With the clamor for immediate additions to an aging and injury-ravaged midfield growing louder by the Twitter minute, amongst rumours of €200m double swoops for World Cup standouts, Liverpool went out and completed the signing of a new attacker roughly eleven seconds after the rumours first surfaced.
Cody Gakpo is the man, he of three World Cup goals for Holland, and he arrives from childhood club PSV for an initial fee of around £37m, similar to what Mohamed Salah cost five years ago, a deal that turned out pretty okay.
It’s not cheap, but it’s also not Darwin money, and below, we try and make clear what the player can offer the Reds and whether he will live up to the price tag.
Cody Mathès Gakpo
Wide Attacker | PSV/Holland
DOB: 7/5/99 (23 years old) | Height: 6’3” (191cm)
2022/23 season: 24 appearances
13 goals | 17 assists
Strengths: Let’s start with the obvious: Cody Gakpo gets in among the goals. Whether setting up chances for others or tucking them away himself, the Dutchman has produced at an elite level this season, generating a goal or assist every 54 minutes in the Eredivisie, or 1.68 goals or assist per 90 minutes, placing him at the top of the charts for both metrics.
Now, there are two penalties in there, taking the average down to 1.51 goals or assists per 90 if you discount them, but that is still an obscene level of production, bettered, in fact, only by Erling Haaland in the Top 5 European leagues this year.
While it is worth noting that Gakpo is overperforming significantly relative to both his expected goals and expected assists this season — by 70 and 100 percent, respectively — the 23-year old is also a career overachiever in this regard, outperforming his expected numbers by 36 and 25 percent on average over the past five years. As such, while his current level of overperformance is entirely unsustainable, all available evidence suggests that Gakpo will tuck away more chances than expected, and that the chances he creates for others are likely of higher quality than the algorithms are able to predict.
Those underlying numbers, while not quite as preposterous as the top line ones, are also exceptional, and the Dutch international has averaged 0.93 expected non-penalty goals and assists over the past 18 months of Eredivisie football. Again, this is more than any other player in the league over the same time frame.
In short, Gakpo has been the best attacker in the Dutch league over the past year and a half, with regards to both his expected and actual output. Not a bad start.
So how does he arrive at these numbers? While the PSV academy graduate will very occasionally feature as a striker, right winger or central attacking midfielder, he mainly lines up as a left winger cutting inside onto his stronger — though not by much, he is delightfully two-footed — right foot. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it describes roughly 60% of Liverpool’s attackers over the past five years.
However, unlike Sadio Mané, Luis Díaz and, more dramatically, Darwin Núñez, who all depend on great pace carrying them beyond the defensive line to wreak havoc, Gakpo does his best work between the lines. Combining his strong frame with remarkable close control for his size and an ability to consistently scan for team-mates while carrying the ball in traffic, the 6’3 attacker loves to draw pressure, bypass it with quick feet or a short pass, then burst into space to play or receive the final ball. Give-and-go’s around the box are Gakpo’s bread and butter, and he shows great instinct for the right time to make the release.
A full 50% of Gakpo’s assists come from crosses, and it’s easy to see why. His deliveries come with exquisite shape and precision, and he consistently finds teammates in crowded boxes, showing tremendous ability to make the ball drop into the space between defenders. Liverpool have made serious aerial threats out of a number of medium-sized attackers in the past, and now Darwin Núñez is in there, so an accurate crosser in the final third could be a wonderful asset.
He’s pretty fast too, the 23-year old, and although he doesn’t use the length of his legs to generate the same sort of long-stride straight-line speed as future teammate Darwin Núñez — in fact his feet can be a bit choppy in space — his first step burst is tremendous and regularly leaves defenders grasping for a shirt that is no longer there. While his dribbling frequency and success rate have dropped off a little this year — to a very respectable 2.1 per 90 minutes — last season he averaged 3.63 successful dribbles a match, good for 8th in Europe’s top five leagues.
