Since the announcement of Erik Ten Hag as Manchester United manager, a host of talents related to Ajax or Dutch football have dominated the transfer rumor mill. The summer window did include 3 former Ajax players and 1 Dutch international among the 6 incomings, so it’s probably not wrong to say that players whom Ten Hag is familiar with have a higher chance of being signed at this point. One such player who has dominated transfer reports and also the headlines for all the right reasons is Cody Gakpo.
Today we’ll be taking an in-depth look into Cody Gakpo’s profile, strengths, traits and fitment for Manchester United.
Date of Birth: 07/05/1999
Strong Foot: Right
Height: 1.89 m (6ft 2in)
Current contract start: Jan, 2022
Contract end date: June, 2026
Current Market Value: £32m
Cody was born in Eindhoven, and has since featured in every youth level for PSV Eindhoven. He made his debut for the famed Jong PSV in the 2016/17 season, but it was the 17/18 season for them where he scored 7 goals in 12 appearances that announced his arrival. He made the bench for the senior team at the end of that year. He regularly started making the bench for the senior side in the 18/19 season. By mid-season he was getting more gametime, and the hat-trick against Go Ahead Eagles in December 2018 catapulted him to first team regular. The 19/20 season saw him finally breakthrough at the senior level as he made 39 appearances for the PSV senior side and bagged 8 goals and 7 assists. Gakpo has only gone from strength to strength since that breakthrough year, boasting 21 goals and 13 assists in 47 appearances in the 21/22 season that saw him win the Dutch Footballer of the Year 2021-22. With many top clubs chasing him in summer 2022, Cody decided to remain at PSV and has started the 22/23 season in scintillating form, with 12 goals and 9 assists in just 15 appearances. A move to a top club seems inevitable at this point.
Position and movement
Gakpo’s position is often debated on Twitter, especially by Manchester United fans who hope he can play as a central striker. Let’s dive into that.
As per Transfermarkt, so far in his career, Gakpo has played LW 154 times, RW 20 times and CF/SS 19 times. This season, Gakpo has played LW in all his 15 appearances for PSV. But in his 5 appearances for Netherlands, he has played in a central role (CF/SS) 4 times. I analyzed his Eredivisie and Netherlands games of 22/23 for all the viz in this article. Here’s his pass reception map.
From the pass reception map, we can clearly see a touchline winger who loves to receive the ball wide. And this goes in line with what Gakpo does on the pitch. He loves to stay wide, away from crowded areas, receive the ball and then use his strong carrying to dribble inwards while looking for a breakthrough. In that sense, he is your typical isolation left winger who stays wide and loves to beat his man, or seeks the run on transition behind the defense line in the left half-space. But his starting point is usually on the left touchline.
Even if we consider the heat map of his Netherlands games in the Nations League where he has started in central positions for most part, this is how it looks:
Although there are some hotspots in central areas, there is still a clear left-leaning tendency. For example, in his latest game for the Netherlands, Gakpo lined up as an AM behind Depay and Bergwijn on paper, but was often found in LW areas to create a front 3 with Depay as the CF. He has an excellent burst into central areas when the CF drops to create space for him (similar to how Rashford or Salah ghost in when Martial or Firmino drop from a central area), but he rarely starts from a central position, preferring to stay wide and make the run when the space is created on the transition or through clever movement from a central player.
Carrying & Dribbling
Gakpo’s biggest strength is his carrying. He’s a very powerful dribbler of the ball, with a right mix of power, skill and pace helping him beat his man or dribble into dangerous areas constantly. It’s one of the main reasons why Gakpo is comfortable staying wide and waiting for his chance. It’s because he knows he has the skill and pace to cut inside and create havoc in the defensive shape with his dribbling. Here’s a chart of his progressive carries in a team sequence this season:
As you can see, a lot of them are in those high advanced positions on the left wing where Gakpo receives the ball. A direct correlation from the previous viz, one can almost see how each time Gakpo receives on the left wing touchline, he decides to progress inwards with the ball at his feet. He’s a very strong entrant into the penalty box, often carrying into the left half-space to force situations that defenses are uncomfortable to deal with. For reference of volume, his dribbles per 90 in Eredivisie was the same as Antony in 21/22.
