At first glance, Jérémy Doku has made a strong impression since joining Manchester City. He scored the tying goal early in the second half against West Ham, followed by another goal against RB Leipzig. He also had a standout performance in the first half against Brighton, making a swift run to set up Julian Álvarez’s opening goal and causing trouble for James Milner.
He effortlessly outmaneuvered Igor Julio and delivered a precise cross to Álvarez, showcasing his impressive speed and control. He appears to be a formidable winger that no opposing full-back can afford to leave unguarded. Can we expect anything more from a 21-year-old transitioning to a new team and facing the challenge of playing at a higher level than before?
However, it is the characteristic of Manchester City and their overwhelming success that even the smallest flaws are highlighted by a society craving the excitement of a tight title race, and by a league that cannot ignore the fact that a sixth championship in seven years for the same team would discredit its claims of competitiveness. Furthermore, it is due to Pep Guardiola’s influence that the focus in football has shifted from solely goals and assists to considering the overall performance.
This is always the concern when discussing City. For most teams, earning 21 points in the first nine games of the season would be considered a fantastic beginning. If there are any hesitations, it is only because City is consistently exceptional, setting a high standard of 95+ points for champion teams. For any other team, these minor concerns would barely be noticeable. However, City’s start to the season has been somewhat uneven.
After winning their first six games, the perception was of their unwavering strength, like that of a well-known and relentless machine. It was acknowledged that they had scored a goal against Fulham that should have been disallowed for being offside, but they still won 5-1. And although they were losing at halftime against West Ham and required a last-minute goal to defeat Sheffield United, the focus was on their victories rather than questioning why they needed to score late in the games.
The victory against Brighton presented a similar uncertainty: City displayed moments of invincibility in the first half and appeared to have secured the win, but then, while not necessarily struggling, they were faced with pressure after conceding. This raises the question of whether their first-half brilliance was a result of strategically controlling the game or simply due to the opposing team’s aging right-back.
City’s recent losses to Wolves and Arsenal, which marked their first consecutive league defeats since December 2018, may have hinted at their vulnerability despite their reputation for being unstoppable. However, they have only managed to win more than seven of their first nine games once before. In the last seven years, City have had a lower points total at this point in the season twice, yet still managed to secure the title. It is worth noting that they have only scored 19 goals so far, compared to 33 at this stage last season.
It is natural to experience a slight decrease in performance after achieving the treble last season. This is especially true since the two potential avenues for improvement, winning the Community Shield or the Carabao Cup, have already been missed. However, it is important to note that last season, Manchester City did not hit their peak until the end of February, where they showcased exceptional football for three months and were essentially invincible.
Guardiola arranges his training sessions to ensure that City reaches their peak performance in the spring. They anticipate a slower start to the season and account for it. There was always going to be an adjustment period as City adapted to the departure of Ilkay Gündogan, which was made more difficult by Rodri’s suspension. While it may be an overstatement to say they are dependent on him, it is clear how crucial Rodri is to City’s structure, as their last four losses have coincided with his absence. Rodri is arguably the best player in the world at defending against counter attacks, which aligns with Guardiola’s focus, and it is worth noting that he often uses the word “control” when discussing Jack Grealish. Last season, Grealish became the ideal winger for Guardiola, tempering his natural tendency to dribble in order to maintain possession until City had established their formation. Guardiola essentially retrained Grealish, and a similar process is underway with Doku, who still aggressively takes on opponents.
In the previous season, Grealish had an average of 4.82 successful take-ons per 90 minutes, while Doku currently has an average of 8.42. While Doku’s success rate in dribbles is better than Grealish’s, he still loses the ball twice as often. On the other hand, Grealish makes more pass attempts (39.6 per 90 minutes compared to Doku’s 32.5) and has a higher completion rate of 84.1% compared to Doku’s 78.1%.
This indicates that City is not able to maintain possession as effectively, leading to a decrease in their fluidity as they must account for the risk of losing the ball. This may partially explain the slight feeling of sluggishness compared to previous seasons. However, the absence of Kevin De Bruyne, known for his expert through balls from his right foot to Erling Haaland, also greatly impacts their performance.
Doku’s tendency to lose possession has resulted in a ripple effect, causing the opposition to target the left side of City’s defense this season. This was evident in their loss against Wolves, where Pedro Neto continuously took advantage of an exposed Nathan Aké.
Antony could potentially have a significant opportunity in Sunday’s Manchester derby, as he is long overdue for a standout performance. However, United’s recent track record does not inspire confidence that they will be able to challenge City. Despite some impressive victories over Brentford, Sheffield United, and FC Copenhagen, United has also had to put in a lot of effort to secure those wins.
The contrast with United emphasizes the small degree of uncertainty surrounding City. While they may not be in top form like in the spring, Haaland’s scoring rate may only be that of a typical great center-forward rather than an extraordinary one, and there may be some uncertainty about Doku’s specific role, they still stand as a highly organized and skilled football team.