Jurgen Klopp has quietly made his most difficult Liverpool signing yet
Had Leeds United got their way back in September, the sight of Cody Gakpo tapping into an open net at Elland Road would have prompted an altogether different response from the travelling Kop on Monday evening.
Leeds were one of several clubs pursuing the forward, their interest going as far as director of football Victor Orta jetting out to Eindhoven to attempt to thrash out a deal with PSV on deadline day. But with Dutch side playing hardball, the plug was pulled on the transfer just as Leeds were preparing to fly Steel and his entourage to England.
Fast forward a few months and the landscape had changed, Leeds out of the picture as Manchester United, one of the other long-term suitors of Gakpo, contemplated agreeing a move for a player who had shone for Holland at the World Cup.
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That, then, is when Liverpool struck, ultimately agreeing a £44million deal for Gakpo over Christmas that was confirmed on Boxing Day.
True, there was some surprise it wasn’t a midfielder being recruited in the January window – and we all know how that pursuit is panning out – but, in terms of future-proofing the Liverpool attack, it seemed a canny move, particularly with Roberto Firmino approaching the end of his time at Anfield.
Unfortunately for Gakpo, he was thrown into a Liverpool side suffering an alarming post-World Cup dip in form, having to wait until his seventh outing to break his goalscoring duck in the 2-0 home derby win over Everton in February, a strike not too dissimilar to his tap-in from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross from the right on Monday.
That Gakpo was on hand to apply the finishing touch highlights the biggest change his game has undergone since arriving at Anfield. Having forged his reputation on the left flank at PSV, the 23-year-old has, save two games against Wolverhampton Wanderers, been employed down the centre of the Reds attack.
With Firmino having confirmed his departure his summer, Jurgen Klopp has made a point of preferring Gakpo in the middle and Darwin Nunez on the left, rather than the other way around. Certainly, the Dutchman is much closer to Firmino in his ability to drop deep and help the midfield from that position, along with his defensive attributes. For those reasons, the Brazilian has long proven almost impossible to replace, whether within the squad or a new signing. Gakpo, though, is giving off the right signals.
“The front three played because of the way they defended,” said Klopp when explaining his decision to start Gakpo, Diogo Jota and Mohamed Salah up top at Elland Road. “They (all the Liverpool forwards) can play football but we need to understand the defending starts there.”
Indeed, Gakpo again underlined his quality when running at defences from deep, one such burst winning the free-kick the routine from which saw Salah’s effort chalked off for a marginal offside.
Firmino, of course, hasn’t quite gone yet, evidenced by his game-changing cameo from the bench against Arsenal last weekend. Klopp could easily have chosen to recall the Brazilian on the strength of that outing, but instead stuck with Gakpo and the same starting line-up.
The Dutchman rewarded the Reds boss with not only his goal, but also an encouraging all-round performance. Arguably, Firmino is the only other Liverpool forward who would have had the technique and vision to find Salah so swiftly to set up the fourth goal, Gakpo’s first direct assist as a Reds player.
The emergence of Luis Diaz from the bench late on – along with two goals apiece for Salah and Jota and one from substitute Nunez – highlighted the competition for places in attack Klopp will hope can push Liverpool on for the remainder of the season and beyond.
“I think we have a lot of options in the front three positions and I think it makes it even better for us to show every game what you can do,” says Gakpo. “Eventually, you have to do it together. So I think if we combine our strengths together, we have a good front three, or front six because we have a lot of options.”
There is, of course, plenty of room for improvement in terms of goalscoring, not least away from home in the Premier League with Liverpool scoring on Monday almost half of their previous tally of 14 in 15 games on the road this season. It’s why they are languishing in eighth and not competing for a top-four berth.
As an example of how things haven’t quite been right, no player has hit the woodwork more times in the Premier League this season than Nunez with five.
Nevertheless, the rampant win at Elland Road means Liverpool have now scored six times or more in four games this campaign, a feat they last achieved way back in 1963/64.
From feast to famine and back again, Klopp knows his team must address being so wildly inconsistent in front of goal for next season. Gakpo, though, is quietly proving he can be the spearhead of the latest Reds evolution.
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