Shooting & Goal-scoring
As discussed before, Gakpo’s scoring rate is phenomenal. He already has 54 goals in 150 appearances for PSV with 33 coming in the last 62 games. Below is the shotmap for this season:
What is expected based on the previous viz are the shots from the left half-space area. After carrying into the box from the left, he has the skill to test the keeper from that angle. 7 of the 11 goals shown here are from that area, while many other shots seem to test the keeper at the very least. This indicates a very consistent and reliable shooter from an angle that helps the right-footed player.
More than half of Gakpo’s goals are from this style of shooting after carrying into the danger area. Here are 2 examples.
In this example, Gakpo sees himself isolated against the fullback with space to cut into. Before the defence can recover, he has the power and strength to cut past the man and fire a far-post curler with precision.
In the above example, Gakpo once again finds himself 1v1 with space and is immediately able to cut past his man with a quick burst from a standing position to give himself the space to shoot. On this occasion, he pulls back his leg to unleash a Mbappe-esque drilled near post shot that beats the keeper cleanly. Once in those positions to shoot, he has the skill to pick between a far post curler and near post drilled shot.
But what is also interesting is Gakpo’s shots from central and right-side areas. He has enough of them to speak about. These (and some of the left half-space shots too) are largely a byproduct of his excellent off-the-ball running when space is created in central areas. Gakpo has the awareness and movement to run into central areas behind the opposition defense when the chance presents itself. Let’s look at some examples of this movement.
From the halfway line itself, Gakpo has the awareness to begin a strong run knowing that there is space behind the defense line to take advantage. He has the acceleration to cover that distance quickly as the ball is in the air and then the technique to control it and set himself up for a 1-on-1 with the keeper. Needless to say, this move ended up with him scoring.
In this sequence, Gakpo has the sense to drift into the central striker area when his CF drops to receive the ball. This is immediately noticed and one pass later, Gakpo finds himself with a straight angle to shoot, which he rarely misses from.
Other than these 2 avenues of scoring, Gakpo also has a strong header thanks to his height and strong frame. Roughly 1 out of his 6 goals are from a strong header from the back post or in central areas, when the crosser is on the right side. Given his height, he should probably be more scoring headed goals.
Passing & Creativity
While primarily a dribbler and scorer, Gakpo also has decent passing technique. He has 37 assists in his career so far, which suggest a strong final ball. Here’s his progressive passes for this season.
A few things are clearly noticeable. The volume isn’t as high as his progressive carries, suggesting that he isn’t as progressive in his passing. Most of the progressive pases here also double as his key passes (passes that lead to shots) and assists. This indicates that he’s a very final ball focused player. From those positions in the left half-space, he is able to cross into good central areas for his teammates to score from. The disruption that is created thanks to his strong dribbling into the area from the left side, creates space for his teammates to score from when the defenders are attracted to Gakpo. This allows him to pick them on occasions when he isn’t able to score himself. Last season in the Eredivisie, the Eindhoven winger created 11 big chances and also averaged 2.6 key passes per 90 minutes played and that shows he’s capable of playing passes to split open defenses and create goal-scoring opportunities for his teammates.
In short, he isn’t a progressor from his passing in the true sense, with most of his creativity being of the final-ball variant after a strong carry to create space for others.
If we look at the expected threat of attackers from the 21/22 season for all the top 7 leagues’ attackers, Gakpo looks really good. For clarity, xT is the Increase in probability of scoring by a pass or carry.
While he delivers a higher threat from carries, his xT from passes is almost as high thanks to his strong final ball and advanced positions from where he plays those balls. Only a handful of attackers in Europe better him in either aspect. When it comes to goal threat, Gakpo is among the best.
Defending & ball-winning
If the impression so far was of a player who waits on the touchline and cuts in to shoot/pass but doesn’t defend much, then you’d be mistaken. Gakpo is a strong defender when his team doesn’t have the ball. Here’s his defensive action map of this season:
On the outset, what is clear is that he has more defensive actions in his half than the opposition half. Most of them are on the left side of the pitch but there’s also a strong presence at the center of the pitch. While ball recoveries dominate the most, he also boasts a lot of tackles, interceptions and challenges across the pitch and even many aerial clearances in his own box, thanks to his height and frame. Overall, he’s a very useful defender who is willing to come deep and central to win the ball for the team and has the workrate and pace to then position himself wide on the touchline to receive when the team has the ball. His running is constant and helpful to the team in both phases of defending and attacking.
