At first glance, Jérémy Doku has made a strong impression at Manchester City. He scored the tying goal in the beginning of the second half against West Ham, added another goal against RB Leipzig, and had a fantastic performance in the first half against Brighton last Saturday. He skillfully ran to the edge of the field to pass the ball back for Julian Álvarez’s first goal and consistently caused trouble for James Milner.
His swift movement and increase in speed allowed him to easily pass Igor Julio and deliver a cross to Álvarez, which was both effortless and destructive. He already appears to be the type of winger that no full-back can afford to leave vulnerable. What more could one expect from a 21-year-old transitioning to a new country and making a significant leap from Rennes?
However, it is the character of Manchester City and their overwhelming success that even the smallest flaw is highlighted by a society craving the excitement of a close title race, and by a league that acknowledges that a sixth title in seven years for one club would undermine its reputation for being fiercely competitive. Additionally, it is the impact of Pep Guardiola and his philosophy that has shifted the focus of football towards more than just scoring and assisting, but also considering the overall performance.
When discussing City, this is always the exception. If it were any other team, earning 21 points in the first nine games would be considered a great beginning. Any concerns are only in comparison to a team that consistently excels and has set a high bar of 95+ points for champions. For another team, these minor issues would hardly be noticeable. However, City’s start to the season has been a bit inconsistent.
When they won their first six games, the sense was of the implacability of old, of the familiar remorseless machine. It was true that they had gone ahead against Fulham with a goal that should have been ruled out for offside, but they had then won 5-1. And it was true that they had been behind against West Ham at half-time, and needed a late winner to beat Sheffield United, but the tendency was to credit the wins rather than wonder about the reason they needed the late goals.
The victory against Brighton presented a familiar uncertainty: City displayed moments of dominance in the first half and appeared to have secured the win, but later found themselves facing pressure after conceding. Was this simply the team strategically controlling the game after gaining a dominant lead, or was it a result of playing against a 37-year-old right-back?
The losses against Wolves and Arsenal, which marked the first time City had consecutive defeats in league games since December 2018, hinted that they may not be as unbeatable as they have been in the past. However, it should be noted that they have only won more than seven of their first nine games once before. In the last seven years, City has had fewer points at this point in the season twice but still managed to win the title. The fact that they have only scored 19 goals so far, compared to 33 at this stage last season, is worth noting.
It is natural to experience a slight decrease in performance after achieving a treble last season. This is especially true when the two potential avenues for surpassing last season’s success, winning the Community Shield or the Carabao Cup, have already been closed off. However, it’s worth noting that last season, City did not hit their peak until the end of February, during which they played exceptional football and were essentially unbeatable for three months.
Guardiola strategically plans his team’s training to reach their peak performance in the spring. He takes into consideration a slower start to the season. The departure of Ilkay Gündogan and the suspension of Rodri have caused a period of adjustment for City. Rodri’s absence has been a contributing factor to City’s recent defeats, highlighting his importance to the team’s structure. Rodri is considered one of the best players in the world when it comes to countering the opposition’s attacks, which aligns with Guardiola’s focus on counter tactics. Guardiola often emphasizes the word “control” when discussing Jack Grealish, who has adapted to Guardiola’s style of play and become a key winger for City. Grealish has learned to balance his natural inclination to dribble with preserving possession until the team is ready to attack. Guardiola has essentially retrained Grealish, and a similar process is underway with Doku, who still relies heavily on his dribbling skills.
During the previous season, Grealish had an average of 4.82 take-ons per 90 minutes while Doku has averaged 8.42 this season. While Doku has a higher success rate in dribbles compared to Grealish, he also loses possession twice as often. On the other hand, Grealish attempts more passes with an average of 39.6 per 90 minutes compared to Doku’s 32.5, with a higher completion rate of 84.1% compared to 78.1%.
City’s ability to retain possession has decreased, leading to a decrease in their smoothness on the field as they have to constantly account for the risk of losing the ball. This could help explain their somewhat sluggish performance this season, especially in comparison to their usual standards. Of course, the absence of Kevin De Bruyne, known for his precise through balls that perfectly set up players like Erling Haaland, also plays a significant role in their performance.
The consequence of Doku’s loss of possession is that opposing teams have targeted the left side of City’s defense this season. This was evident in their loss to Wolves, where Pedro Neto consistently attacked a vulnerable Nathan Aké.
The upcoming Manchester derby on Sunday could be a crucial match for Antony, who is long overdue for a good performance. However, based on United’s recent performance, it seems unlikely that they will be able to challenge City. They have put in a lot of effort to defeat teams like Brentford, Sheffield United, and FC Copenhagen.
The comparison to United emphasizes the minimal concerns surrounding City. While they may not be performing at their best, Haaland’s scoring may only be on par with that of a typical top striker rather than an exceptional one, and there may be uncertainty about Doku’s specific role, they are still a highly organized and skilled football team.