Why Liverpool need to keep the faith in Cody Gakpo

Liverpool’s loss to Manchester United marked the end of their hopes for a quadruple. It was only the Reds’ third loss of the season, but a loss of that nature against a rival will always sting.

Cody Gakpo came off the bench with his side in the lead, but his performance failed to impress, capping off a disappointing season where he had been displaced from the starting XI.

It was a collective failure that lost the game, but some fans are quick to scapegoat players who have a dip in form. In previous seasons, the likes of Jordan Henderson, Curtis Jones and even Darwin Nunez have faced similar scrutiny.

Gakpo has been the latest to face this backlash.

The 24-year-old has essentially been tasked with filling in the void left by the departures of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. It was always going to be a tough task to step into either of those roles, and he has faced unfair criticism as a result.

Let's delve into what he brings to the team and whether he is showing enough to warrant patience.

What does Gakpo bring to the table?

Gakpo primarily operated from the left wing at PSV Eindhoven, serving as their main outlet and creator. He ranked among the top Eredivisie wingers for crosses, carries into the penalty area, shot-creating actions from take-ons, assists, and goals on a per 90-minute basis.

However, when Nunez struggled to lead the line last season, the Dutchman was tasked with stepping in at centre forward. His intelligence and versatility enabled him to transition into a more selfless facilitator for the team, reminiscent of Firmino's role.

His broad skill set allows him to provide depth in four positions, enabling Liverpool to compete on all fronts this season despite numerous injuries.

But the current Jurgen Klopp’s side are a different team to last season. A rebuilt midfield altered the dynamics once again, with Nunez stepping up as the club’s main forward.

Gakpo has mainly been used to fill in for Nunez, as well as Mo Salah and Luis Diaz, and his versatility now works against him as he struggles to settle into any position. He has played 20 games leading the line, eight on the left wing, and seven each on the right wing and in midfield across all competitions this season.

Football - FA Cup - Quarter-Final - Manchester United, ManU FC v Liverpool FC MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Sunday, March 17, 2024: Liverpool s Cody Gakpo L is challenged by Manchester United s Mason Mount during the FA Cup Quarter-Final match between Manchester United FC and Liverpool FC at Old Trafford. Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda MANCHESTER Old Trafford GREATER MANCHESTER ENGLAND PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUK Copyright: xPropagandaxPhotoxAgencyx P2024-03-17-Man_Utd_Liverpool-115

Despite constantly changing positions, he ranks third for Expected Goals (xG), successful dribbles, and possession won in the final third per 90 within a highly talented squad.

But this lack of positional consistency is clearly holding him back. Making improvements to your game is difficult to do when you are not getting enough minutes in the same position.

To succeed as a forward, he must demonstrate the ability to be a match winner in important games, as he did during his time at PSV.

Alternatively, a return to the left wing could allow him to dictate attacks more effectively from wide. Although he has had limited minutes in this position, he looked dangerous when starting there against Burnley earlier this season.

Liverpool is one of the most competitive environments in football. To fulfil his potential and become more than a rotation option, Gakpo must be more decisive in his actions and assert himself as the main man on the pitch.

Has Gakpo dropped off compared to last season?

Following his move from PSV Eindhoven last January, Gakpo started 17 of his 21 games in the Premier League and went on to score seven goals and set up three more. This was widely seen as a very promising start, and he was naturally expected to improve upon that in his first full campaign.

While his five goals and three assists in the league this season might seem underwhelming, they have come from only 12 starts, resulting in a higher goal contribution per 90 compared to last season.

The underlying numbers also paint an interesting picture.

Gakpo’s 0.39 goal-creating actions per 90 are a slight upgrade from his 0.37 figure last season. Similarly, his xG of 0.47 per 90 is also higher, indicating an improvement in his ability to get into great goal-scoring positions.

However, unlike last season, Gakpo is currently underperforming his xG, which is unusual for him in his senior career. Despite taking more shots and getting more of them on target, he has been unlucky and on the wrong side of the variance.

Cody Gakpo comparison between 2022/23 and 2023/24.

Expected Goals on Target (xGOT) is a post-shot variation of xG that assesses the quality of shots on target. One of Gakpo’s best attributes was his clinical finishing, but his lower xGOT figure of 0.32 per 90 compared to his xG suggests that this is an area where he has struggled this season.

Self-belief is critical in elite-level sport, especially for a player who is judged on goals and assists. Gakpo’s confidence has clearly taken a hit since losing his starting place, and fans can also sense this in his body language, which adds to their frustration.

There has also been a slight drop-off in his ability to set up goal-scoring chances. This was evident in the recent five-vs-two counter-attacking situation against Manchester United, where the former PSV man had the opportunity to finish the game off but showed signs of a player lacking confidence in his abilities.

The Dutch international has been used more regularly in the cup games, where his four goals in the Carabao Cup campaign helped the club to their first trophy of the season. Factor in the four goals and two assists from six Europa League games and we can see why the criticism of him has been a bit unfair.

Next season, there will be a new manager in the Anfield dugout.

Having the wide and versatile skill set of someone like Gakpo could be crucial as they try to guide the club through this massive transition.

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