AP – James Milner’s head is probably still spinning. At age 37 and in the final throes of his career, the last thing this loyal servant to English football needed was to be deployed out of position at right back and be confronted by Jeremy Doku.
Doku, Manchester City’s exciting offseason signing, twisted Milner this way and that, assisting a goal after seven minutes, setting up several other chances and giving the Brighton veteran such a hard time that he was substituted at halftime of the teams’ Premier League match last weekend.
Milner might not be the last to suffer that fate. Doku, a 21-year-old from Belgium, is a livewire winger bringing an element of chaos to a City team otherwise under orders to play a game of control under Pep Guardiola.
He is third among all Premier League players for carries into the penalty area, fourth for carries at least 10 yards (metres) and sixth for most successful dribbles, according to soccer statistics website FBref.
He has only played in six of City’s nine league games, too, one of them as a substitute and another for just 51 minutes before being replaced in a rejig brought about by a red card.
The big question heading into this weekend is whether Doku is thrown into a Manchester derby at Old Trafford, a match Guardiola typically goes into stressing the need for discipline and tactical domination.
Guardiola’s decision will say plenty about how much he rates his new signing.
The early signs are: highly.
“I’m starting to learn when to go and when not to go in the moment,” Doku said after that Brighton game that marked his best performance since joining City from Rennes for USD70 million in late August effectively as a replacement for the departed Riyad Mahrez.
And that’s to be expected of a rough diamond like Doku, who should thrive under Guardiola and with so many top players around him, such as Erling Haaland, Julian Alvarez and Phil Foden.
Jack Grealish might be added to that list, though it’s the England international whose place – on the left wing – is most under threat following the arrival of Doku, even if they played in the same team on Wednesday when City beat Young Boys 3-1 in the Champions League.
Grealish used to be in the Doku mold, a free spirit who would roam and dribble and be direct when he was the star man at former club Aston Villa.
At City, he has been turned into more of a system player by Guardiola, keeping his width on the left and maintaining control in the team with his technique and work rate while others – mostly Haaland and the currently injured Kevin De Bruyne – provide the cutting edge.
If Doku adds some of that, City has a serious player on its hands.
Then again, Doku was held back for City’s biggest game of the season thus far – the 1-0 loss at Arsenal on October 8 – and only came on midway through the second half.
There’s a possibility Guardiola prefers to use Bernardo Silva in the derby and retains Grealish instead of Doku to limit the number of turnovers, from which United can be so dangerous with the pace of Marcus Rashford and Rasmus Hojlund up front on
Key for City has been the return of Rodri in central midfield. Before he was banned for grabbing a Nottingham Forest player around the neck, City won seven straight games across the Premier League and Champions League. While he was out suspended, City lost all three of its games.
That highlighted Rodri’s importance to the team and how City struggles to adjust its playing style without him. The strength of Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes, summer signings like Doku, is in their ball-carrying, not necessarily as midfield anchormen. And Guardiola still doesn’t trust Kalvin Phillips as his holding midfielder.
It’s the midfield battle that could be so key tomorrow, with United still in transition in that area after bringing in Mason Mount and Sofyan Amrabat in the summer window and Casemiro enduring a slow start to the season.
Scott McTominay, whose scoring ability makes up for his technical deficiencies, might be preferred again to bring some dynamism for United.
United has been relying on big moments – McTominay’s late double against Brentford, Diogo Dalot’s edge-of-the-area winner against Sheffield United, Andre Onana’s last-second penalty save against FC Copenhagen – to gain wins in recent weeks, which perhaps papers over the cracks of some structural issues in Erik ten Hag’s team. They’ll take another one if it means getting the better of its noisy neighbour at the weekend.