What Manuel Akanji’s surprising Man City career tells us about Jeremy Doku and Pep Guardiola

ETIHAD STADIUM, MANCHESTER — Pep Guardiola was keen to lavish praise on Manchester City’s best player against Liverpool.

Erling Haaland opened the scoring before Trent Alexander-Arnold’s late strike ensured Saturday’s early kickoff at the Etihad Stadium finished 1-1, allowing Arsenal to leapfrog both teams with victory over Brentford and move to the top of the table.

Nevertheless, Guardiola was buoyant afterwards in his own idiosyncratic way.

“It was a masterpiece,” the City boss said of his star man’s performance. “He played moving at the right tempo, the right moment, breaking the lines, contact with the wingers. 

“It’s really, really, really good. Hats off. The game in Chelsea was the same.”

MORE: Man City vs Liverpool final score, highlights, result as Alexander-Arnold cancels out Haaland strike to earn Reds point

But Guardiola wasn’t talking about Jeremy Doku, whose relentlessly dazzling play down the left wing twisted Alexander-Arnold, Joel Matip and a host of other Liverpool players into uncomfortable shapes over the course of the afternoon. He was praising Manuel Akanji.

The Switzerland international arrived from Borussia Dortmund on transfer deadline day last August to none of the fanfare that accompanied Erling Haaland making the same trip a couple of months earlier. On the face of it, City had paid £15million ($17m) for a fifth-choice centre-back. 

As it turned out, Akanji’s instant understanding of his brief from Guardiola and his unexpected versatility made him a vital component in a treble-winning side.

A career centre-back, the right-footed Akanji was pressed into action as an emergency left-back in the high-stakes clash with Premier League title rivals Arsenal in April and the Champions League semifinal, second leg against Real Madrid. City won those games 4-1 and 4-0 respectively.

This season, as injury has severely restricted John Stones, Akanji has been plucked from an array of defensive ball players to fill the England international’s hybrid defender/midfielder role. He might not be as easy on the eye as Stones, but Guardiola has no doubts over his effectiveness.

“What a signing the club has done with that guy. He can play full-back, he can play central defender, now he can play holding midfielder,” he said of the 28-year-old. “When he arrives in the final third he has the ability to make passes. He’s fast, he’s strong.

“I’m very pleased with Manu. He’s started to play in those [midfield] positions. Yesterday and the day before we spent a lot of time [working on] where you have to move against Liverpool and Manu and Rodri were… oh my God.”

MORE: Jack Grealish vs Jeremy Doku: Pep Guardiola’s Barbenheimer dilemma ahead of Man United vs Man City

Guardiola’s delight with a more unheralded member of his team feels instructive given the increasingly loud conversation around Doku.

Since Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling shone in the Catalan’s first title-winning team in Manchester, the onus has gradually shifted to more control in wide areas, with players adept at holding width and retaining possession such as Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish preferred as the thrust came centrally from the likes of Kevin De Bruyne.

Doku, a £55.5m arrival from Rennes this summer, feels like a radical and thrilling departure. He dribbles compulsively at opponents, with his 11 take-ons against Liverpool one of the most discussed statistics of the Premier League weekend.

It didn’t result in any assists, though, chime the naysayers. The counter to that is Doku had little control over Julian Alvarez ballooning off target from inside the box or an otherwise off-colour Alisson brilliantly denying Haaland at close quarters.

Doku’s prominence at City this season has been taken as a symbol of a significant and deliberate change to a more direct approach from Guardiola. Signing midfield ball-carriers such as Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes adds further weight to the argument that death by 1,000 passes is dead.

However, this speaks of a tendency to assume that every move Guardiola makes is part of an over-arching grand plan. Akanji wouldn’t have found himself at left-back against Real Madrid or romping around in midfield against Liverpool if this was the case.

Yes, Guardiola is a Cruyffian disciple with pronounced ideas about his chosen way of playing the game. But he also makes intuitive calls on the fly, using limited time on the training field within a packed schedule judiciously. This season’s more direct approach is informed as much by injury problems for Stones and Grealish, along with the departure of Ilkay Gundogan, as it is the exciting form of Doku and Alvarez. Those who adapt and show they can be trusted with Guardiola’s malleable strategies will always thrive.

“It’s not so much about premeditated versions in a laboratory of ideas, but about projects that emerge naturally during matches and training sessions based on the performance of the players and how opponents react,” a source close to the City manager told The Sporting News recently. “Pep is like a doctor who constantly takes the pulse of his team and modifies his intentions according to how the players and their performances evolve.”

The doctor analogy might be a little on the nose after a sickness bug ruled Grealish out against Liverpool, denying Guardiola a potential point of difference in a match where he made no substitutions.

While a Doku-propelled attack is the most effective way for City to take down opponents right now, there’s no reason to assume it is the manager’s defined vision for the future. It feels fairly certain that Guardiola’s team will look different when the season run-in comes around and in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Fielding four central defenders for a showpiece game reads like something Tony Pulis might have done, but it’s exactly what Guardiola did to neutralise Internazionale in June’s Champions League final. Alvarez was signed from River Plate as a centre-forward, showed he could thrive a little deeper and has started every Premier League game this season as an attacking midfielder.

Doku is obviously a big part of City’s future. But what that looks like under Guardiola is ever-evolving and unpredictable, somewhat removed from the “robot team” reputation. Just ask Akanji, his boss’ current favourite centre-back/full-back/midfielder.

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