2XCD2CE 2024.06.16 Hamburg Volksparkstadion, UEFA Euro 2024, grupa D, Pilka nozna, Polska - Holandia N/z gol radosc goal CODY GAKPO Foto Mateusz Porzucek PressFocus 2024.06.16 Hamburg Football match between Poland and Holland, group D Polska - Holandia gol radosc goal CODY GAKPO Credit: Mateusz Porzucek PressFocus

Cody Gakpo’s Netherlands role has shown Liverpool how to use their £37m square peg

The outstanding player in the Netherlands’ opening 2-1 Euro 2024 win against Poland was Cody Gakpo. And as many fans and journalists have since realised, he was playing off the left wing.

This should not be a shock or sudden moment of footballing revelation.

For most of his career, the left wing has been Gakpo’s most natural home. It’s just that, to date at Liverpool, we’ve barely been able to see him residing in it.

First, the numbers.

During his time at PSV Eindhoven, where Gakpo became a regular in the 2018/19 season, 117 out of 158 appearances in all competitions came off that flank.

Cody Gakpo of PSV Eindhoven during the UEFA Europa League Group A match between PSV Eindhoven and Arsenal FC at Phillips Stadium on October 27, 2022 in Eindhoven, Netherlands. ANP OLAF KRAAK Credit: ANP/Alamy Live News

Furthermore, in the first half of the 2022/23 season – a period in which he jumped from the category of exciting talent to leading European forward – Gakpo scored 13 and assisted 17 in just 24 matches in all competitions. All of them playing on the left of a front three.

With the Netherlands, he has played almost half of his matches there, a lesser number mainly due to Ronald Koeman’s previous preference for a wing-back system that saw Gakpo play as an inverted attacking midfielder.

It could be something we see against the more ominous opponents at this Euros.


A square peg as No. 9

SINGAPORE - Wednesday, August 2, 2023: Liverpool's Cody Gakpo shakes hands with manager Jürgen Klopp after being substituted during a pre-season friendly match between Liverpool FC and FC Bayern Munich FC at the Singapore National Stadium. Bayern won 4-3. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

At the last World Cup, off the back of that incredible PSV run, Gakpo was top scorer and star of a turgid Oranje side mainly remembered for a smart free-kick routine against Argentina, playing as a centre-forward due to an unfit Memphis Depay.

It is perhaps an abiding memory of that tournament which convinced Jurgen Klopp not only to accelerate plans to sign Gakpo the following January, pipping Man United in the process, but to use the Eindhoven man as a solution to his centre-forward conundrum.

With Roberto Firmino set to leave at the end of the season, Diogo Jota struggling with injuries and Darwin Nunez still bedding in, it seemed a sensible short-term solution.

However, for the rest of Klopp’s tenure, it arguably became a long-term blind spot.

Those who argued Gakpo was the ideal successor to Firmino perhaps did not fully understand where on the pitch he delivered the numbers that actually caused Liverpool to spend £37 million on him in the first place.

Indeed, although the last campaign saw Gakpo grow into an important member of the Liverpool squad, only 22 percent of his 53 appearances were on the left wing.

It was clear Klopp favoured the extra trickery of Luis Diaz, but with the Colombian’s total of eight goals and five assists in the league exactly the same as Gakpo’s, should the latter have been given more of a chance in that role?

As the season progressed, the tremors on the Richter scale of criticism increased, with some fans growing frustrated at Gakpo’s inconsistency and inability to recreate the goalscoring form they had been told about from his time in the Eredivisie.

Yet can a player really show such consistency when they’ve been asked to play up to five different positions across the course of a season?


Gakpo unleashed

That opening Netherlands match in Hamburg will be remembered for two things.

The first was the remarkable Dutch support pre-match. The second was Gakpo’s performance which, over 81 minutes, was as pure a demonstration as one could hope to have of where his natural position on the pitch is.

In a 4-2-3-1 formation, Gakpo was the conduit through which all the Dutch’s attacks came through.

At times, such as in their last warmup match, the team can be guilty of naturally leaning towards playing more down the opposite flank because of the barnstorming runs from full-back Denzel Dumfries.

Yet not on this occasion. Whether playing against a deep defensive block or attacking quickly on the break, it was Gakpo at the centre of it. In addition to his equalising goal, he created three chances, completed all five of his take-on attempts and had over 50 touches. Interestingly, eight of these were in the opposition penalty area.

2M13X9T Al Daayen, Qatar. 09th Dec, 2022. AL DAAYEN - Cody Gakpo of Holland during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 quarterfinal match between the Netherlands and Argentina at the Lusail Stadium on December 9, 2022 in Al Daayen, Qatar. ANP MAURICE VAN STEEN netherlands out - belgium out Credit: ANP/Alamy Live News

We have a recent habit in football of defining wingers in two ways: those who like to cut inside, and those who prefer to take the ball down the outside and get to the byline.

In Gakpo, the Netherlands and Liverpool have a player who can do both. He is strong off both sides, being equally adept at crossing with his left or cutting dangerous inside to shoot or find a team-mate with his right.

With the Oranje, he often looks for a quick one-two with the centre-forward before breaking into the box, or for the clever lifted pass to the rampaging Dumfries coming in from the right.


What he can really offer

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - Tuesday, June 14, 2022: Netherlands' Cody Gakpo celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the UEFA Nations League Group A4 game between the Netherlands and Wales at the de Kuip Stadium. Netherlands won 3-2. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It is apparent that Gakpo is not lightning fast. However, he is technically excellent, physically strong and a lovely striker of a football. He can be both intricate and direct – the artist’s brush and the builder’s hammer in equal measure.

The goal he scored against Poland took a big deflection, but there is a whole catalogue of examples of ferocious strikes from outside the area after cutting inside.

Similarly, his confidence on the ball and understanding of space means he rarely runs or passes into a dead end, whilst his natural height and long stride means he can still break away from players.

That height probably means he should have more than just six headed goals at club level, but it is also another possible weapon, coming in late to meet crosses at the back post.

And the exciting thing for Liverpool fans, despite the loss of Klopp, is that their new coach should in theory know exactly how to use Gakpo.

As written previously, Arne Slot has traditionally favoured a 4-2-3-1 shape that requires a combination of intensity, intelligence, power and versatility.

Therefore, it would seem Gakpo is just the type of winger that Slot values – players who can be impactful in one-on-one situations, are dynamic, progressive with the ball and link up well with overloading full backs.


World-class potential

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, May 18, 2024: Liverpool's Cody Gakpo during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Wolverhampton Wanderers FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 2-0. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The former Feyenoord and AZ Alkmaar coach will know the game of the 2022/23 Dutch Footballer of the Year well and may see him as a crucial player, effective both in moments of fast transition and when finding the holes within robust defensive walls.

There have been rumours about Liverpool needing to dip into the transfer market to sign a replacement in case Diaz leaves. They should put the company card back in its wallet or spend it elsewhere. The replacement is already in the squad.

There is no reason why Gakpo cannot become a world-class forward at Anfield. Yet to become the star many have predicted, he first needs to be put in the right place to shine.

* This is a guest article for This Is Anfield by Joe Baker of The Oranje. Follow on Twitter @BakerJoe21 and @TheOranje1.