The roar begins before the ball has even reached his feet. A lunchtime crowd at the Etihad Stadium, breath visible on the air, cooked breakfasts still sitting heavy in the stomach. And this is a crowd accustomed to excellence, to the known known, a crowd who in their post-treble glow do not so much anticipate as expect. Still, as the ball rolls towards him, they rise. Football is a cage in search of a bird. And here, that bird is named Jérémy Doku.
Something interesting has been happening at Manchester City this season. The melodies and harmonies have remained largely the same, but the backing track is different. Doku’s arrival from Rennes in the summer scarcely registered at the time, and indeed the rumour is that he was not a Pep Guardiola signing at all but a transfer driven by the director of football, Txiki Begiristain. Like the spa break you would never actually buy for yourself, Doku may not be the player Guardiola craved, but perhaps Begiristain could see that he was the player City needed. The scrawl of graffiti on the palace walls. The little spark of invention that renders the machine flesh. The pure joy of the dribble.
Doku completed 11 dribbles against Liverpool on Saturday, the most in a Premier League game for two years. This season he averages a league-high six dribbles per game, almost twice as many as Eberechi Eze in second place. And of course it would be ridiculous to describe something as natural and elemental and ubiquitous as dribbling as a lost skill. But as a trendsetter and tastemaker, the emergence of Doku as a leading player in City’s title defence holds a curious significance.
Go through the lists of the Premier League’s most prolific dribblers from the last few seasons – Allan Saint-Maximin, Wilfried Zaha, Adama Traoré, Emi Buendía – and what strikes you is that they tended to play for struggling or mid-table teams. This has been the trend at the top level: with elite clubs in thrall to possession football and structured attack, dribbling has retreated into the domain of the underdog, who has more space to run into and will invariably be more reliant on the counterattack.
It was Guardiola himself, on Spanish television last year, who observed that the art of dribbling was in decline. “Today football is losing the dribble,” he said. “Without players who dribble, nothing can be done.” And Doku’s development – along with the signing of a dribbling midfielder in Matheus Nunes – suggests that Guardiola sees this as the next big tactical opportunity. That in a game increasingly structured and systematised, the player who can instantly put an opponent out of a game can become a key point of difference.
But dribbling is not a repeatable skill. It fails as often as it succeeds. It is not so much a function of technique as pure instinct. Indeed the FA coaching website has nothing to say on the mechanics of dribbling itself, instead advising coaches that their role is “to help players feel comfortable dribbling” and “help them gain football memory”. And while you can count and coo over dribbles, somehow you can never capture them. Because in the infinitely measured, infinitely decrypted, infinitely commodified modern game the dribble is perhaps the last source of true creation, closer to art than sport.
No two dribbles are the same because no two dribblers are ever the same. Like graffiti tags, they are unique to their user. Like music, they are all built from the same basic notes – instep, outstep, sole, heel – but derive their inimitable character from context and rhythm, the shape of the body, the deception, the interplay between movement and stillness. Watch Doku closely and you notice he hardly ever uses his left foot, even as a distraction prop. His signature is the right sole, to the extent that he will often gather passes by rolling it over the ball to maintain momentum.
Kaoru Mitoma, who wrote his university thesis on dribbling, is more of a laces merchant. His toes are pointed downwards like a ballet dancer’s, his body weight sunk into the turf, before he nudges the ball with the top of his foot to catch the defender off-balance. Dejan Kulusevski moves the ball along with dainty taps of his little toe, like a man dribbling on Earth’s narrowest precipice. Caroline Graham Hansen, by contrast, dribbles without ever really dribbling at all: dances, feints, shuffles, then the big body swerve. John McGinn, meanwhile, is perhaps the world’s leading arse-dribbler. John McGinn’s arse bobs. John McGinn’s arse wiggles. John McGinn’s arse swivels. And then in a flash John McGinn’s arse is gone, never to be seen again.
Ah, you say, but what about the end product? This, perhaps, is why dribbling has become such a maligned skill over the years: the broad fixation on ends rather than means, on the demand that the dribbler convert their art into tangible currency. All of which ignores the fact that the best dribbling is its own end product: an act of mastery, an assertion of territory, a skill that brings fans to their feet and demoralises opponents. It is perhaps the simplest expression of the joy of football, the point at which the elite game feels closest to the game we all started playing in the street or the playground.
And for a coach often characterised as a control-obsessed micromanager, Guardiola has always got this. His teams have always possessed brilliant dribblers, from Lionel Messi to Arjen Robben to Leroy Sané. Not everything can be known or rationalised or submitted to structure. Sometimes you simply have to surrender to invention and see where it takes you, make something out of nothing, the last pure thing in an impure sport.