It felt like there was a growing inevitability that PSV Eindhoven and Netherlands forward Cody Gakpo would become a Manchester United player.
Among United’s fanbase, there was plenty of optimism that Gakpo, who has scored 55 goals and made 50 assists for PSV in 159 appearances, would make the move to Old Trafford in 2023. However, in the past 24 hours, that notion collapsed and the 23-year-old will join Liverpool.
PSV’s announcement on Monday evening that they had reached an agreement with Liverpool took many by surprise — not least because of United’s long-running interest.
Another reason, though, is Liverpool’s need for midfield reinforcements.
Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner’s contracts will expire at the end of the season, Jordan Henderson and Thiago are both in their thirties, and freshening up the midfield has long felt like a priority for Liverpool.
So to see a new left winger on the cusp of joining — a year on from signing a player of a very similar profile in Luis Diaz from Porto — is not what many fans expected, particularly when the club is up for sale and there has been a lot of changes in the recruitment department, too.
Even so, there is much to celebrate in the fact that a young player who lit up the World Cup for the Netherlands has chosen Liverpool.
But where will Gakpo fit in? And what will last season’s Dutch footballer of the year bring to Anfield? The Athletic takes a closer look…
Jurgen Klopp described Diaz’s fresh injury blow as “a proper smash in the face” after it was announced that the Colombian will be sidelined until March. Diogo Jota, who can also play on the left, is not expected back until February. The prospect of heading into the new year missing two key players was too much for Liverpool to countenance, particularly with Champions League qualification in jeopardy.
The feeling at Liverpool is that in terms of his age, price, timing and profile, Gakpo is a good fit. He is only 23, which means he has plenty of time to develop, but that relative inexperience also comes with an aspect of risk. He is by no means the finished article.
A buy like Gakpo also signals how Liverpool are slowly transitioning from an older front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah to a younger attacking core of players. Darwin Nunez, for example, is 23, and Diaz and Jota are 25 and 26 respectively.
Gakpo’s versatility is another big positive on Liverpool’s checklist.
When the club first scouted him in 2014, he was playing as a centre-forward at PSV’s academy. There is belief at the club that he can play across the forward line, which means he will not just add to options on the left.
Klopp and his staff regard Gakpo as a team player and instinctive finisher with great speed; one who is always looking aggressively towards the goal and can either shoot from a distance or combine with others to get in front of the goalkeeper.
There is great excitement about him at Kirkby, as well as an acknowledgment that Gakpo will need to be coached well to continue his development in a new league away from home for the first time.
Having players who can play in more than one position, though, has always been important for Liverpool under Klopp. It will also give the manager more scope to rest and rotate key players as well as mix it up more tactically — something Liverpool were forced to do regularly in the early months of the season as they struggled for form. Having more competition for places should ensure such players as Oxlade-Chamberlain (who played on the left in the 3-1 win at Aston Villa on Monday) can return to their preferred positions.
How Gakpo’s arrival impacts Fabio Carvalho, however, will be interesting. He played and scored from the left against Manchester City in Liverpool’s Carabao Cup defeat last week but will now have another player to compete with on the left wing.
Gakpo also has experience playing as an attacking midfielder, as he proved when used centrally for the Netherlands during the World Cup.
Louis van Gaal’s team operates without wingers so Gakpo had to adapt his game to break into the national team. He has played not only as part of the front two but also as the No 10 behind two strikers.
Having said that, Gakpo is almost always on the left wing for PSV, in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation under head coach Ruud van Nistelrooy, as his profile below from last season shows.
He is 6ft 2in (188cm), which is tall for a winger and also adds to the feeling that he has the attributes needed to develop into or be used as a No 9 in the future.
“His skills are very diversified. He’s able to go outside his full-back, he has the pace to run behind the defenders centrally, and he can cut inside from the left and shoot,” Ryan Babel wrote during the World Cup.
“He smells the doubt in defenders, and what you can see during games is how he is constantly looking around for opportunities. Sometimes he will drop deep to receive the ball, sometimes he will move to the side to create space. Other times it’s staying central.”
Liverpool were also attracted to Gakpo because of the qualities Babel lists, particularly his directness when dribbling with the ball, his speed, energy and how comfortable he is running into space.
Gakpo’s three goals at the World Cup gave us a good insight into his growing skill set.
The first was a header scored after a drifting run from the right wing into the box to meet Frenkie de Jong’s cross and give the Netherlands a late lead against Senegal…
His second goal in the 1-1 draw with Ecuador was scored after good link-up play and movement. Look at the central position he adopts here…
…before turning, finding space and shooting with his left foot from the edge of the box.
It was a wonderful goal but Gakpo struggled to break down the Ecuador defense in a disappointing performance overall. Breaking down low blocks and having the patience to do so is something often required at Liverpool, with teams sitting deep in an attempt to stifle Klopp’s attack. Adapting to what is required of him at Liverpool may take some time.
In the final group game against Qatar, Gakpo scored with his favored right foot to complete a World Cup hat-trick of sorts.
It was another intelligent passage of play as Gakpo held his run to drop back and collect the ball…
…before driving forward and smashing a finish into the bottom right corner.
His finishing stands out. He loves to shoot from just outside or near the edge of the box. He can strike the ball with either foot and often cleanly into either corner.
In the past couple of seasons, however, he has also increased the number of chances he has created for his teammates. Gakpo has become a double threat for PSV; a player just as likely to score as he is to set up a team-mate. Look how much he stands out among players in the Eredivisie last season in this regard…
When it comes to chance creation, his numbers from last season are also impressive.
Have a look at his smarterscout pizza chart from last season, which gives a series of ratings from zero and 99 depending on how often a player performs a given stylistic action or how effective they are at it compared with others in their position.
Gakpo’s expected goals (xG) from shot creation (how much a player’s actions contribute to creating scoring chances) was rated 90 out of 99. His xG from ball progression (how much a player’s actions increase the likelihood of his side scoring when in possession by getting the ball into dangerous areas upfield) was rated at 93 out of 99. Gakpo is also an above-average shooter with his shot volume (how often a player takes a shot out of the total touches they have) at 84.
If we compare that with his numbers from this season, we can see his xG from shot creation (97) and xG from ball progression (98) is even better. Gakpo has scored 13 times and completed 17 assists in all competitions for PSV in 2022-23.
Rated 92, Gakpo’s progressive passing (how many passes he attempts that move his team 10 meters or more upfield per attacking touch) is also markedly up on the season before (62). He has been vital in getting PSV on the move.
While there is some cause for concern with Gakpo’s defending and pressing, his defending intensity (86) has increased this season. However, his recoveries and receptions have decreased (14).
One area where he has shown promise is his delivery from corners. In October, Gakpo lofted a perfect corner into Luuk de Jong who headed in for PSV in their 2-0 win over Arsenal in the Europa League.
In the past two seasons, Liverpool have worked closely with neuroscientists Dr. Niklas Hausler and Patrick Hantschke of German-based company neuro11 to improve their success from dead-ball situations.
Gakpo is no stranger to extracurricular coaching having spent the past 12 months working with tactics coach Loran Vrielink. The pair do weekly sessions to analyze Gakpo’s performances.
The work for Gakpo, though, starts now. He will need to adapt quickly, just like Diaz did 12 months ago, and ensure his dominant performances in the Eredivisie and Europa League become more consistent and can be replicated in the Premier League and Champions League for Liverpool.
Additional contributors: James Pearce and Simon Hughes
Where to go next on The Athletic…
(Top photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images)