On the one side, there was a Dutch coach, with a clear respect for players who have achieved well in Dutch football. But on the other, there was the captain of the Netherlands, Virgil Van Dijk, who turned out to be a persuasive voice in the choices facing Cody Gakpo.
Gakpo, a breakout star of the World Cup, listened to Liverpool’s Van Dijk and it helped him to the decision that means he is spending the last days of 2022 finalising a move from PSV Eindhoven to Anfield.
“Quality is always welcome at Liverpool,” said Van Dijk, anticipating the arrival of his gifted compatriot. It is a transfer in which Manchester United, who had a sustained and active interest in recruiting Gakpo, have finished as bystanders.
United’s manager, Dutchman Erik ten Hag, will now focus attention elsewhere, but he remains an admirer of Gakpo, having watched the 23-year-old come through the academy at PSV and win last season’s Eredivisie Footballer of the Year Award ahead of players from Ten Hag’s then club, Ajax, who won the league.
Gakpo was certainly on United’s wishlist in the summer, when, with Ten Hag taking over, Antony and Lisandro Martinez were signed from Ajax and Tyrell Malacia from Feyenoord. With Cristiano Ronaldo departing Old Trafford last month, a new striker became a priority for the winter window, which opens on January 1.
Gakpo was on the United agenda. He may not be an out-and-out centre-forward but he is a goalscorer of many assets and huge potential. Liverpool have staged what they believe is a significant ambush by making a deal with PSV that offered the selling club a bigger up-front tranche – of a fee that could rise over €50 million – than other suitors had proposed.
“It is a record transfer fee for PSV,” confirmed the Dutch club’s general manager Marcel Brands, soothing supporters’ concerns about the team’s stellar player departing mid-season with the positive implications of substantial sums to be reinvested.
“There comes a moment when you can’t say no,” admitted PSV coach Ruud van Nistelrooy, himself a former United striker. “If I had a choice I would choose that he left in the summer.”
Van Nistelrooy has largely used Gakpo’s surging acceleration and his powerful shot from wide on the left of the PSV attack – to great effect. He had racked up 13 goals and 17 assists in 24 club matches across competitions in the first half of the season leading up to the World Cup.
Netherlands lose out to Argentina
In Qatar, he put on display his wide range of qualities and his maturity, operating just off a central striker, on the wing or sometimes as a target man, and taking responsibility for delivering many of the Netherlands’ set-pieces.
He scored in each group match: a headed goal, using his leap and 1.89-metre height to beat Senegal goalkeeper Edu Mendy; he followed up with a forceful left-footed drive against Ecuador on match day two. He put the Dutch on the way to their 2-0 win over Qatar with a precise right-footed finish.
“He is open to anything,” said Louis Van Gaal, the veteran coach who took charge of the national team at the World Cup, “and he always gives his all. He has huge talent and a great personality.”
Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, looks forward to being the gleeful inheritor of all that. Klopp was kept up to date with the progress of his club’s talks with PSV, aware that several major clubs were keen on recruiting Gakpo in either the winter, or summer 2023, transfer windows.
Liverpool’s need was urgent, Klopp persuaded his executives, with the race for a top-four Premier League spot – and guaranteed Champions League football next season – made more challenging by a flat start to the 2022-23 campaign. Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz, key players for the wide roles in Klopp’s attacking trio, are also recovering from injury and unavailable until at least February and March, respectively.
If Gakpo were to make anything like the same quick impact as Diaz, signed from Porto 11 months ago, Klopp would be delighted. Last season, the Colombian galvanised a Champions League run that ended at the final with key contributions in the knockout ties against Benfica and Villarreal and added energy to a vibrant domestic season that yielded triumphs in both English cups and a second place in the Premier League.
The capture of Diaz, like that of Gakpo, meant stealthily trumping rival interest, with Liverpool stealing ahead of Tottenham Hotspur to seal the deal.
Gakpo’s imminent arrival also represents the latest stage in the long-term plan to transition from the era in which Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane made themselves the three established musketeers of Klopp’s front line.
Mane joined Bayern Munich last summer, and like Salah and Firmino, is now in his 30s. In three successive transfer windows, over €150m has now been staked on their successors, in the shape of Diaz, 25, Darwin Nunez, 23, and Gakpo.