Cody Gakpo’s Liverpool transfer – five days, Christmas talks and Van Dijk’s role

Liverpool’s outgoing sporting director Julian Ward worked through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to get the basis of a transfer agreement for Cody Gakpo in place with the player’s club, PSV Eindhoven. His counterpart in the Netherlands was PSV’s sporting director Marcel Brands, formerly of Everton.

Much to the delight of Jurgen Klopp and his staff, news of a verbal agreement with PSV for Gakpo’s transfer broke within an hour of Liverpool beating Aston Villa 3-1 on the evening of Boxing Day (December 26).

“Hopefully we can welcome some new players to our football club. We will see,” Gakpo’s Netherlands team-mate Virgil van Dijk hinted cheekily after the final whistle at Villa Park, shortly before PSV’s announcement at 9pm. “I think that quality is always welcome at Liverpool.”

Van Dijk, five years on from his own transfer to Liverpool from Southampton, has played an important role in Gakpo’s move.

The 31-year-old central defender is the captain of the Netherlands and is someone his international teammates look up to and lean on for advice. He spoke to Gakpo about playing for Liverpool and working under Klopp, and also spoke glowingly about the 23-year-old to colleagues at Anfield.

At the recent World Cup, Gakpo’s three goals in five games ramped up the noise surrounding his future. And Van Dijk was there to advocate for him.

With Real Madrid and Manchester United among the high-profile clubs also interested in Gakpo, Van Dijk said The Athletic on December 3: “Are Manchester United and Real Madrid the same level at this moment?” No disrespect, not at all.

Gakpo and Van Dijk playing together for the Netherlands in the recent World Cup (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“I think he definitely has a next step in him. I definitely feel like it could happen. Whether it happens in the winter or next year, time will tell. But he’s a great boy. (He) works hard, is very talented and there is definitely more in him. We are very pleased he’s doing so well and long may it continue.”

The left-winger will cost Liverpool £37million ($44.5m), potentially rising to £44million in add-ons, with his five-and-a-half-year contract running until the summer of 2028.

It all came together very quickly.

Gakpo was already on Liverpool’s list of summer 2023 transfer targets but when it emerged PSV were willing to sell in this winter window, the club felt it was an opportunity they could not afford to miss. Injuries to Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota also contributed to the decision.

Leeds United and Southampton both pushed hard to sign Gakpo at the end of last summer’s window but fell short, while Manchester United and Chelsea were also considering a move before Christmas. United’s Dutch manager Erik ten Hag is with the same agency, SEG, as the player, and United’s football director, John Murtough, met with Kees Vos, chief executive of SEG, at the club’s Carrington training complex last fortnight.

United, though, ultimately decided they could not afford Gakpo in this window, particularly with PSV suggesting they wanted a significant amount of cash up front. Some at Old Trafford also questioned Gakpo’s suitability as a centre-forward to replace the departed Cristiano Ronaldo, given that he operates mostly on the left, cutting in on his right foot, in a similar role to their England forward Marcus Rashford.

This decision, from United’s point of view, gave rivals Liverpool a free run at Gakpo – and they took full advantage.

In a move reminiscent of beating Tottenham Hotspur to sign Diaz from Porto a year ago, Liverpool pounced to capture a player six months earlier than originally planned.

Ward, then Michael Edwards’ deputy, led the Diaz negotiations too and Liverpool’s owner, Fenway Sports Group, sanctioned the £50 million deal.

Twelve months on, the club is up for sale and Ward will follow Edwards in leaving at the end of the season, but Liverpool stretched themselves again financially to get Gakpo’s move over the line.

After being promised it would be “business as usual” while FSG looks for new investment, Klopp and his staff are said to be grateful to the owners and Ward for acting decisively. The risk of missing out on Champions League qualification next season — with Liverpool in sixth place, five points off the top four, in the Premier League after 15 of 38 matches — is, after all, too great to simply stand still.

As they did after Diaz’s arrival, Liverpool will see signing Gakpo as another race won, a transfer conducted efficiently with minimal fuss before the January window even officially opens on Sunday. They will be particularly pleased given he is a player picked out by club scouts all the way back in 2014 whom they have kept track of ever since.

