Raw, electric and exciting. Jérémy Doku is the untested, under-the-radar weapon in a seasoned Belgium squad at Euro 2020.
The expectations and demands of the modern wide attacker have shifted dramatically in the last decade.
Once they were expected to be speedy outlets on the counter, to race forward and cross from wide, isolated positions. Goals were rarely the measure of a winger, such was the permanence of a strike partnership between each wing.
These goalposts have been moved. The freakish exploits in front of goal from two of the game’s greatest have redefined what a winger is expected to be. From their inspiration has birthed another generation in the Ronaldo-Messi vein. Devastating goalscorers, cutting in from wide and not compromising on the returns.
Jérémy Doku is atypical of this development. Still only eighteen, his potential to be this mould of attacker is frightening. At current, he is an inconsistent, developing winger from the textbook of those older style wingers honed in the early 2000s.
He is the youngest player in Belgium’s ageing Euro 2020 squad. A group of players beginning their stroll into a potentially trophy-less sunset. Jérémy Doku is the explosive shot in the arm that could arrest their decline.
A “breakout” season?
In October 2020, in the delayed summer transfer widow ahead of the 20/21 season, eighteen year old Jérémy Doku hopped the Belgian-France border.
Stade Rennais had been impressed by his thirty seven appearances for Anderlecht. So impressed that they would pay a hefty €26 million for his services. This transfer ranks among the fifty highest paid for a player under the age of 20. It was an impressive statement of intent from Rennes.
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Gone are the days of allowing a young talent to mature and develop before forking out on them. The game now lies in spotting them, still wet behind the ears, and throwing financial masonry their way to snare them young.
Doku had played only two seasons of senior football for Anderlecht. He had risen through their academy ranks from the age of ten, making his debut for the club in 2018, at just sixteen.
Thirty seven appearances in al competitions yielded six goals and seven assists, mostly featuring from the substitutes bench. The spark and flair shown as an impact sub were eye catching.
Few would have imagined that his first season in France would be one of such intensity. Only seven players in the Rennes squad played more than Doku’s 2,313 Ligue 1 minutes. Only 100 fewer than their revered starboy Eduardo Camavinga.
Rennes took only eight points more than they did across the previous league season. That third placed finish in 2019/20 came when the campaign was cut short after 28 matchdays. Eight more points from an extra ten games was a disappointing return. For his vast number of minutes played, Doku too might have expected a greater return personally.
It is harsh to criticise one so young as Jérémy Doku for having inconsistencies in their final product. Even he could not have anticipated the exposure he would get so soon after arriving at Rennes.
These are the career years of development. Of ironing out the raw energy and enthusiasm. To make impacts little and often, and stake one’s place in the team long term.
Two goals and three assists, from an xG of 3 and xA of 3.67, are indicative of this phase.
It might also be the consequence of a unique playing style. Doku belies the regimental, system oriented infatuations of the modern game. An individual maverick capable of unique explosions of brilliance in a match. Such tendencies do not yet lend themselves to high end production.
Doku is also a right footed winger, playing mostly on the right. His extreme one-on-one dribbling often takes him past the outside of the opposing left back. These are not typical positions for a wide attacker to produce from in the modern game, certainly without an elite centre forward to bury chances centrally.
A touchline hugging winger is one of the game’s great entertaining roles however. And when one is as fast, and willing to embarrass the opponent like Doku is, then the spectacle alone is warranted.
A Devilish dribbler
Jérémy Doku is a brilliant dribbler. There is little to be doubted here, both in watching him scorch wide patches of turf, nor in admiring his statistics in this metric.
Only Kylian Mbappé attempted more than Doku’s 271 ‘1 vs 1’ dribbles in Ligue in 20/21. Doku also fetaured in the ten most fouled players in the league, and was the youngest by a considerable margin.
This is league that featured some of Europe’s best ball carriers. Mbappé, Neymar, Romain Faivre, Memphis Depay. Yet Doku, in his first campaign in a ‘top five’ league, held his own.