Areas to Improve
While Gakpo is a very well-rounded winger who ticks most of the boxes for a strong, technical inside forward with a high goal threat, he isn’t without weaknesses. One major issue is his first touch being erratic. He stays aways from crowded areas since his hold up and touch in tight situations isn’t great. When he has space on the wings and time to control the ball and settle into his preferred form facing a defender, he is most comfortable. Expecting a lot of back-to-goal control and first touch in central areas where low blocks are dense, might not end well. This makes his long-term potential as a central CF in a front 3, especially for a possession-based top team that faces a lot of low blocks, a little tough.
Given his height and strength, he should be adding more headed goals to his collection. He does have value when defending aerially as evidenced from his clearances but doesn’t have as many goals from headed situations, with the few being more placed than powerful.
At times, his decision-making is also not great. The confidence Gakpo has in his skill, dribbling and technique often makes him make over-ambitious dribbles in situations where he might be better off holding the ball and picking out a pass instead. While this hasn’t been an issue when playing for PSV, who rely on him in transition and don’t mind the occasional ball loss during an attack, once again, playing for a top team that’s more concerned about keeping the ball, progressing and not losing it cheaply might require some more maturity from the 23-year-old Dutchman.
What does the future hold?
In the face of huge interest from many clubs, instead of moving in January 2022, Gakpo signed a new deal with PSV that runs through 2026, so the club won’t feel under any pressure to part with him. After another round of heavy interest in the summer, he once again decided to stay at PSV. A large part of this could simply be him ensuring he continues his red hot form while starting for PSV in the build up to the winter 2022 World Cup in Qatar. As things stand, his scintillating form means that he starts in most games for Netherlands. There’s a very good chance he will be much more willing to move after the World Cup.
From a Manchester United POV, the links have intensified in recent months. The Dutch connection and Gakpo’s red-hot form mean that the rumors won’t go away anytime soon. In one sense, it is understandable. For Ten Hag’s tactics, an isolation wide winger strong at dribbling and final third shot creation from dribbles, is a perfect match. Such a profile combined with an inverted fullback completes the wing dynamics for a Ten Hag XI. Antony is a good example, who shares much of the movements and traits of Gakpo from RW. Ten Hag’s insistence to buy Antony even at £82m is explained by that desire of profile to combine with Dalot, who is a good progressive inverted fullback, and United’s lack of a profile who’s best role is as RW.
At LW, things are more complicated. While Gakpo could be a good Ten Hag profile in a standalone manner, United already have Rashford, Sancho, Elanga and Garnacho in terms of profiles who’s best role is at LW. The bigger lack is at CF, where United need a good box presence that can offer hold up, which doesn’t seem to be Gakpo’s long term calling. This presents a lot of confusion on where Gakpo really fits.
But one can’t rule out Ten Hag’s insistence to go for the perfect profile. His chase and acquisition of Lisandro Martinez proves that even though United had 3 top center-backs to choose from, Ten Hag badly wanted a left-footed progressive CB with an aggressive ball-winning profile. The results of that are clear to see this season. In a similar vein, if Ten Hag deems all 3 of Rashford (better as an off-the-ball mover than wide isolation dribbler), Sancho (better as a narrow creator) and Elanga (similar to Rashford) as imperfect fits and would rather quickly move towards a profile he knows will work for his team, then this could become another transfer which comes before more pertinent gaps in the XI (like CF, DLP, GK), just because a player is available and is well-known by the manager.
Personally, I do think there are ways in which Rashford, Sancho and Elanga can still fit into Ten Hag’s tactics or that the Dutch manager’s flexibility can find a way to make them work. But if Ten Hag is insistent on buying a wide isolation LW with strong dribbling, high goal threat, great final ball, and high threat on transition, he won’t find a better available profile than Cody Gakpo.