Cody Gakpo’s Liverpool debut didn’t exactly go to plan.
The Reds fielded their strongest XI in their FA Cup third-round encounter against a weakened Wolves team but were held to a 2-2 draw, setting up a replay at Molineux.
Gakpo, deployed on the left of a front three at Anfield, got off to a bright start, landing the first shot on target for the hosts after five minutes. He showed quick feet and clean technique on his unfavoured left side to force Matija Sarkic into action.
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That turned out to be his only shot of the game. Statistically speaking, it wasn’t a great night for the £37 million signing. He completed just 74% of his attempted passes – the lowest percentage of all starters in red with the exception of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Gakpo attempted just a single dribble and won just 33% of his ground duels and zero tackles.
While the latter metrics may not seem like important ones, Jurgen Klopp seemed to focus on this particular side of the game during his post-match press conference, saying: “For the whole game I thought we didn’t win enough challenges, to be honest. There are a lot of situations where I thought they win a challenge and all of sudden we are completely open; we had two or three players in the challenge moving to the ball and when you are there, fine, you have to win the ball.”
Though he played a part in the second Liverpool goal, he wasn’t credited with an assist or even with creating a chance. His clipped pass forward to Mohamed Salah was the right idea but it was poorly executed. The Wolves defender got his head to the ball but directed it the way of the Liverpool No.11, who then finished calmly. Some have tried to credit the 23-year-old with the assist but it won’t be counted.
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However, there were a number of encouraging signs.
For example, only Thiago and Andrew Robertson (43) combined more often than Robertson and Gakpo (28). One of the complaints earlier in the campaign was that the Scotland international didn’t have an understanding with Luis Diaz on the Liverpool left and it was easy to understand why. Diaz is much more of a winger than he is an inside forward and this forced the No.26 into central zones – areas he isn’t as effective in.
Gakpo was combining well with Robertson and allowing him to play his natural game in wider areas and Liverpool looked all the better for it.
The understanding was there from the off. The sequence above, inside two minutes, shows Gakpo looking to run in behind from a central area with Robertson holding the width on the left.
Jordan Henderson’s initial pass is cut out but the Reds keep the pressure on and it allows the left-sided pair to show some nice combination play, with Robertson looking for a quick one-two in the above still.
Gakpo, ranked as the 12th most valuable Dutch player according to our Transfer Fee Prediction model, also showed a nice understanding of space for the Liverpool equaliser.
The Reds have a throw-in deep in their own half and Darwin Nunez drops to show as an option. Gakpo moves inside to occupy the space vacated by the chaotic centre forward. As the ball is worked towards the Liverpool right, the former PSV man looks to attack the penalty area centrally.
In doing so, he drags Nathan Collins with him. The Wolves centre-back is solely focused on the Liverpool No.18 due to the fact his centre-back partner, Toti Gomes, is having to keep an eye on Salah’s run.
This creates a situation for Darwin behind Collins. The one-time Benfica man had the run on the Wolves full-back, Dexter Lembikisa, and raced into the penalty area to calmly direct the ball into the back of the net.
If Gakpo didn’t make that run there is no chance that Darwin finds himself with that much time and space in the area.
That fluidity between the left-winger and the centre-forward is something that Liverpool leveraged at the start of last season when Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota were interchanging throughout games to overload central areas. It was during this period that the Reds were averaging three goals per game and the underlying numbers suggested it was all sustainable.
They only moved away from this tactic following the arrival of Diaz. With Gakpo being much closer to Mane than Diaz is, maybe we’ll see the return of it.
His debut might not have been one to remember but there are plenty of encouraging signs to take from it.