardiola and his fellow former Barcelona employees, current City executives Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, know only too well the dangers of splashing out on a hot, young prospect from Brazil. In 2009, Barcelona spent €14 million to take Keirrison – from Palmeiras, funnily enough – to the Nou Camp.
The spindly striker had won the Brazilian Série A’s top scorer and Best Player awards with his first club, Coritiba in 2008 before he was signed by Palmeiras. A season later and he was on the move to Spain. Something was clearly awry, though, as he was almost instantly loaned out to Benfica.
That in itself seemed like a sensible move; Keirrison would get the chance to acclimatise to life in Europe in the comfort a fellow Lusophone country, at a club with an excellent record in youth development. Unfortunately, he struggled to make an impact, registering just seven appearances in Portugal and failing to make much of an impression on manager Jorge Jesus.
The initial loan agreement was for the whole season, but by January Barcelona had found another arrangement for Keirrison. By the end of the transfer window, he’d moved to Fiorentina to try his hand in another Serie A. Things went slightly better in Italy, but he was still unable to find his form so, by the end of the season, the Florentine club terminated his deal. Barça then shipped him back to Brazil on yet another loan – first to Santos, then to Cruzeiro, then finally to Coritiba.
By 2014, Keirrison had agreed to move to his first club on a free transfer, leaving Spain without making a single first-team appearance for the Catalans. Whether it was a case of too much too soon, or simply an average player having an abnormally good season beyond his talents and then being found out when he played a higher level, by all accounts, Keirrison was an expensive disaster.
In fairness to Gabriel Jesus, he represents substantially less of a risk than Keirrison ever was. He is a first choice senior international and has already dealt with the weight of a vociferous and expectant fan base as he led the line for Brazil in Rio last summer. And if you watch him play, it’s hard to deny that the kid has something special. He has a way of galloping across the pitch with a graceful bound and somehow manages to navigate labyrinthine defences to manufacture chances for himself and his team-mates with ease; at his best, he’s a mercurial little goal-imp.
Still, that’s not to say that there isn’t pressure. A quick glance of City’s recent transfer record shows a series of players – Eliaquim Mangala, John Stones, Nicolás Otamendi – amassed for substantial sums, who have failed to justify the expenditure. They could really do with getting one right. It seems as though Guardiola and co. have learnt from having their fingers burnt, however. With Jesus, they’ve taken an intelligent approach to try to mitigate the chances of a repeat of the Keirrison fiasco.
First and foremost, their decision to allow Gabriel to finish the Brazilian season is an eminently sensible one. From simply a footballing perspective, having his transfer arranged allows him to play unburdened by concerns of what comes next. With his future safely secured, it liberates him from having to play with that question mark over the next step.
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And, with Sergio Agüero and Kelechi Iheanacho ahead of him in the pecking order at the Etihad, an additional few months of first team football in a competitive league can only be good for his development, and vastly more preferable than sixth months of sporadic first team minutes from the bench and occasional starts in lesser cup games.
Giving him time to come to terms with having to relocate to Manchester also makes a lot of sense. It minimises the turmoil and upheaval that occurs whenever someone has to uproot their life immediately, and it’s even more tumultuous when it involves a move to a vastly different culture and climate. That extra few months should allow both parties to make the transition feel as smooth as possible in order to make his life abroad as stress-free as they can, meaning their new man can settle and focus solely on fulfilling his playing potential.
City will undoubtedly have been in frequent contact with him and given him instruction on what he can be doing in training to best integrate with the rest of Guardiola’s squad, and hopefully he will have used this time to get a headstart on learning English to help things along.
Allowing him to finish the Brazilian season, helping his side to win the title, is not only a show of good faith to Palmeiras, ensuring a positive relationship that’ll make any future business with City more palatable, but it enables Jesus to continue to play, grow and mature away from the prying eyes of the British media and the pressure of playing in the Premier League with a hefty price tag looming over his head. It’s a case of out of sight and out of mind being a positive for a change.
Gabriel Jesus, for his part, deserves some credit for choosing City as he was surely inundated with offers from the biggest names in world football. You only need to look at the tribulations experienced by his international team-mate and namesake, Gabriel Barbosa – commonly known as Gabigol – who signed for Internazionale for a similarly gargantuan fee this summer.
As the marquee signing from the club’s new Chinese owners, rather than the choice of then-manager Frank de Boer, the versatile young forward spent much of the first half of the season sat firmly planted on the bench, much to the exasperation of fans in the Giuseppe Meazza. De Boer has since been sacked, and since Stefano Pioli took the reins, Gabigol has been slowly forcing his way back into contention for his new club. Still, it isn’t difficult to feel that the Brazilian perhaps made the wrong move.
Meanwhile, Pep has an excellent track record of putting his faith in young players and deftly managing their development. As we’ve seen with his treatment of Leroy Sané so far this season, he’s unafraid to let a large transfer fee dictate his selection policy or alter his judgement when it comes to deciding what is best for an individual. In the case of Sané, that’s meant introducing him slowly and entrusting him with progressively more time on the pitch as he comes to terms with the demands of Guardiola’s system, rather than plunging him into the first team and expecting him to excel immediately.
It’s likely that we’ll see a similar approach with Gabriel Jesus and City fans may have to learn to be a bit patient if they truly want to see the best out of their new striker. As frustrating as that may be, his new club seem to have been diligent in their attempts to manage Jesus as a man as well as a player. By giving him time and space to overcome the shock of such a big change in his early life, they’ve given him the best possible chance at success. Now it’s down to him
By Tom Mason. Follow @Mase159