West Ham goalkeeper Alphonse Areola saw Tomas Soucek clear an instinctive Erling Haaland shot off the line and watched Edson Alvarez stop the superstar striker’s tight-angled prod in the goalmouth.
The former Paris Saint-Germain player held his breath in between those two attempts when Haaland erred with the goal at his mercy at the back post.
After halftime at the London Stadium on Saturday, Areola really started to get his hands dirty against Haaland and Manchester City. He reacted brilliantly to beat away one of the No. 9’s flying kung-fu volleys, he held a towering header and flung himself in the way as the Ballon d’Or contender tried to steer home Kyle Walker’s low cross.
By that stage, in the 82nd minute, Haaland had registered eight shots. Five on target, two blocked. He collected Bernardo Silva’s pass four minutes later and drilled attempt number nine unerringly beyond Arreola to seal a 3-1 win and make it five league wins out of five in 2023/24 for the reigning champions.
“Yeah, I tried,” Areola said ruefully afterwards. “He had lots of shots but defensively we were strong and really worked well against him and against City.
“He’s on a different planet so we have to try our best against these type of teams and players.
“We managed to push them away from the goals but they created lots of chances and at the end they managed to score. They have the players to make the difference as well. Jeremy Doku did an incredible game as well.”
When City travelled to east London on the opening weekend of last season, Haaland was the standout performer, the difference-maker as he scored twice on his league debut to secure a 2-0 win. This time around that distinction fell to Belgium winger Doku, whose second appearance since joining from Rennes for £55.5m last month brought his first goal.
Haaland might be, as Arreola says, “on a different planet”; by the time West Ham right-back Vladimir Coufal was substituted in the 87th minute, he’d have been wishing Doku was at least in a different postcode.
Tourists who slide down the 178m helter-skelter around the ArcelorMittal Orbit overlooking the London Stadium have probably emerged feeling less dizzy than Coufal did from his encounter with the livewire 21-year-old.
The Czech Republic international stuck to his task manfully and looked to provide a counter-thrust whenever possible, never more effectively than when he crossed for a stooping James Ward-Prowse to give West Ham a first-half lead.
Doku restored parity within a minute of the restart, forcing Coufal to retreat as he darted in from the left flank and caressed a shot into the far corner.
“We start from the back and build up and look for the free man – [Julian] Alvarez and he looks for me,” Doku explained following what has probably amounted to a crash course in City’s intricate tactics. “I try to keep the ball moving, accelerate and go one-v-one and I decided to shoot. I’m telling it like it’s easy but it’s not. It was a nice goal.”
5️⃣ wins from 5️⃣
Pep Guardiola, back on the touchline after surgery last month and still sporting a back brace, was effusive in his praise of Doku afterwards. By contrast, Rodri, one of City’s main on-field lieutenants, took it upon himself to tell the new boy that there’s plenty more improvement to be made. As we saw during Guardiola’s recent absence, this is a team capable of running itself to a significant extent.
“It’s clear he has to loosen up. His quality and his ability is one one-on-one,” the Spain midfielder said of his new teammate.
“It’s not easy because he always attacks defences that are closed. He has to learn to choose the moment when to go because he has an incredible ability with that speed and that quickness.”
Doku remarked that his new colleagues are “very good on TV but in real life they’re even better”. At West Ham, two long-serving stalwarts whose work can sometimes go unseen on screen were to the fore.
Walker put in another gargantuan shift at right-back, tearing around the outside of Phil Foden during the first half in a similar manner to the pair’s destructive combination for England against Scotland last midweek.
West Ham got a grip on that lopsided City tactic and Guardiola’s halftime tweaks featured Walker dropping into a more conventional right-back role and Silva pushing up from alongside Rodri into an attacking midfield position, frequently switching positions with Foden on the right wing.
“We tried to react to the conditions,” Guardiola said. “With the movement from Kyle wide we created a back five, with Kyle inside we created a back four. Kyle, the game he had was amazing.”
Silva’s intelligence and versatility similarly makes light of Guardiola’s squad being surprisingly light on numbers. John Stones Jack Grealish, Mateo Kovacic and Kevin De Bruyne are all sidelined as City prepare for the start of their Champions League defence against Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday.
The Portugal international scored the game-breaking second goal against West Ham on the end of Julian Alvarez’s chipped pass and then set up Haaland shortly after Walker had tried to do likewise.
It was impossible to imagine City being so effective at the London Stadium without Walker or Silva. As Bayern Munich turned the defender’s head during the summer and Silva was once again the subject of admiring glances from Barcelona and PSG, that was a very real possibility.
“Losing Kyle and Bernardo would have been so tough,” Guardiola said, with both men having been persuaded to pen contract extensions until 2026. “It’s not about how important they are on the pitch but they are personalities and many things that are almost irreplaceable.
“The characters in the team need one year, two years, three years. Maybe the players who are substituted in have the quality and will be good but what [Silva and Walker] have is difficult [to replace].
“After losing important players like Ilkay [Gundogan] and Riyad [Mahrez], losing two more would have been really important. That’s why we are really pleased that the players want to stay.”
Player of the weekend? Doku, no question. But as he gets ready to bring his quick-stepping box of tricks to the Champions League, he’ll need a few more show-stopping displays to be considered City’s most important signing of the summer.
When Guardiola calls Walker and Silva “almost” irreplaceable, he might just be underplaying it a little bit.