Ze Roberto smiles when the conversation turns to Gabriel Jesus. The former Brazil international, speaking to Sky Sports over Zoom, is only too happy to answer questions on a player he mentored during a two-year spell with Palmeiras in his homeland.
Ze Roberto was a useful sounding board for the young striker at the time, providing support and guidance before he made his £27m move to Manchester City in 2017, but he has since found himself watching his former team-mate with a sense of frustration.
Jesus is a four-time Premier League title winner who has, of course, made an important contribution at the Etihad Stadium, scoring 95 goals in 236 appearances in all competitions. But Ze Roberto believes it should have been more. The circumstances at City, he says, have not enabled Jesus to truly thrive.
“Gabriel Jesus is a player who has a lot of talent and a lot of potential, but he needs to have more playing time in order to gain confidence,” Ze Roberto tells Sky Sports.
“The mentality Pep Guardiola has is to rotate his whole team and give opportunities to every player, but I believe the best version of Gabriel Jesus is when he is motivated and playing consistently.
“When a player like Gabriel is in the team then out of it, it is very difficult for him to have stability and find confidence. I think it is always going to be difficult for that to change at Manchester City.”
Ultimately, it is what will lead to his departure. Arsenal are in talks to sign the 25-year-old and they are not his only suitors, with City open to a sale before he enters the final year of his contract.
Jesus was billed as Sergio Aguero’s successor back in 2017 but he will leave the Etihad having never made more than 22 starts for Pep Guardiola’s side in a Premier League campaign. Across the last five seasons, he has played just 51 per cent of City’s available minutes.
Not that his scoring record is anything to sniff at.
Jesus has averaged a goal every 160 minutes in the Premier League. Of players to have scored at least 15 times in the competition since then, only six boast a superior strike rate.
Those players are Aguero, Mohamed Salah, Harry Kane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Jamie Vardy – ensuring Jesus is in good company – but the frustration for many is that his numbers are not higher.
That is partly down to a lack of consistent starting opportunities – more than a third of Jesus’s 159 Premier League appearances have come as a substitute – but it is also a question of finishing.
Jesus excels in many ways, from his off-the-ball movement and his versatility to his pressing, but he is not always so reliable when it comes to converting chances.
Indeed, while his scoring record is by no means poor, the underlying data hints at significant shortcomings in front of the goal.
Since his City debut five and a half years ago, Jesus has the second-biggest negative differential between actual goals scored and expected goals in the Premier League, behind only Crystal Palace striker Christian Benteke.
The best finishers tend to outperform their expected goals on a consistent basis, as shown by the presence of Kane and Heung-Min Son at the other end of scale, but Opta’s xG model suggests Jesus has netted roughly 12 goals fewer than he should have, based on the quality of scoring opportunities he has had.
The numbers can be interpreted in different ways.
High xG is an undoubted positive in the sense that it demonstrates a knack for getting into the right positions. There are many who would argue Jesus only needs more consistent playing time in order to build the “confidence” Ze Roberto speaks of and unlock his true potential in front of goal.
Others, though, would see the underlying data as proof that he does not have the killer instincts required to truly excel as the first-choice central striker in a competing team at the very top.
Guardiola, while he has always valued Jesus highly, seemingly falls into the latter camp, preferring to use the 25-year-old as a wide forward even when he didn’t have a natural alternative in the striker position and eventually signing Erling Haaland to fill the void.
But Jesus’ next club will likely view him differently.
A failure to establish himself as Manchester City’s central striker does not mean it won’t happen for him elsewhere, after all. Especially seeing as his Premier League scoring record when starting is so much better than when he comes on as a substitute.
Indeed, in his 99 Premier League starts for City, he has scored 53 goals and provided 23 assists, whereas in his 60 substitutes appearances, he has only netted five goals and set up another six, his productivity rate markedly lower.
It is important to remember, too, that Jesus brings plenty more than goals and assists.
Indeed, while his finishing has been a source of frustration to Guardiola at times, his pressing is viewed very differently. “When we need runners and players that help a lot with our high intensity and high pressing, he is the best in the world,” he said in March.
Guardiola has long seen Jesus as integral to his side’s ability to stifle opponents in possession, which in turn allows City to maintain a high defensive line, and his next club will be eager to harness those qualities too. Mikel Arteta, who coached him during his time at City, has long aspired to turn Arsenal into a pressing team.
Most important of all, though, in the view of his former mentor Ze Roberto, is that Jesus simply plays. “He needs a manager who will give him more minutes,” he adds.
“That is the way to get the best out of Gabriel Jesus.”