Thierry Henry has given his seal of approval, but can new Manchester City winger Jérémy Doku take the Premier League by storm?
Jérémy Doku was not Manchester City’s first choice to replace Riyad Mahrez. Then again, maybe Doku isn’t replacing Mahrez at all.
Losing the Algerian was a blow for City, with Mahrez producing 28 goal involvements in 47 games in all competitions last season (15 goals, 13 assists).
The English and European champions were reportedly looking at Crystal Palace’s Michael Olise before he signed a new deal at Selhurst Park, while Cole Palmer has followed up his key contribution in England’s Under-21 European Championship win over the summer with some impressive showings for City, including scoring the equaliser in their penalty shoot-out victory in the UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla.
Should Palmer stay, he could be the one to step into Mahrez’s shoes, so where does their new signing from Rennes fit in? You could certainly argue that Doku can fill a hole in the side, just not the one left by Mahrez.
It was somewhat surprising that City let Raheem Sterling go last summer, especially to a team that could have been perceived as a rival in Chelsea. Sterling had been a vital part of Guardiola’s City team for so many years, recording at least 36 goal involvements in each of the three seasons between 2017 and 2020. That reduced to 24 and 25 in the next two seasons before he left for Chelsea, but once he got going, there is no denying that Sterling was a key cog in Guardiola’s dominant City sides.
Interestingly, according to our Opta player comparison tool, Doku’s 2022-23 campaign in Ligue 1 compared very closely to Sterling’s 2013-14 season at Liverpool, just a year before he made the £50 million move to Man City.
Doku scored seven goals and assisted a further five in 35 appearances last season, though only 16 of those outings were starts. Rennes boss Bruno Genesio was not always entirely trusting of Doku to start games but knew what impact he could have off the bench at the very least.
By comparison, Sterling recorded 10 goals and six assists in the 2013-14 season at Liverpool from 38 appearances in all competitions, of which 27 were starts. When you compare their output per 90 minutes in their respective leagues though, you can see where the similarities come from. Both created 2.1 chances per 90, Sterling had an average of 61 touches to Doku’s 62, won possession 6.0 times per 90 to Doku’s 6.2, and scored 0.37 goals per 90 to Doku’s 0.42, with both taking 1.8 shots per 90.
The Belgian’s total of seven goals last season was the most he has ever scored in a campaign, though it took Sterling a couple of years to find his consistent shooting boots at City, scoring 10 and 11 in his first two campaigns before hitting 23 in his third.
Sterling was 20 when he swapped Anfield for the Etihad Stadium in 2015, while Doku is 21, and it would not be a surprise to see the latter eased in gently by Guardiola. One area he did outscore 2013-14 Sterling in last season was his volume of dribbling. Doku averaged 10.9 dribbles attempted per 90 with a success rate of 61.9%, while Sterling averaged just 6.5 dribbles per 90, with a 58.2% success rate.
Doku clearly made an impression after breaking into the Anderlecht first team at the age of just 16 in November 2018, as less than two years later, Rennes were making him their club-record signing. His promising first season in France earned him a call-up to Robert Martinez’s Belgium squad for the re-arranged Euro 2020 tournament, where Doku surprisingly started against Finland in the group stage, and then again versus Italy in the quarter-finals. Belgium lost that game, but Doku impressed nonetheless, completing eight dribbles, a record for a teenager since full data for the tournament has been available (1980).
It was his explosive dribbling that initially caught the eye, and that continues to be the case. Since the start of last season, Doku’s ball carry distance of 356 metres per 90 is the highest of any player in Europe’s top five leagues, ahead of Rayan Cherki (347m) Facundo Medina (331m), Jack Grealish (317m) and Ousmane Dembélé (309m). Lens defender Medina (19.0) was also the only player to average more than Doku’s 15.8 progressive carries per 90.
Doku has also completed a remarkable 6.8 dribbles per 90 in Ligue 1 since the start of last season, the most of any player in Europe’s top five leagues (900+ mins), well ahead of second-placed former Newcastle United man Allan Saint-Maximin (4.9).
Across Europe’s top five leagues, only Vinícius Júnior (112) and Lionel Messi (103) recorded more successful take-ons last season than Doku’s 96, though it should be noted that both attempted more as well (Vinícius 348, Messi 193, Doku 169).
Will Guardiola want Doku to dribble as often as he does now, though? Interestingly, Palmer was City’s most prominent dribbler in the Premier League last season, averaging 6.0 dribbles attempted per 90 from his 14 appearances, with a success rate of 66.7%. While many might assume Grealish attempted plenty as well, the former Aston Villa man only averaged 3.5 dribbles per 90, with a success rate of 60.0%.
Guardiola wants his team to control possession, so encourages them to pass and protect the ball. Grealish’s dribbles attempted per 90 in his final season at Villa were 4.5, so have reduced by one per game since then, while Sterling only averaged 5.7 dribbles per 90 in the Premier League in Guardiola’s first season at City, having averaged 6.9 in his final season with Liverpool. It could therefore be that Guardiola tries to reduce Doku’s reliance on dribbles. Then again, he is so effective at beating a man with the ball, maybe Guardiola is just looking for a new plan of attack, with the youngster equally adept at playing from the left or the right.
The reason many believe it has taken this long for one of Europe’s elite to sign him is his end product. Doku has always caught the eye with his dribbling, but up until last season, it rarely tallied up with his goal and assist numbers. In 2020-21, Doku scored just two Ligue 1 goals from an expected goals (xG) value of 2.8. Last season, though, he scored six goals from just 2.7 xG in the league.
His assist numbers could still do with improving though. In 2020-21, Doku assisted three Ligue 1 goals from open play from an expected assists (xA) value of 4.7. Last season he made two open-play assists from an xA of 4.0. Then again, at City he will presumably be passing the ball to Erling Haaland quite a bit, so you would imagine that alone will greatly increase his assist output.
One thing City will need to be wary of is his injury record. After a stellar 2020-21 campaign, in which he played 30 Ligue 1 games, 26 of which were starts, a number of knocks the following season saw him manage just 14 league appearances, and only four starts.
Last season he had another three separate layoffs through injury, with the latest being a hamstring issue. Players with Doku’s explosive pace often put great strain on their muscles, but City have shown in the last year with the way they have improved Haaland’s injury record that they can broadly manage such issues, so for their sake and the player’s, hopefully it is something they can keep on top of.
Again, when comparing Doku in our comparison tool, you can see that two of the closest four comparable individual seasons to him in the last 15 years are from fellow Belgian winger Eden Hazard, which is certainly not bad company to be keeping.
Former Belgium assistant manager Thierry Henry said of Doku: “When you’re one on one with him, there’s only one thing left to do — pray.” If there’s one person who knows what panicked Premier League defenders look like up close, it’s Henry, and if Doku can have anything like the same impact, City fans will be rubbing their hands together in glee.