J.érémy Doku had a busy month; he started the season scoring in Rennes’ 5-1 win over Metz and made his Manchester City debut against Fulham on Saturday, winning by the same scoreline. This week he joins Belgium for two important European Championship qualifiers as the new-look Red Devils set their sights on Germany next summer.
The 21-year-old has two new head coaches to work under after joining Pep Guardiola in East Manchester and Domenico Tedesco with the national team, who come with a new set of teammates and strategies. Belgium have collected seven points from three matches and wins over Azerbaijan and Estonia could seal a place at Euro 2024.
Belgium’s golden generation are dwindling in numbers after failing to live up to their expectations at major tournaments. Many believed Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Toby Alderweireld would be central to the first-ever major trophy for the country. Hazard, Alderweireld and Axel Witsel have retired, De Bruyne’s body is struggling with the rigors of club and international football, while Thibaut Courtois is out for a long time with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, which which makes them a very different group to the one that limped out of the World Cup in the group stage, costing Roberto Martínez his job.
In the current squad, there are 15 players with fewer than 10 caps; Doku is a relative veteran with 14. He will have to take on greater responsibilities, including the Manchester City player title, as he looks to help revitalize Belgium. The Red Devils cannot afford to look back on their absent legends, but should instead focus on an exciting collection of young players, such as Charles De Ketelaere, Johan Bakayoko and Amadou Onana, who will be at the forefront of ‘a number of upcoming qualifying campaigns. .
Doku is used to being a central point in the national team. “I saw a game he played with the Under-15s and you immediately saw that he was very talented,” said his Belgian youth coach Bob Browaeys. “At that time, a lot was already written about him as a fantastic player. He was really talented from an early age but he still needed to improve. It’s dangerous to predict a great career when a boy is 13 or 14, but I’ve seen the talent.
Despite the pressure, Doku was undeterred, instead wanting to enjoy football for what it is: a game. He was desperate to take on opponents with his phenomenal dribbling abilities, even though his talents were already widely known and that the teams were going to double the central player of Belgium. “He was one of the best, uniquely; his speed was unbelievable, he was able to stop his movement and then start again and no one could follow him,” explains Browaeys. “His speed was really a weapon, he made the difference with his combination of speed and dribbling.”
Doku’s natural abilities had brought him this far, but to take it to the next level, he had to understand that playing the pro game wouldn’t always be so easy. Browaeys moved Doku from his preferred role from left to right in order to make him adapt and go from someone who would step in for a shot to a player who can beat a man and cross. On his City debut, he swung from left to right, a sign the modern winger needs such variation.
“He’s a smart guy,” says Browaeys. “Sometimes in training he can seem quite nonchalant, that it’s just for fun and he would play like it’s just a game but when he needs to be serious, he east. We talked about football with him, about tactics and he was very keen to learn. What was very important was to find the right balance between not killing his creativity and being efficient.”
What really excited Doku was the prospect of performing in front of large crowds, to give him the audience he deserved. This could explain why he chose to stay at Anderlecht as a teenager to play for the first team, rather than move to Liverpool where he would have to wait. “He looked like Eden Hazard,” explains Browaeys, “who was the same at that age; he was phlegmatic and didn’t care what was going on around him. Doku was cool, he was never stressed.
Doku has scored 10 goals and created seven more in 75 Ligue 1 appearances for Rennes, a ratio Guardiola will be eager to increase. Like Hazard, Doku left France for England and hopes to enjoy the same career trajectory. “If there’s anyone who can help improve Doku’s skills and decision-making, it’s going to be Guardiola,” Browaeys says. “One thing he needs to improve is to score more goals and get more assists, but that’s normal. It was the same with Eden Hazard at the start of his career. I compare the two at 15 years – Doku has a different physique from Eden but the way he plays can make a difference, Eden needed to be more efficient in using his skills to have a greater impact on the team.
If Doku is to become Belgium’s leader they may need a little help from Guardiola for the winger to reach his potential, but it’s a group of Red Devils he won’t shy away from to take to new heights.