All of which is to say that, in addition to his goalscoring exploits, Gakpo excels as a passing outlet and ball carrier, not only as part of progressing the ball up the pitch, but at the pointy end as well. He is third in the league for progressive passes received, sixth for passes into the penalty area, fourth for touches in the penalty area, and this season, only three players in the top five leagues — Kylian Mbappé, Vinícius Jr and Rafael Leão — have had more carries leading to shots than the Dutchman.
Question Marks: As has been the case with Liverpool’s previous two attacking signings, questions must be asked about the probability that production from a lesser competition will translate to the Premier League. In Díaz, Darwin and now Gakpo, the Reds have picked up the best player from a second tier league, eschewing their former strategy of looking for undervalued players on worse teams in top leagues, and while the previous two have been fairly successful — Díaz’s injury came just as one would have expected him to make a full adjustment to the PL and the jury is still out on Darwin despite his outrageous underlying numbers simply because the goals haven’t flowed as freely as one would have wanted — transfers from the Eredivisie are famously difficult to predict.
From Afonso Alves via Steven Bergwijn and Memphis to Hakim Ziyech, superstars from the Dutch league have to varying degrees failed to make this specific jump, and it is difficult at this point to say with any degree of certainty that Gakpo is going to be any different.
Furthermore, while Gakpo’s topline and underlying numbers are all very impressive, the fact that over half of his expected assists have come through set-pieces should be noted, as, although it is positive to add a set-piece specialist to the squad, given the team’s attacking weapons, there is just no chance the new man will be on free kick and corner duty over established takers Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, and as such, a lot of the expected attacking contribution can be stricken before a ball has even been kicked.
Gakpo’s consistent overperformance to his expected goals numbers — creditable to the gorgeous shape and significant power he gets on his shots — covers up a tendency to take speculative shots from range, specifically the dreaded Coutinho-zone, and the Dutchman’s average chance quality sits at a mere .10 xG per shot, a number that must improve significantly if Reds fans are to avoid needless frustration in the coming six months.
The Dutchman also sometimes struggles to get the ball out from his feet to set up his shots, leading to scuffed or compacted efforts that fail to test the keeper.
For his size and frame, the 6’3 attacker does not present much of an aerial threat, having scored a total of only three headed goals in his career, and while he should be physically strong enough to deal with Premier League defenders, his lack of truly elite speed may hamper him in his dribbling endeavours at the top level.
Where Darwin Núñez is willing and Luis Díaz is maniacal, there are question marks about Gakpo’s ability to consistently generate aggressive, intelligent pressure on opposing ball carriers, especially for full games. With the Reds’ press currently struggling to impact games the way it has in seasons past, a new forward who can’t put the necessary effort in for 90 minutes could be a legitimate problem.
Finally, there is a question of fit. Gakpo nominally prefers the left-side channel, already manned by Luis Díaz, coveted by Fabio Carvalho, and occasionally occupied by Diogo Jota and Darwin Núñez. While it appears clear now that the latter two are intended to be used largely as centre-forwards, and half the group are currently injured anyway, there is still a lot of competition for that left-wing slot, and exactly what Jürgen Klopp’s masterplan is remains unclear.
The Reds going into January with Gakpo, Díaz, Darwin, Jota, Carvalho, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah as front line options can either end up looking like an embarrassment of diverse riches, or a too many cooks situation. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for the former.
Summary: As will always be the case with transfers from lesse leagues, we have questions, both about ability to translate production, and exactly how Gakpo will fit into the Liverpool XI on a given week, but there is also significant upside, as the 23-year old has put up incredible top line numbers at high but not elite level, and offers a unique combination of skills and attributes that could potentially blossom at a club famed for its development of young attackers.
The pieces may not fit as neatly and obviously as they did a few years ago, but the Reds have nearly completed the long-awaited rebuild of their attack, as five of the seven players competing for the front line spots are now 26 or younger, and the club should — assuming the signings develop as expected — be more or less set in the goalscoring department for the coming half decade. Cody Gakpo is going to be a part of that. Hopefully a big one.