Cody Gakpo is having himself a time on international duty.
After scoring the second goal in a 3-0 win over Kostas Tsimikas’ Greece last Thursday, he followed it up by scoring the equaliser via the penalty spot in Dublin against Caoimhin Kelleher’s Republic of Ireland (although the Cork native was an unused substitute) as they came from behind to win 2-1 in a crucial game for Euro 2024 qualification.
Something is different when Cody Gakpo lines up in the Oranje of his country – he plays as a left winger – his ‘natural’ position. When Liverpool secured the Eindhoven-born Gakpo’s services – out of almost nowhere – in January 2023, most people were a bit perplexed. After all, despite injuries to both Luis Díaz and Diogo Jota, Jürgen Klopp’s squad looked quite deep in that position long-term. It was the midfield that was in desperate need of reinforcements, and if any area of the attack needed someone brought in, the majority would have prioritised cover for the heavily relied-upon Mohamed Salah on the other side.
In the ten months and 30 competitive appearances since moving to Merseyside, Gakpo has started just two of those in his ‘preferred’ position. Both of those were against Wolves, one of those was his debut, and both were within around a month of him moving to the club (the second game coming in the first week of February). The rest of his games have been in central areas, with 21 games as a centre forward, two as a central midfielder and one as an attacking midfielder.
Gakpo in central areas (long term) wasn’t a popular choice, or one even an obvious one. Despite his 6ft 4in frame and (apologies for the cliché) “good touch for a big man”, he was nearly always used as a left-winger for his boyhood club – playing 118 of his 159 appearances for PSV from the left. Yet it now feels unlikely that we’ll see Gakpo there at Anfield any time soon.
And why would we need to?
While I have issues with him starting in midfield as I detailed last week, he’s taken to the false nine role that Klopp has used for most of his time at Anfield with aplomb (okay, there were some teething issues, but most of those ironed themselves out quick enough). There are some specific things that make The Netherlands international so effective in this role.
The first of these is his ability to identify space and drop deep to receive the ball – like a certain Brazilian with shiny teeth who we all adored so much.
Above is Gakpo’s heatmap from the Premier League in 2022/23 (1,458 minutes of football).
What we can see is someone that is making most of their impact on the pitch in the areas between the halfway line and opposition box. Gakpo’s touches per 90 in the middle and attacking third are at some of the lowest in his career so far, but that can be explained by the fact that he’s gone from a situation where he was the main man at PSV, with a heavy reliance on him to create and score to one where there are elite level attacking talents across the front line.
There has been a significant decrease in some of his numbers, for example, progressive passes received per 90 from 11.8 in his last six months in the Eredivisie to 6.73 in his first six months at Liverpool. While I wouldn’t expect him to hit his PSV levels, I would expect things like touches and progressive passes received to increase as he increases his responsibility in Klopp’s attacking unit.
When Gakpo does get the ball, he’s effective with it. The thing that stands out with the Dutchman is his close control, and his ability to receive with his back to goal, spin his opponent and slalom towards the box. He ranks in the 89th percentile (among forwards in Europe’s top five leagues, Champions League, and Europa League in the last 365 days) for progressive carries (2.45 per 90) and 85th percentile for successful take-ons (1.42 per 90). It doesn’t always look the most natural, but there’s something beautiful about watching a 6ft 4in man weave his way through defenders trying to bring him down (and in the case of Tyrone Mings, by any means necessary).
What’s perhaps most impressive about the former Dutch Football of the Year, is his decision making in the final third, alongside his movement.
His assist for Díaz in the 4-3 thriller with Tottenham last season displayed this in full…
Gakpo receives the ball and is surrounded by Spurs players in a deep area but is able get the ball out to Harvey Elliott. As soon as he’s released the pass, he’s on the move. He identifies that Eric Dier has pushed up and left a considerable amount of space in behind.
The run is then direct, into the box. He then manages to make – despite the pass from Salah being slightly overhit – an inch-perfect cross for Díaz to stretch and score from. This was also a display of Gakpo’s versatility across the forward line. While a natural right-footed left-winger, he’s also comfortable in right sided areas, able to utilise his strong crossing ability from different angles.
His movements from the left to inside are his most devastating though, and it’s something he’s still been able to do despite starting in central areas for Klopp’s side. The German manager is extremely keen on fluidity in attacking areas, with all three – or sometimes four – on the pitch switching where they are consistently through a game. The most common rotation on the pitch tends to be the left-winger coming into areas you’d expect centre forwards to occupy – it’s something both Luis Díaz and Diogo Jota can do to devastating effect.
This then allows Gakpo to naturally drift out to the left-hand side.
Let’s look at his goal at Newcastle last season:
Gakpo is in possession of the ball on the left-wing, he then releases the ball and immediately starts to wander forward. As soon as Salah receives the ball on the edge of the area Gakpo is then darting into a central area, reading the ball from Salah and poking the ball home.
There’s no bad defending here (perhaps the offside trap should be better but that’s harsh), it’s just devastating movement that is incredibly hard to defend.
Let’s take a look at another goal, this time the opener in last season’s 7-0 demolition of Manchester United.
The Dutchman is again lingering in a wide left area to begin the move. As Andy Robertson drives inside, Gakpo goes out and hugs the touchline, finding himself on the blindside of makeshift right-back Fred. As the Brazilian then notices Gakpo and attempts to rush out to mark him, Robertson slightly delays the pass and Liverpool’s number 18 makes an explosive run inside, giving Fred no chance of catching him.
He still has lots to do when he receives the ball inside the box, but the shift inside and hit low and hard into the bottom corner is second nature to him, and he finishes with ease.
While Gakpo isn’t starting in his natural position a whole lot at Anfield, Liverpool’s fluid attacking system still allows him to get into those areas on a consistent basis. Whether it’s Díaz, Jota or Darwin Núñez starting on the left-hand side, all will want to come into those central spaces more often than not. This makes Liverpool horrible to defend against, with constant moving parts and so many attacking weapons that offer both creation and goalscoring they can hurt you in too many different ways for you to just worry about one.
Liverpool's 'Swiss Army Knife'
The biggest concern with Gakpo is if he can be consistent in this position long-term, and the amount of game time he will get both there and on the left-wing going forward.
He appeared to get the nod ahead of Núñez in central areas last season because he does the pressing and defensive side of things better than him, but it’s an area where we have seen significant progress from the Uruguayan, and he offers more upside than Gakpo in attack.
On the left-wing, Díaz has started the season better than anyone at the club, providing flair alongside goals, and looks to have that position nailed down for the foreseeable – barring injury *touches wood*.
Gakpo is too talented to become a Swiss Army Knife for the club, filling in in positions when needed but not cementing his own role in the team.
Maybe I’m wrong, and for the club it’s excellent to have someone in reserve as good as Gakpo, but for his own career, it may be a concern.