Gakpo’s progress in the past couple of seasons has been particularly impressive and Liverpool think he fits the profile of the player they want to invest in.

At 23, he should have his best football ahead of him. A double threat who likes to score and assist in equal measure, he loves dribbling and running into space. He is instinctive, athletic, speedy and versatile.

Cody Gakpo, PSV

At 23, Gakpo is exactly the profile of the player Liverpool want to sign (Photo: Michael Bulder/NESImages/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

He is also far from the finished article, though, and there is an appreciation from all sides that this move represents a significant step up for Gakpo. Players such as Sadio Mane and Van Dijk already had Premier League experience before joining Liverpool, whereas Gakpo will need to learn from the coaching of Klopp and Pep Lijnders, in particular, to achieve his potential.

One person at the club whose interest in Gakpo predates that of Liverpool’s own scouting and recruitment department, however, is Lijnders, who has been aware of him since the winger was seven or eight years old.

Liverpool’s assistant manager worked at PSV as a youth coach — with a responsibility for coordinating the process for signing new players for the youngest age group, under-nines, and Gakpo joined that program around the time Lijnders left for Porto in 2006.

Now the pair will be working alongside each other and Lijnders will be among those tasked with trying to help Gakpo take his game to new heights.

Adjusting to the Premier League will be the first big step.

Gakpo has delivered impressive numbers in the Dutch Eredivisie but received criticism for his performances in big European matches, the most recent of which was a 3-2 aggregate defeat by Scottish side Rangers in a Champions League qualifier four months ago.

Although he went on to have a successful World Cup, as recently as this summer, Netherlands head coach Louis van Gaal said that the weight of the Dutch shirt rested heavily on his shoulders. It has also been suggested by scouts speaking to The Athletic that he needs to improve the defensive side of his game.

In the past 18 months, Gakpo has been working with tactics coach Laurent Vrielink in order to develop his tactical knowledge, which Liverpool believe speaks volumes about the mentality of a player eager to learn and improve.

The pair spent one hour after each game, trawling through and analyzing dozens of clips.

“From day one, he was eager to learn,” Vrielink, owner of football research firm Tactalyse, tells The Athletic. “He is a smart player who understands what is needed and what it takes to play at the highest level. He can adapt very quickly and we have seen those results. He knows about adapting to different playing styles and teams, and that is really important.

“Looking through the games, you also gain confidence because you understand what you did good and bad. To play at the top level, being consistent is crucial and that means understanding why and how you are successful and that starts with the individual.

Asked what Gakpo will bring to Liverpool, Vrielink thinks the club is getting a unique talent.

“They will get a multi-functional player who can perform in different positions and adapt really fast,” he said. “I hope he can get integrated into Jurgen Klopp’s team tactics. In the last year, we have seen his improvement in his execution, most recently in the World Cup. He can score with both feet and his head.

“He is a different player to what Liverpool have had so far. They have had smaller dribblers on the wing. Cody can dribble but he is taller. With his speed, his height (6ft 2in/189cm) and his accuracy of passing and shooting, he will be a great asset.”

Gakpo completed his medical and signed his contract on Merseyside on Wednesday, accompanied by his brothers and agents, and was set to return to Eindhoven to say his goodbyes.

He has not trained for the best part of two weeks — following a break after the Netherlands’ World Cup quarter-final defeat on penalties by eventual winners Argentina on December 9 — and plainly cannot play at home against Leicester City on Friday as it won’ t be January yet.

It will also be touch and go if he can make his debut away to Brentford on Monday, January 2, because his application for a UK work permit will not be submitted until the Premier League transfer window officially opens on New Year’s Day.

Another complication is that the Dutch transfer window does not start until Tuesday, so Gakpo might need special dispensation to play against Brentford.

His first appearance in the red shirt is more likely to be in the FA Cup third-round tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Anfield next Saturday, January 7.

It was in a home FA Cup win over Everton five years ago when Van Dijk made his own quick start by scoring on his debut.

His international and club teammate will be hoping to have a similar start to his Anfield career.

Additional contributors: David Ornstein, Simon Hughes, Andy Jones

(Top photos: Getty Images & Naomi Baker, Soccrates Images; design: John Bradford)


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