NXGN x Euro 2020: Why Doku could be Belgium’s game-changer
By Robin Bairner
As a country with a population of around 11.5 million, Belgium have certainly punched above their weight in world football for much of the last decade.
Ahead of Euro 2020 they sit atop the world rankings, and while there is a fear that the ‘Golden Generation’ of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku may have its last genuine chance to win a major world prize in the next couple of years, fellow squad member Jeremy Doku offers evidence that the small nation is still producing footballers with outstanding potential.
The 19-year-old will, after all, travel to the summer’s European Championship as one of the youngest players involved in the competition, just months after placing 14th on the annual NXGN list of the world’s top teenage footballers.
He already has six caps to his name, having debuted in September 2020 against Denmark, while a week later he netted a wonderful curling effort in a 5-1 win over Iceland to mark his first international goal.
Although he missed out on a November meeting with Italy after suffering from some difficulties at club level, he was offered a recall in March, and excelled by scoring once and creating two more in a victory over Belarus.
“Doku has made an impression already,” head coach Roberto Martinez said before the nippy winger had even pulled on the national team’s jersey in a competitive setting, so impressed was he with the youngster’s contribution in training.
Martinez, though, would long have had Doku on his radar. The player is well established in the Belgian system, having elected to play for the country of his birth over Ghana, the nation of his parents.
It was at the Under-17 European Championship in 2018 where he first caught the eye on an international stage, by netting against Denmark as Belgium made it through to the semi-finals. By the time he was 17, he was already playing for the U21s side, and within a year had graduated to the senior team.
Doku plays his club football in Rennes, where the Ligue 1 side undoubtedly feel they have a star of the future.
He arrived in Brittany seven games into the 2020-21 season, having already played seven matches at the start of the campaign for Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht.
Indeed, Rennes were so eager to sign Doku, they hastily offloaded Raphinha to Leeds United in order to make space in their squad for the exciting youngster.
With two goals and three assists to his name, it is fair to reflect on the season and say that he has not provided an immediate return on that club-record €26 million (£23.5m/$30.5m) investment, but there is no doubt the potential is there.
“I don’t like making comparisons, but he reminds me of the case of Sadio Mane at Metz, where he scored just two goals,” former Rennes boss Julien Stephan said in February. “He’s only 18 and we want him to be ultra-decisive now. If he was, he wouldn’t be at Rennes.
“He’s a worker and someone seeking to make himself better. He has room for improvement and we all see him working to improve.”
Liverpool star Mane, it is worth pointing out, was a year older than Doku and scored his goals in France’s second and third tier before moving on to Red Bull Salzburg, where his trajectory accelerated.
Interestingly, these comparisons to Mane are not the first time such parallels have been drawn. Indeed, Liverpool have even eyed Doku to replace the Senegal star in the long term.
“Jurgen Klopp explained how he saw a potential successor to Sadio Mane in Jeremy,” Doku's father, David, told Het Nieuwsblad.
“At the age of 16, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Man City, Ajax and PSV were interested. We then visited clubs like Liverpool and Ajax. My preference was Liverpool.
“Steven Gerrard showed us videos with tactical analysis. At the training complex [Simon] Mignolet, Mane and [Georginio] Wijnaldum came to talk to us. How we were received there - damn!”
Ultimately, it was a video message from Lukaku – one of just a handful of players to have made his Belgium debut at a younger age than Doku – that persuaded the teenager to remain in at Anderlecht a little longer.
“I preferred to be careful,” Doku explained to Ouest France in March. “I know what my background must be. That’s why I say that at 15 my career got serious for me, because at that point I started to focus on it.
“I knew which route I had to take, and I knew at that point I had to stay at Anderlecht. And when I’m asked if I regret it, I say no all the time.”
Anderlecht, after all, was Doku’s home.
He had joined the 34-time Belgian champions as a 10-year-old from his local club in Antwerp, and was quickly embraced as a potential star.
While with the Lotto Park outfit, he debuted at just 16, but took 14 league matches to register a goal or an assist.
Once he got going, though, he proved difficult to stop. In the 19 subsequent games he played in Belgium’s top flight, he offered an impressive return of five goals and seven assists.
When stepping out of his comfort zone in France, particularly under the microscope of a large fee and the weight of expectation, again he initially struggled.
