Can Cody Gakpo spark a Liverpool turnaround?

Weakened by injuries and plagued by inconsistent form, Liverpool has endured an incredibly challenging Premier League season. With eight wins, four draws and five losses, Jurgen Klopp’s Reds have looked well off the pace for Champions League qualification and are currently outside the top four; they will need a stunning turnaround to have any chance of contending for the title. 

To remedy matters, Liverpool acted swiftly in the January transfer window, securing the signature of Cody Gakpo, the highly sought-after Dutch forward. The 23-year-old, who scored three goals for the Netherlands at the World Cup, joined the Merseyside club from PSV Eindhoven for a reported initial fee of 42 million euros. Gakpo bagged 55 goals and supplied 50 assists in 159 appearances for PSV, which included a red-hot streak of nine goals and 12 assists in 14 Eredivisie games before the World Cup break.

Multipronged strategy

Liverpool’s move, in theory, did three things: it addressed an immediate need, providing attacking reinforcement for a side that has lost Luis Diaz to a knee injury and Diogo Jota to a calf problem; it prevented a direct rival from strengthening, for British media reports said Manchester United was also chasing Gakpo; it also future-proofed the forward line, ensuring a replacement has the time to be ready before Mohamed Salah (30) and Roberto Firmino (31) need replacing. 

“There is a lot to like about Cody,” Klopp told the club’s official website, explaining the thought process behind the signing. “He is still only 23 but he already has a lot of experience. He was the captain of PSV, he was the player of the year in Holland last season and, as a lot of people have just seen, he also had a great World Cup. 

“It is clear that he is already a really, really good player, but his age also means he has the potential to become even better. Offensively, he is very versatile and, on top of this, we know he is a smart footballer and a smart person, so we are really excited to be able to work with him.”

Slippery operator: Gakpo’s combination of power, speed and technique make him a difficult man to contain.

While the Gakpo move makes eminent sense on paper, it isn’t without risk. For one thing, it remains to be seen whether he can replicate the success he has had in the Netherlands in a significantly stronger, more physically intense league. There is also the knock-on effect his purchase could have on Liverpool’s transfer activity. Klopp will likely have less to spend in January, not ideal given that the midfield still needs strengthening.  

“I would say in principle it’s like this for all people in the world: the money you spend has an impact on the money you can spend [in the future],” Klopp said. “We know what we want to do and we will see if we can do it. [But] I don’t want to disappoint anybody, we signed an outstanding player and the next thing you read is, ‘Who next?’ We cannot play like Monopoly.”

However Liverpool has a history of smart market moves and it is possible for the recruitment department to find value in a midfield buy. But even accounting for this, the Gakpo transfer has to work if the club has to have its best shot at climbing up a crowded league table.

And given the stakes involved — the financial benefit of qualifying for the Champions League is central to Liverpool’s business model and its ability to participate in the summer transfer window — the club will hope Gakpo can hit the ground running.

Can he succeed?

So, what are the chances of the 23-year-old succeeding in England? He is one of the rarer profiles in football: a ‘big-body’ wide forward, standing well over six feet tall. That, in itself, offers his team a point of difference. 

Young giant: Cody Gakpo first caught the eye in the Eredivisie, the Netherlands top flight, before producing a star-making performance in the World Cup.

Young giant: Cody Gakpo first caught the eye in the Eredivisie, the Netherlands top flight, before producing a star-making performance in the World Cup.

He has a powerful burst, with enough pace to make a back-line anxious. Cutting in from the left to curl his finish to the keeper’s far post is his signature move, something he picked up from Thierry Henry, one of his idols. “I watched clips of him and tried to learn something from him: the way he comes in from the left and shoots with his right,” Gakpo said. “I tried to copy him a bit.” But he can go past his rival full-back on the outside as well, which makes him even more potent.

He has good feet for a big man: his dribbling isn’t as spectacular as, say, Antony’s, but it’s efficient. He frequently creates separation, finding the space to shoot, cross or combine with his teammates. Gakpo can function as an outlet and a transitional threat, but can also unlock low-blocks in settled play with one-touch passes and penetrating runs. 

What Gakpo is truly elite at is ball-striking, off both feet. This makes him an excellent crosser and long-passer; more to the point, it makes him a dangerous goal threat even from less than optimal positions. It will be interesting to watch whether his physicality translates from Dutch to English — he bullied defenders in the Eredivisie — but it’s almost certain that his ball-striking will.

Driven to improve

The defensive side of his game has drawn criticism in the past, especially his pressing intensity. But Klopp is unlikely to have made a long-term decision without being sure that Gakpo will give him what he wants without the ball. The Dutch international is also driven to improve: in addition to training, he works with Tactalyse, a company which offers individual tactical coaching, with an emphasis on the small details. “Cody wanted to raise the bar and be more efficient,” Loran Vrielink, founder of Tactalyse, told BBC Sport. “He invests in himself.”

Gakpo’s versatility makes him the ideal multifunctional Klopp player, one who can essay several roles in a team which plays with fluidity within a compact structure. “The position he played most often is on the left but he can play different positions,” said Klopp. “He can play all four positions up front. Whatever you play, if you play a 4-2-3-1 he can play all four positions, in a 4-3-3 he can be the winger, if you play 4-4-2 he can play the wing and the striker positions.”

Gakpo is yet to kick a ball for Liverpool, but what he does over the rest of the season will have a significant impact on the club’s fortunes. Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands coach, said the young man has “everything it takes to become a star” and the potential to make a difference at the highest level. Liverpool fans will hope that those words come true over the next few months.

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