Football Features

‘He has everything it takes to become a star’ – Louis van Gaal lauds Oranje’s history-maker Cody Gakpo

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 17:00, 3 December 2022

Every four years it seems a talent-from-outta-nowhere emerges on the world stage. In this unprecedented Qatar-held World Cup finals, Cody Gakpo is a name on everyone’s lips.

To be fair, the 23-year-old Dutch forward already had eyes on him coming into this international festival of football. Gakpo was linked with a Premier League move in the summer, with Leeds and Manchester United among those heavily linked with his signature.

The latest winger extraordinaire from PSV Eindhoven saw any transfer fail to materialise, with some observers feeling it was a blessing in disguise given Gakpo had often flattered to deceive in the biggest games (aside from whenever he faces Ajax – two goals and five assists in 10 meetings to date).

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“I was close to leaving, I spoke to Erik ten Hag a few times at Manchester United,” Gakpo told The Times in October. “In the end the deal didn’t go through, which was a shame, for me and my development, and because Manchester United is one of the biggest clubs in the world, but also for PSV, because to transfer a player to Manchester United is a good thing for the club.

“It ended about a week before the end of the transfer window and in that week I had to decide if I would go to Leeds or Southampton. In the end I stayed, but it was a stressful period.”

There was no such disappointment. Instead, Gakpo has been nothing short of sensational. He currently leads the Eredivisie when it comes to goals (nine) and assists (12).  In fact, he’s currently level with Erling Haaland (18 goals and three assists) when it comes to being the most productive talent across Europe’s top seven leagues. Furthermore, when adding other competitions and national team involvement, he’s produced 35 goals across 30 games (17 goals and 18 assists).

To describe this as a breakthrough season would be an understatement. Such productivity doesn’t go unnoticed and with his stature continuing to grow the powers that be in Eindhoven should expect a phone call or two if they haven’t already.

Gakpo follows in the footsteps of Dutch giants

Gakpo recently became just the fourth Dutch player to net in three consecutive World Cup games after Johan Neeskens (1974), Dennis Bergkamp (1998) and Wesley Sneijder (2010).

“Hopefully Cody can go to the moon and back,” Virgil van Dijk said afterwards. “He is a very good player and a good boy, too. What we see in training is what you see on the pitch. There is still so much potential and I hope he can carry on showing it for us. We are very happy with him.”

Nominally a right-footed winger operating down PSV’s left flank in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation, it’s a whole new experience for Gakpo while donning orange under Louis van Gaal’s guidance. Just as they did eight years ago, the Dutch have gone with an uncharacteristic 3-5-2 system — though more 3-4-1-2 with Gakpo alternating between operating in a ‘number 10’ role behind Van Gaal’s two centre-forwards or as one of them.

“He did not want to play in the centre or at 10 but he did have to for me. Now he thinks I am a great head coach,” Van Gaal recently stated. “Things can change but Cody has everything it takes to become a star. He has a wonderful personality to become a star player because he open minded to anything and everything.”

In the opener against Senegal, which saw him net the all-important breakthrough goal, Gakpo was stationed behind Vincent Janssen and Steven Bergwijn before Van Gaal moved him into the front-two position. He stayed there next time out against Ecuador when he produced a goal of the tournament contender. Bergwijn was his partner against the South Americans while Memphis Depay started alongside him against hosts Qatar, his 26th-minute strike ensuring he’s enjoying a perfect tournament so far.

His right-footed goal against the hosts followed a header on the opening matchday against Senegal and a left-foot rocket versus Ecuador in their second match. All three of those efforts have been the first goal of the game, meaning he’s the first man to score the opening goal in all three group-stage games of a tournament since Italian forward Alessandro Altobelli in the first round of 1986. Gakpo’s trio of strikes also drew him level with Johan Cruyff’s tally of three World Cup goals, with the legendary ‘number 14’ recording that in seven appearances.

The future’s bright…

PSV head coach Ruud van Nistelrooy will be hoping Gakpo closes out this season in Eindhoven, after 14 matches played PSV are three points behind leaders Feyenoord, losing their hometown hero will be a huge setback.

Before leaving for Qatar he admitted this could be his final campaign wearing PSV red-and-white. “I think at the end of this season I will be ready to take that step,” Gakpo said in an interview with Dutch outlet NOS. “I feel like I was already that way at the beginning of this season, but after this season I’m even more ready to take the next one. To take a step.”

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Man Utd’s interest hadn’t faded away, given there’s already been open dialogue between Gakpo and Ten Hag, but his price tag keeps rising following every standout performance. The last winger United signed from the Eredivisie set them back a pretty penny. Gakpo might not go for nine figures but it could be close especially when you consider that his present deal expires in June 2026.

In the meantime, Oranje have unearned another pillar, having made his international debut in July 2021 — an 11-minute cameo against North Macedonia in the Netherlands ill-fate Euro 2020 campaign — it wasn’t until earlier this year when Gakpo became a regular starter. Heading into a last-16 showdown with the United States he’s been irresistible for his country of late. Across the Netherlands’ last six competitive matches, Gakpo had scored in five, Belgium survived his wrath but equally important he provided the assist for Van Dijk’s winner in their 1-0 success.

He couldn’t keep that streak alive in their 3-1 round of 16 victory; though Gakpo, who started as a centre-forward before finishing in the ‘number 10’ position,  nevertheless played a key role in terms of pressing from the front and carrying out Dutch counter-attacks.

Even without Gakpo’s goals or creativity against the USA it still feels that if Van Gaal’s men are to progress and go deep in this competition a lot rests on his shoulders. For someone relatively new to this stage, it should be a daunting prospect, but the Eindhoven-born forward has shown no sign of nervousness instead willing to put his team before any individual accolades. “The most important thing for us is to win games,” he said. “If I can contribute with goals, that is really good for me and the team. If I am not scoring and we are winning, that is also good.”

Whatever happens from here on out, Gakpo has already written the next chapter in Oranje’s World Cup story. How many pages it consists of remains to be been seen.