It was the very definition of innocuous: a cross from the right, the hint of a chance, a stretch, a minor collision. You fully expected him to bounce straight back to his feet and bound off in search of space.
Instead, Gabriel Jesus crumpled to the turf. His landing had been off and he knew it, even if there was an abortive attempt at playing on. Later, scans confirmed that he had broken a metatarsal. It was the first remotely significant injury of his career, carrying an expected sentence of three months on the sidelines.
That was both a cruel end to a red-letter month for the teenager and a blow to Manchester City’s hopes of securing silverware this season. Gabriel had contributed three goals and two assists in the previous three matches, giving the side a much-needed dose of vim and adapting to his new surroundings with an ease that startled even Pep Guardiola. “Everybody is a bit surprised by his level,” the City manager admitted after the victory over Swansea, secured by a brace from the Brazilian. “Some guys need a lot of time to settle in; that guy arrived like this.”
For now, though, the coming-out party is on hold. Last week, Gabriel was operated on in Barcelona by Ramon Cugat, the orthopaedic surgeon Guardiola has described as “the best doctor in the world”. Now, back in Manchester, he begins the process of recovery in the hope of making it back before the end of the season – or starting the next one with a bang.
It is often a slow, frustrating road, but one former team-mate believes he will take the challenge in his stride. Fernando Prass, the veteran Palmeiras goalkeeper who won the Brazilian title with Gabriel in 2016, remains in contact with his former team-mate and is backing him to return even stronger.
“I spoke to him after the injury,” Prass told The Independent. “Of course he was really upset, but he knows that this is part of football and that his attitude is important for a full recovery. He’s a boy who matured at a young age and this problem will be one more step in his growth. I’m certain that he’ll react well.”
That determination is one of the defining features of a player whose career to date has raced by as if in fast-forward. Raised in the northern sprawl of São Paulo, Gabriel clambered up the local youth-football pyramid, progressing from kids’ teams with names like Little Kids of the Environment to the academy of amateur side Anhanguera and then, after his agent arranged a trial, to Palmeiras.
He shone for the Verdão’s junior sides, to the extent that some fans set up an online campaign calling for his inclusion in the first team at the age of 16. #JogaGabriel was the hashtag and his supporters demanded that then-coach Dorival Júnior pick him for the final game of the 2014 season on the basis that “he is a goalscorer and we need him”.
He is a goalscorer and we need him
Those pleas fell on deaf ears, but there was no stopping him the following year, especially after he caught the eye at the Copa São Paulo de Futebol Júnior (Copinha) youth tournament. “He was a lot younger than us but he was already able to show his full potential in that competition,” recalled former team-mate Matheus Sales, now on loan at Bahia. “He helped us in a lot of games and ended up being our joint top scorer in the tournament, scoring five times. In other tournaments, with his own age group, he was always top scorer. Even then, you could see he was different.”
Prass agrees. “I knew Gabriel because he trained with us a few times in 2014, but he really came to everyone’s attention at the Copinha,” he added. “You could tell he was different: even at 16 or 17, he was able to keep up with the senior players. Physically, it’s really hard at that age, but in terms of personality, he showed that he was ready to make the step up.”
Oswaldo de Oliveira and Marcelo Oliveira gave him his first taste of senior football, but it was under the latter’s successor that Gabriel truly blossomed. The nomadic, cerebral Cuca arrived at the club in March 2016 and has arguably been the primary guiding force in the youngster’s career to date, helping him go from coltish upstart to Brazil’s player of the year in just ten months.
Not that he knew a great deal about Gabriel when he arrived at the Allianz Parque. “It was a big surprise,” the 53-year-old told The Independent. “He wasn’t a first-team regular when I arrived. I played him against Nacional of Paraguay (in the Copa Libertadores) and that game alone showed me that Gabriel was too good to be a substitute for Palmeiras. From then on, he was a starter, playing on the left wing.”
He would not stay out there, though, and his best form came after Cuca rejigged his attack, moving Gabriel into a more central role. “I think it’s a waste leaving him out wide,” Cuca explained. “He has so much energy, so much vitality. He likes covering the whole pitch. He runs a lot and likes to win the ball back from opponents.
“This is great for a coach. He brings the whole team forward with him. If he plays on the wing, his work will be more restricted. Part of his enormous potential is the ability to run all over the pitch.”
He has so much energy, so much vitality
The switch in position required commitment on the player’s part, according to Prass: “One of the coaches used to tease Gabriel about his finishing. Often, I was the one who stayed after training to work with him. I saw how much his shooting improved, especially with his left foot. That stood out: the humility to recognise that weakness and work on it. Today, he’s a much better finisher because of that effort.”
Having the requisite technical ability is only half the battle when a young footballer swaps South America for Europe, of course. The mental demands can be decisive; for every success story there are handfuls of players who have fallen by the wayside, limping off to a less demanding league or back home. When you have a £27million price-tag attached to you – only Neymar and Lucas Moura have left Brazil for more money – the pressure to perform is only greater.
The presence in Manchester of Gabriel’s entourage has helped with the culture shock. He has rented a set of three adjoining apartments: one for himself, one for his mother and brother, the third for two friends who are along for the adventure. Compatriots Fernando and Fernandinho have also helped him settle and there have been trips to the local Brazilian restaurant for a taste of home and pagode sing-alongs.
As for the possibility of the transfer fee going to his head, former Palmeiras colleague Agustín Allione says he never had any worries. “He’s just a modest guy who works hard,” the Argentinian told The Independent. “I don’t think he ever thought about being the new Neymar or the new Robinho; he just wants to be Gabriel Jesus.”
Cuca, too, is certain that the new public enemy of Premier League defences won’t start to believe the hype any time soon. “When a young player grows in status and starts earning the kind of money that Gabriel Jesus is earning now, he can lose his way,” he said. “But that’s not the case with Gabriel. He is an exception. He is very focused and has a good head on his shoulders.
“I never had the slightest problem with him. He was always the last player to leave the training pitch and he didn’t go off and buy a massive car. I hope he never loses that purity.”
Guardiola would surely echo that sentiment, as would Brazil coach Tite, who has benefited from Gabriel’s rapid ascent to the tune of four goals in six World Cup qualifying matches. Barring disaster, the 19-year-old will lead the line for the Seleção at the 2018 World Cup – and that will be just the start for him in the canary-yellow jersey if he continues to improve.
That cursed metatarsal may have slowed his progress for the moment, then, but everything is in place for Gabriel to press on when he returns. His lightning start at the Etihad may have raised eyebrows on this side of the Atlantic, but those who know him best knew precisely what to expect. “I wasn’t surprised,” concluded Cuca. “I predicted that he’d adapt quickly. In my opinion, he’ll be one of the ten best players in the world very soon.”