In January 2022, Liverpool signed Luis Diaz for £37.5 million from FC Porto. The signing turned a few heads, but knowing forward Sadio Mane wanted to leave Anfield in the summer, Liverpool’s recruitment team got ahead of the game, buying the exciting Colombian winger.
Fast forward a year and Liverpool were again in the market to sign an attacking player to replace a soon-to-be departing striker. Roberto Firmino announced his decision to leave the Anfielders in March 2023, just two months after the arrival of forward Cody Gakpo from PSV Eindhoven.
Having fallen down the pecking order and being a victim of injuries, Firmino wasn’t getting the game time he previously received. Although Jurgen Klopp was surprised by Firmino’s decision to leave the club, there was surely internal chatter that the second of the “Three Amigos” was ready for a fresh challenge.
Gakpo takes the “Firmino Role”
Gakpo quickly assumed the famous “Firmino Role”, playing as a false No 9, capable of dropping deep into midfield, spraying the ball to bombarding wingers, or driving through the middle of the pitch likely a lanky bulldozer to score goals, after joining the club. The Dutch international did start slowly at Anfield, needing time to bed in. Yet, like Diaz the year before and Diogo Jota before that, it didn’t take Gakpo long to get comfortable in the side.
The Liverpool No 18 signed for an initial fee of £37m. It was a fraction of the price Manchester United paid for Brazilian forward Antony. The Red Devils shelled out £82m to Ajax for the winger. The pair have contributed a similar number of goals and assists, although Gakpo has played five fewer Premier League matches than Antony.
It was Manchester United who was originally expected to sign Gakpo, yet Liverpool beat their archrival to the punch. Sure, the Red Devils will end the season with at the very least the League Cup and possibly Champions League qualification, but they too have needed time in recent seasons to rebuild their squad.
Gakpo arrived at the AXA Training Ground following the Netherlands’ World Cup Campaign, which saw them reach the quarterfinals, as Gakpo starred. He bagged three goals, leading the Dutch through the group stage.
A break from football followed, meaning that when Gakpo arrived at Liverpool, he needed time to regain his fitness. The levels of fitness Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp demands from players are far different to those in the Eredivisie. PSV Eindhoven won the KNVB Cup in 2022 and were near the top of the Eredivisie table at the time of Gakpo’s departure. Not only did Liverpool take their top scorer and assist man at the time, but they signed the Lightbulbs’ captain.
Gakpo has quietly become a vital member of Liverpool
Gakpo was central to Liverpool’s 6-1 win over Leeds United at Elland Road on Monday. The Dutchman bagged his fifth goal and first assist of the Premier League campaign. While critics will claim Gakpo should have scored more goals by this point, it should be noted that the forward has played only 13 times in the league tallying 927 minutes. He averages a goal every 185 minutes in the Premier League. Playing next to Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota, and Darwin Nunez, Gakpo must share the goals, something Firmino has always done so well when playing as the team’s No 9.
It took Gakpo three games to get his first Liverpool goal. It was a tap-in from a short distance against Everton, as Liverpool rolled to a 2-0 win at Anfield. He followed it up with a goal against Newcastle United in the following match. Then, there were Gakpo’s two strikes against Manchester United in Liverpool’s 7-0 home win. Fans got to see the Dutchman fire home after driving into the box and getting the ball on his right foot. There was also the tremendous goal he scored later in the game, receiving a pass from Salah and chipping the ball over David De Gea.
Where is Gakpo scoring most of his goals? His average shot distance is 12.9 yards. So, he is roughly scoring from the same distance on average as the penalty spot. This is where Liverpool want to score their goals, as closer shots are more effective than long-range efforts. Of Liverpool’s forwards, only Firmino and Jota have a slightly closer goal distance average. He has tallied 43 touches in opposing teams’ penalty areas. That isn’t bad for a player who has made 13 league appearances. Salah and Nunez are the only Liverpool players in triple digits.
According to Understat’s goal map, three of Gakpo’s five Premier League goals have come in the six-yard box. It shows his ability to get beyond the last defender and sweep home a low cross, something Firmino has made a living on during his time at Anfield.
Perhaps what is being overlooked about Gakpo’s play is his ability to play as a pivot in the front three. Gakpo receives the ball often with his back to the goal or on the half turn. His job is then to drive into space before picking out a pass to the wide players. He does this brilliantly.
Gakpo’s assist for Salah’s second goal against Leeds came from a textbook Liverpool counterattack. Jota won the ball on the cusps of Liverpool’s penalty area. Fabinho played the ball to Andy Robertson, who played Jota down the wing before receiving the ball back to run down the flank. Robertson’s brilliant cross found Gakpo at the ‘D’. He expertly settled the ball and could have had a go himself. Instead, the Dutchman saw Salah in his periphery and played a right-footed pass to the Egyptian to smash home.
The Fab Four
According to Fbref, Gakpo has an xG of 3.7 compared to his tally of five Premier League goals. He has quietly gone about scoring. He isn’t bagging goals at a ridiculous rate like Erling Haaland, but who is? Gakpo’s five goals from 13 Premier League games should give Liverpool fans plenty of hope for the future. Yes, Liverpool need central midfield help, a new centre-back, and a right-back to challenge Trent Alexander-Arnold (he should be moved into midfield), but the attack looked better than ever against Leeds.
Gakpo averages 1.0 key passes, 15.7 passes, and 0.1 crosses per match, according to WhoScored. Those numbers should increase next season once he is more comfortable in the central attacking role. Let us not forget Gakpo played most of his matches with PSV Eindhoven on the left wing in a role that allowed him to move centrally. He has a 75.5% pass rate in the Premier League and averages a mere 1.8 shots per match. Gakpo’s five goals may not seem like a lot to some fans, yet it is the third-best total in the Premier League behind Salah (15), Firmino (9), and Nunez (9).
According to Fbref, Gakpo’s goals-to-shot ratio is the second highest on the team at 0.21. Only Firmino’s 0.24 is better. This means Gakpo is efficient, taking a low number of shots and scoring goals.
Individually, Gakpo is showing his worth, but what about as a team player? The Reds are +4 in goals with Gakpo on the pitch, with 18 scored compared to 14 conceded. The Reds average 1.46 points per match with Gakpo in the squad. It isn’t a great number but only three players have a 2.00 points per match or higher figure (Bobby Clark, Stefan Bajcetic, and Nat Phillips).
Klopp’s teams have traditionally experienced a slump following an outstanding campaign. The team’s woes in 2022-23 should be taken in stride by club supporters. Borussia Dortmund experienced the same ups and downs. Unfortunately for Dortmund, it was the downs that led Klopp to finally leave the German club. Fortunately for Liverpool, Dortmund experienced those downs.
Gakpo will be Liverpool’s No 9 next season. He may even wear the shirt number once Firmino bids “adeus por agora” to the club. In 13 matches, he has shown exactly why Liverpool splurged on him in January before signing a midfielder. The pieces are there for Liverpool to again challenge for the Premier League title in 2023-24. A lot will be down to the midfield and defensive pieces that are added. For now, the attack looks just as electric as it did in the past. It is no longer the “Three Amigos”, but now, a “Fab Four” featuring Gakpo, Nunez, Jota, and Salah.
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