In particular, the long wait for his first goal seemed to weigh upon him. Ultimately it arrived against Metz in March, as he struck a fine low shot into the corner of the goal, but his momentum was checked by a red card in the same game that saw him suspended for two matches.
When he returned, having played a starring role for Belgium during the international break, he did so with a second goal, this time against Angers.
This was now the Doku of the opening two months of the season in Belgium, where he had netted four Jupiler League goals in just seven games.
No more goals followed before the end of the campaign, but Doku cut an increasingly confident figure. This was evident as he completed a Ligue 1-high 12 dribbles in an encounter against Bordeaux, despite Rennes playing over 80 minutes with just 10 men. Doku provided his side a valuable outlet and even hit the post in a 1-1 draw.
A week later, he was teasing the Paris Saint-Germain defence in another draw that ultimately cost the capital side the title.
What makes Doku so special is his ability to dribble with the ball at incredible pace. He may only stand at 5’7” (170cm), but a little like Wolves’ Adama Traore, he is powerfully built and tough to shrug off the ball.
While those comparisons are perhaps obvious given his stature and pace, it is Eden Hazard that he models himself on.
The end-of-season Ligue 1 stats show that no player in the division completed more dribbles than Doku. According to Opta, he finished the campaign on 110, well clear of everyone in the league, including PSG stars Neymar and Kylian Mbappe – and tellingly with a better completion percentage than both.
“When I was little, it was often said that I dribbled too much. They would tell me to stop. But I kept going," he told Het Laatste Nieuws in March.
"This is one piece of advice I give to young dribblers: keep doing it, even if you don't get there right away. Don't hide. A lot of it depends on how confident you are. When I dribble, I know I go past my man half the time.
"I saw the statistics recently. I'm the best dribbler in Ligue 1. Not bad in a league with Neymar and Mbappe, eh?"
Clearly, the decisiveness that the two most expensive players in world football offer in the final third is not yet there, but Rennes are hopeful that it will come. Doku, meanwhile, believes having Thierry Henry in his corner with the national team will help.
“He’s a great player and I hope to work with him on my finishing, which is exactly the point I need to improve,” he told the press before analysing how his game has developed in Rennes.
“Before I went there, I was mostly a dribbler, waiting for the ball to my feet on the left wing. This year, my game has become more complete, I can do more things. I’m better on the right, notably, and I’ve improved by volume of play and my positioning.”
His employers, too, are impressed with what they have seen.
“Looking at his potential, it’s possible that he will be solicited with offers this summer, but it’s clear that he’ll be with us next season,” Rennes president Nicolas Holveck said recently, before adding: “If there’s an offer of €100m, we’ll consider it.”
Rennes are certainly a club that knows potential when they see it. Even among France’s myriad of impressive academies, theirs stands out as one of the foremost, with Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele perhaps their most prominent current graduate. Indeed, having also produced Eduardo Camavinga, they have on their hands arguably the greatest young central midfielder in the world.
And they are confident that in Doku, they have another world-class teenager among their ranks.
"I think he has a great future,” former Anderlecht club-mate Samir Nasri said. “He has crazy quality in one-on-ones and is an explosive dribbler. When he was younger, he maybe lacked a bit of cardio and finishing, but he's erased that since the start of the season. He can be one of the best 20 players in the world one day.”
The future is indeed exciting for Doku, who is now working under the guidance of Bruno Genesio, who was successful in establishing so many promising young players at Lyon.
“He’s comfortable on the right, he’s also very comfortable on the left, but I also tell myself that he could be very comfortable in a two-man attack with another player. And since he’s very young, these are things that we can work on in training. That could be a possibility in the medium term,” Genesio said.
More immediately, he is with Belgium, and may well be forced to stand-in for his boyhood hero, Hazard, if the Real Madrid star suffers more physical issues ahead of Euro 2020.
Doku, meanwhile, still harbours hopes of that move to Anfield one day coming to fruition.
“If Liverpool came for me at 15, if they like me, they’ll come back later. That’s for sure. It’s up to me to be good,” he told Ouest France.
And Euro 2020 offers him the perfect stage to show the world his talents, which have the capacity to make him one of the game’s most sought after wide attackers.