His 9.96 attempted dribbles are a monstrous effort. Doku is currently only completing 56.1% of these carries, but that is to be expected when: a) the volume of attempts is so high, and b) that he is such a constant outlet for his side in transitioning the ball. To win close to five dribbles a game, in any league, is impressive. So impressive in fact that it puts him in the upper 1% of all wingers in Europe’s top five leagues.
Doku also played more passes into the opposition penalty area than any other Rennes player. His 41 key passes too were only outdone by midfielder Benjamin Bourigeaud. His assist count might not reflect his creative powers, but his intent to create and endanger defences around the penalty area cannot be denied.
This facet of his game will only grow. 3.50 shot creating actions show his involvement in the creation of offensive chances. Doku is already contributing in this fashion. Upping his lowly 1.25 shots per 90 will be the next phase to improve him further still.
Doku the Red Devil
Reaction to the inclusion of Jérémy Doku in the Belgian squad was limited. Eyes were mostly focussed on the passing of time this team has become beholden too. Also, that Doku has rightfully earned his place in Roberto Martinez’s plans.
Making his debut in September 2020, Doku scored on just his second appearance. Standing up the Iceland left back, he jinked and jerked before leathering a shot home. He currently has eight caps and two goals to his name for Belgium.
Interestingly, the Jérémy Doku of Belgium plays predominantly on the opposite side to the one of Rennes. The left winger rather than right, this is to accommodate the tendencies of Kevin de Bruyne to operate in the half right space, rather than exploit Doku’s talents (one would imagine).
However it results in a greater goal threat, and allows Doku to bring that direct ball carrying into central, threatening areas. This is the closest model found to replicate the work of Eden Hazard in that left channel.
Jérémy Doku is no like for like of Hazard however. Hazard is a refined, cultured maneuverer. One of slights feints, wriggling through space and fine touches. Doku is a hoppy, athletic kind of runner. His legs hoop and whirl as he bounds over outstretched legs and powers past.
If anything, Doku is closer to the moulds of Sadio Mane and Wilfred Zaha. The trajectories of these two wingers, and their beginnings as inconsistent finishers and goal scorers, gives Jérémy Doku the level with which he can strive to.
The impact player
Belgium’s golden generation endures. However this is not in the bright acclaim it was once held. In stars like Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne, Belgium retain arguably their two greatest ever players. A favourable Euro group too might see them go far by default of ease of opposition.
Yet the rest of this group is creaking. The defence pair of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen is aged, and past its peak. Youri Tielemans is a fine midfielder on the rise, but is there a suitable player of quality to sit next to him? For a team set on playing a 3-4-3, Belgium’s wing-backs are also decidedly makeshift.
The Red Devils are the tournament’s oldest squad, averaging 28.7 years per player. The likes of Thomas, Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Axel Witsel contribute to this high figure. Even the stars of Lukaku, Dries Mertens, de Bruyne and the woefully out of practice Eden Hazard sit at the higher end of this average.
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At just nineteen, Jérémy Doku is nearly a decade younger than Belgium’s average age. With this comes a lack of experience and nouse of course. However for a team that has yet to realise its potential, and likely will not, this might be no bad thing.
In a physical sense too, Doku is the blistering attacker Belgium otherwise lack. Such are Hazard’s woes of injury and form that he might not even start. A trident of Mertens and de Bruyne behind Lukaku is therefore most likely.
With Belgium chasing the game, and requiring a wide attacker to stretch defences, it could be Doku and not Hazard that represents the best option.
The likes of France, England and Portugal possess a mercurial whim to their attacking options. Player in form that can decide the most tepid affair with moments of magic. Belgium are desperate for someone other than the established names mentioned to provide this.
There is no guarantee that Doku will get the chance to do so. However turning to him, and not those that have stumbled in red and black before, could be Roberto Martinez’s bravest call.
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