BRAZIL'S STRIKER PROBLEM: FINDING THE NEXT R9
Brazil is a nation blessed with some extraordinary footballing talent.
This remarkable roster of players has helped them become the most successful nation in footballing history. Perhaps the most evocative and exciting of Brazil’s players are their forwards. With the likes of Pelé, Ronaldo and Romario for company, those who play through the middle for Brazil are usually considered among the best in the world.
In recent times though, the pool of strikers has been seen as a bit of a dry spell, in terms of truly legendary talents. Certainly since Ronaldo left the stage, only Adriano has really come close to reaching the heights of those who have come before.
Some of this might be due to attention being focused towards the left wing, where a certain Neymar does his business, but Brazil still don’t seem quite there without the kind of forward Seleção fans have grown used to over the years.
So, with the Copa America coming up this summer, who should be leading the line? Below are the main candidates to step into the gold and green pages of Brazil’s history books, from the current line-up to future wonderkids.
The current crop:
Roberto Firmino, Liverpool (29)
Caps: 47 Goals: 16
On paper, Firmino is the obvious choice for Brazil’s striker spot. Starting striker for Liverpool, with a Champions League winners medal and the Premier League trophy on his mantelpiece at home.
However, his goal output for both club and country raises questions. At Liverpool, Firmino is not the main source of goals, instead he uses his dribbling and vision to help Salah and Mane drive into the box and bag the goals, but occasionally chip into one or two for himself as well. He is also an important part of Liverpool’s pressing game, working his way back from his centre-forward position to try and win the ball back for his side.
For Brazil though, he has to dismiss his ‘defensive striker’ instincts drilled into him by Klopp, and turn himself into a goal-getter who can put away all the chances teed up by the players around him.
If he can do that, and consistently bang in the goals for Brazil, perhaps he can finally wrestle control of the starting spot back from the next man on the list, and start to build a legacy in his prime years.
Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City (23)
Caps: 41 Goals: 18
Jesus has been Firmino’s rival for the starting central spot since his debut in 2016. The Manchester City striker has more goals in fewer appearances for the national team, and is the current holder of the No. 9 shirt.
He even has the backing of perhaps the most famous 9 in history, Ronaldo himself tipped Jesus for international success back in 2016 when he was still playing for Palmeiras in Brazil. He also backed another young striker who we will come to later.
Since then though, things have changed with Jesus. Although he now has a regular spot in the Brazil squad, the same can’t be said for his club football. In Manchester, he is behind one of the best strikers of the Premier League era in the queue for a starting spot. 2020 should have been his year though, as Aguero spent much of it on the sidelines with injuries, however apart from an inspired performance against Real Madrid, there weren’t many highlights to speak of.
With Aguero potentially leaving the club on a free transfer in the summer, Jesus should have been his natural successor, but with rumours linking City with the likes of Erling Haaland, it doesn’t seem like he has made enough of a case to take over that role.
To allow himself to try become a legend for Brazil, Jesus needs to play more regular club football, to justify his place in the team. That either means finding some form, to put in a late bid to take over from Aguero, or moving on to pastures new.
Richarlison, Everton (23)
Caps: 23 Goals: 8
Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus are seen as quite versatile forwards, able to put in a shift anywhere in a front three when required. Richarlison is another level, a natural forward, seamlessly transitioning between playing on either wing, to being the focal point of the attack.
Everton value the player at around £100m, having rejected an £85m bid for him from Barcelona last January. It’s not hard to see why, given his qualities, and the fact that he is one of their star performers, although he hasn’t quite showed it this season.
The main obstacle in the way of Richarlison following in the footsteps of Ronaldo and the rest, is the two players already discussed. Gabriel Jesus is going to be around for the whole of Richarlison’s international career, stopping him from playing that central role. The future of Richarlison for Brazil is likely to look much like it has done already, usually playing on the right of a front three, and only coming central or swapping wings in the event of injuries (which aren’t uncommon with Neymar), or in smaller games.
Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa, Flamengo (24)
Caps: 5 Goals: 2
Often the solution to a problem is right in front of you the whole time. The same could be true here, as one of Brazil’s best forwards plays his football at home.
You might have heard of Gabigol from his failed career at Inter, but don’t let that fool you. He made just 10 appearances for Inter, between various loan moves to Benfica and back to Brazil. Since he moved to Flamengo in 2019, a loan move that has since been made permanent, he has established himself as a lethal finisher, with 49 goals in 74 appearances for the side.
He started life at Santos as a Firmino-style second-striker, with plenty of tricks to earn himself the automatic title of ‘the next Neymar’, which has to be given to any and every Brazilian forward who shows some talent. However, he is now a complete poacher, focused on the job of getting into the box and doing what has to be done, exactly what Brazil manager Tite wants Firmino to be.
Despite being the other young striker endorsed by Ronaldo in 2016, Gabigol’s international career so far has been very limited, overshadowed by Gabriel Jesus, who made his debut at a similar time, but enjoyed a more successful European move. If he is ignored again at for the Copa America squad, Gabigol has to consider another move to Europe, to prove himself at the same level as his competitors. If he wants to become a legend for his country, first he has to get into the team, and soon.
Kaio Jorge, Santos (19)
From a former ‘next Neymar’ to the current holder of the mantel. The most coveted recent graduate of Santos’ famous academy, Kaio isn’t breaking any club scoring records yet, with only 2 goals to his name, but for Brazil’s youth teams, he has been extremely productive. 11 goals in 14 appearances for youth sides is an impressive haul, and he is likely to build on those numbers before he makes his senior debut.
Kaio will eventually move to Europe, once he gets his scoring boots on as major clubs are already circling around him, drawn by his undeniable quality. How that move pans out will determine the next 5 years of his international career, and whether he becomes a Gabriel Barbosa or a Gabriel Jesus.
Mattheus Cunha, Hertha Berlin (21)
While Haaland and Lewandowski steal all the headlines in Germany, Matheus Cunha is quietly getting on with his business of becoming the next Roberto Firmino. Able to play as a lone striker, in a deeper role, or even out wide, Cunha shows a lot of similarities to early Firmino, when he has attracting the attention of Liverpool at Hoffenheim. With 13 goal contributions in 17 games this season, Cunha is just as adept at setting up his teammates as his is putting them away himself.
He was called up to the Brazil squad for the first time in October but didn’t feature, however it is not going to be long before he makes his debut and starts to advance his career on the international stage.
To become a legend though, he faces the same problems as Firmino, and needs to adapt his game when he pulls on that famous gold jersey, to become more of a clinical finisher, rather than a deeper playmaker, something he is more than capable of doing.