Jeremy Doku’s performance against Liverpool showcases Manchester City’s attacking evolution

Jeremy Doku - Jeremy Doku's performance against Liverpool showcases Manchester City's attacking evolution

Bernardo Silva put it rather eloquently. “You cannot give him limitations – otherwise he loses his magic,” the Manchester City midfielder said of team-mate Jeremy Doku after another thrilling performance from the Belgium winger.

Of all the attacking talents on display at the Etihad Stadium, there was none better on Saturday than Doku, whose compulsion to dribble meant Liverpool’s defence never got a moment’s peace.

It might overstate it to suggest Doku has a free role in this City team but the freedom afforded him forms a very deliberate part of Pep Guardiola’s latest ploy to stay one step ahead of the rest as he bids to deliver a fourth consecutive Premier League title, and sixth in seven seasons.

Liverpool were not the first side to find it hard to contain, even if they became the first to end City’s astonishing 100 per cent record at home in 2023 with a point that felt a touch fortunate but was good for the title race.

Guardiola has sought to constantly evolve his City teams and he has made tweaks again to his set-up this term to keep opponents guessing. If his first championship-winning side was all about half-backs and flying wingers, by the time a third title came around false nines were the order of the day.

Last season saw the arrival of an out-and-out No 9 in Erling Haaland, a move to a double midfield pivot and the use of wingers, namely Jack Grealish and Bernardo, largely as instruments of control in a 3-2-4-1 formation.

That system has remained when in possession this season but Guardiola’s deployment of Doku and Phil Foden on the flanks coupled with Julian Alvarez in an attacking midfield role behind Haaland in the absence of the injured Kevin De Bruyne has brought a different dimension to the way City attack.

City are now averaging almost six per cent less possession per game than two seasons ago when they were still operating with a false nine and, while Guardiola is never going to abandon his thirst for control, this has the potential to be his most direct, transitional City team yet. It is no longer death by a thousand passes and they are probably more entertaining for it. Manuel Nunes, another ball carrier who is having to be more patient than Doku, was also added in the summer which also points to the strategy shift.

“Definitely,” Bernardo said when asked if Doku had given City something different. “Last season for the most part I was playing on the right and Jack on the left. We are a bit more controlled, not as direct. If players change, the way the team sets up also changes. There are a lot of options depending on the game and what the manager wants.

“It gives you more one-on-ones, counter-attacks but you also lose a bit of control of the game so sometimes it’s good and sometimes not. But the team overall is doing really well.”

Bernardo may have been referring there to a fortnight earlier when City conceded four times in a chaotic 4-4 draw at Chelsea and Guardiola removed Doku after an hour and introduced Grealish in an effort to restore some order.

Illness had robbed Guardiola of Grealish for the Liverpool match but the control the England player helps to bring was not required against Jurgen Klopp’s men as Doku asked persistent questions.

Liverpool, in truth, did well to hang in there at times although the game might have been put to bed had Haaland managed to turn home Doku’s cross from close range after more superb work from the Belgian moments before Trent Alexander-Arnold equalised. All told, Doku completed 11 dribbles, the most in a Premier League game for more than two years.

“He’s a very good signing and he’s been playing very well for us,” Bernardo said. “Hopefully he can keep going – keep learning and improving and help us to win titles. We have to let him be himself and do his thing whilst knowing he has a responsibility to help us when he doesn’t have the ball.

“But he’s been doing really well. When I play with Jeremy I try to help him and try to give him that freedom so he can do his thing.”

Sometimes the appreciation of one of the finest defenders in the game says it all and Virgil van Dijk was not about to downplay Doku’s threat. “Everyone this season as a defender one v one against him will have a tough afternoon,” the Liverpool captain said. “He’s a very good dribbler and one v one.”

Liverpool have rescued 12 points from losing positions in the top flight this season and, while Van Dijk said they needed to stop falling behind so much, he praised their resilience and hopes the draw against City proves a “very important” point.

“This year we are looking consistent, something we were missing last year, but we are in November with a difficult period coming up and anything can happen,” he said.