“When you’re one on one with him, there’s only one thing left to do — pray.”Thierry Henry on Jérémy Doku
Thierry Henry knew. The Belgium assistant manager warned us that Jérémy Doku could destroy opposition defences at will, and this was before he joined the best team in Europe under the best coach in world football.
Upon moving to the Premier League champions, we questioned if this was the club that Doku would finally add goals and assists to his output. It’s going well, so far.
The winger has been a sensation during his opening three and a half months at Man City, with his performance in the Premier League rout of Bournemouth last weekend the best yet. With four assists and a goal, he became the youngest player to be directly involved in five goals in a Premier League match (21 years, 161 days old), as well as the youngest to assist four times in the same Premier League game of the eight players to have achieved that feat, detailed in this week’s Stat, Viz, Quiz newsletter.
That took his total goal involvements to seven within his first eight Premier League appearances at City, with five of those being assists – more than he managed in 2022-23 and 2021-22 combined across 43 Ligue 1 appearances for Rennes (four).
His start has matched that made by Gabriel Jesus at City in a similar number of minutes played and at a similar age to the Brazilian. It is also the same as Kevin De Bruyne managed when he first joined the club. Only four players have exceeded Doku’s goal involvement total in their opening eight matches for Man City. Of course, Erling Haaland tops that chart with an astonishing 17 across 665 minutes.
We’ve seen many young players arrive at Manchester City and improve drastically under the brilliant coaching of Pep Guardiola, but few have made such an impact so quickly and at such a young age. Of course, we’re very early into the season and his Premier League career, but the signs are encouraging.
Guardiola himself has even expressed his shock at how quickly Doku has acclimatised to life in the Premier League.
“Am I surprised?,” the City manager said earlier this month. “Being honest, a little bit. Always, we have nice expectations. He creates something for the crowd. When he takes the ball and goes everybody is excited, and me too. Something is going to happen, and it happens.”
It shouldn’t have come as a shock to Guardiola how devastating Doku can be when running with the ball at opponents, though. Only a year ago while at Rennes, he told RMC Sport that he grew up getting a thrill from tearing opposition defenders apart with his dribbling.
“When I was 16, what I wanted was that the defender I’m playing against, I don’t want him to sleep after,” Doku said. “Like, I want to kill him. After [we play] I want him to hate me.”
In the recent Manchester derby, it took under five minutes for Manchester United’s Antony to hate Doku enough to try and kick him into the air after being dribbled past twice in the space of three seconds.
Not many defenders that have come up against Doku so far in his Premier League career will have got a decent night’s sleep afterward. He’s averaged 5.3 successful take-ons in league competition so far in 2023-24, which is more than any other player in the top five European leagues. His rate is actually lower than his average at Rennes last season (6.7), which also ranked him higher than every other player across Europe’s big five leagues.
Doku takes every opportunity to run at his opponent, and his exceptional take-on numbers are as much a result of him attempting to beat his opponent so often; his success rate with his take-on attempts in the Premier League so far this season is relatively low, at 58.1%. That is well below the most recent dribbling sensation seen in the competition, Adama Traoré who, at Wolves in 2021-22, beat opponents with 74.8% of his take-on attempts (107/148). He did have the help of some baby oil, though – a tactic Doku hasn’t yet deployed himself.
While no Traoré (yet) in dribble success terms, it could be argued that Doku is a player unlike any we’ve seen at Manchester City under Guardiola before. The closest in terms of take-on output would be Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling in Guardiola’s first season in charge – 2016-17, which was also his least successful at the club. The German averaged 6.1 take-ons per 90 minutes and successfully beat an opponent with 2.7 per 90, while Sterling attempted fewer (5.7 per 90) but completed more (2.8 per 90). These are both well below Doku’s averages so far in 2023-24.
Even when Guardiola has got his hands on a prolific dribbler in the past, he’s tempered that skillset and encouraged his players to protect the ball, and often come inside to look for a pass instead. Jack Grealish is a fine example of that. Grealish’s final season at Aston Villa saw him average 4.5 take-ons per 90 minutes, but he has averaged fewer than 3.5 per 90 in every season at City, and as low as 2.1 this campaign so far. With Doku so effective running at opponents, there’s every chance that Guardiola has become more flexible with his tactical plan and decided to just let him fly and play to his strengths.
It’s not just taking on opponents where Doku excels, though; he is also brilliant covering large distances with the ball at his feet. No midfielder or forward has averaged as many progressive ball carries as he has (17.2 per 90) in the Premier League this season, while he’s also covered the most distance on average per 90 with these carries (212m). The only attacking player across the top five European leagues to have averaged more distance upfield from ball carries this season is Ousmane Dembélé (219m per 90).
Guardiola obviously sees Doku as a key component in his side, with the 21-year-old having played some part in all 13 competitive matches since the start of September, following his transfer to Manchester. While only seven of those have been starts, his substitute appearances have seen City weaponise his excellent ball-carrying ability when games are more open and opposition defences are tiring.
Tuesday’s meeting with Young Boys in the Champions League saw him successful with all six of his take-ons, despite playing just 14 minutes of action, including added time – with his total more than any other player in the entire match. Including all added time in matches this season across every competition, Doku has averaged 17.6 take-ons and 259m of progressive ball carries per 90 as a substitute, compared to 7.9 take-ons and 176m of carries upfield per 90 when starting.
It would be foolish to project Doku’s potential at Manchester City too much based on his opening 13 competitive appearances for the club, but the signs are undoubtedly encouraging. For Guardiola to embolden the youngster to keep doing what he does best, despite going against many of his tactical principles that have previously restricted players renowned for beating opponents with a dribble at will, says something about Doku’s talent. For now, we can sit back, relax and enjoy the show he puts on.
Jérémy Doku earned the second-highest Opta Player Rating score on MD11 thanks to his exceptional performance against Bournemouth at the Etihad Stadium. His score of 99.3 out of 100 was only surpassed by Nicolas Jackson’s 99.4 following a hat-trick for Chelsea at Spurs.
These Opta Player Ratings also power our set of brand-new, free-to-play gaming experiences, which you can play below.