Liverpool need Gakpo to do a Diaz - but Klopp’s team is not what it was a year ago
For Cody Gakpo, it was something of a low-key Anfield introduction.
The Dutchman’s name may have drawn the loudest cheer of the night when it was read out, pre-match, but his impact thereafter was minimal as Liverpool, despite the presence of their new £44 million ($52m) forward, laboured to a 2-2 draw with Wolves in the FA Cup third round – a result the Reds scarcely merited, and which does little to calm the current sense of unease around the club.
Gakpo, starting on the left of Jurgen Klopp’s attack, was on the periphery for the most part, neat and tidy enough without ever truly threatening to take the roof off.
He played a part in Liverpool’s second goal, yes, but Mohamed Salah’s strike owed more to Toti Gomes’ misjudgement and the absence of a linesman’s flag than it did to the new-boy’s clipped pass.
He lasted 84 minutes, money in the bank as far as Liverpool are concerned, and naturally received a generous ovation from the home supporters when replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Better days and nights, undoubtedly, will come for the 23-year-old in the famous red shirt.
The trouble is, Gakpo has arrived at a time when Liverpool need him to hit the ground running. He’s signed for five-and-a-half years, but it is the next five-and-a-half months that are concerning Reds fans.
Their season sits on a knife-edge, and they could do with someone sparking them back into life.
In many ways, Gakpo’s arrival on Merseyside bears similarities with that of Luis Diaz, 12 months ago.
Then, as now, Liverpool brought forward interest in a much-wanted forward player, acting quickly to beat a Premier League rival to their signature. It was Tottenham who missed out on Diaz, Manchester United who were left disappointed over Gakpo.
The key difference, however, is that the Liverpool team Gakpo is joining is a world away from the one which welcomed Diaz, and that the need for an instant impact, a game-changing impact, is far greater than it was with the Colombian.
Diaz joined a team which was second in the Premier League, determined to hunt down leaders Manchester City, which had a Carabao Cup final to look forward to, and which had lost only two of its previous 43 games in all competitions.
He joined a side which knew exactly what it was and how it was supposed to win matches, and a squad which contained not only Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, but Diogo Jota, Takumi Minamino and Divock Origi too.
The Reds’ depth, in fact, was such that Klopp soon found himself fielding questions about having to leave players of the quality of Minamino, Joe Gomez, Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott in the stands. Feels a lifetime ago now, doesn’t it?
Amid all that, Diaz was able to come in and add something fresh, something exciting.
He set up a goal within 10 minutes of his debut as a substitute in the FA Cup against Cardiff, made his Premier League debut four days later, and by the end of his first month he’d scored his first goal and secured his first medal, turning in a player of the match performance against Chelsea in that Carabao Cup final at Wembley.
By the end of the season he'd done the same in the FA Cup final, started the Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid and established himself as a firm favourite among supporters.
Gakpo arrives into a rather different set of circumstances.
Liverpool, after a dreadful autumn, are already out of the title picture and their League Cup defence was ended at the Etihad Stadium before Christmas.
They have a Champions League last-16 tie against holders Real Madrid to prepare for, and saved themselves the embarrassment of an FA Cup exit at the weekend, but their main objective between now and May is to steady the ship sufficiently to secure a top-four finish, and with it qualification for next season’s Champions League.
That looks a tough task, given both their own inconsistencies and the improvements made by others - most notably Arsenal, Newcastle and Manchester United.
The gap to United in fourth is currently seven points, not insurmountable by any means, but certainly significant for a team that has problems in just about every area right now.
The hope is that Gakpo, like Diaz, can bring something new, but that won’t be easy with key players (Diaz included) on the sidelines, the midfield in need of urgent and major surgery, and another forward, Darwin Nunez, still finding his own feet as the focal point of the attack.
Gakpo’s style is a little different to that of Diaz, who is naturally direct, plays on the front foot and gets supporters out of their seats with his purposeful raids down the left flank. Gakpo is more subtle, happier playing in combinations and comfortable across different positions as a result.
He is, though, more of a goalscorer, and in the short term that could benefit Liverpool hugely.
The Reds have struggled, in particular, to net the first goal in matches – they have done so in only 11 games this season and ended up winning them all, as opposed to conceding first on 14 occasions and picking up a positive result only four times.
Having a player who has scored 34 goals across the last two Eredivisie seasons, and who was on target three times in five World Cup matches with the Netherlands, can only help matters, especially when considering the alternatives for Klopp out wide at the moment are Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose best goalscoring season was as a 17-year-old with Southampton in League One, Curtis Jones, who has scored three times in 50 league appearances, and Fabio Carvalho, whose talent is clear but who looks less suited to a wide role with each passing week.
Aad de Mos, the former Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Anderlecht boss told soccernews.nl this week that he doesn’t believe this is the right time for Gakpo to join Liverpool.
“The team is disappointing a bit,” he said, “the spirit is completely gone and they are trying to get back on track. It’s not a time for young players coming in.”
Gakpo sees it differently. His debut, he says, was “a bit sloppy”, but at 23 this is the move he wanted, the one he has waited for. It’s up to him to make sure it is a good one.
And from Liverpool’s point of view, that process has to start now.
A year ago Diaz gave a great team that extra push towards glory. Now, the Reds are hoping a shiny new forward can help dig an ailing side out of the trench they’ve built for themselves.