Christmas Day talks and Manchester United left fuming: The story of Cody Gakpo's Liverpool transfer
It was Virgil van Dijk who offered the first hint that something was about to go down at Liverpool.
Speaking immediately after the Reds’ Boxing Day win at Aston Villa, the Dutchman took on the role of ITK, telling Amazon Prime, with a nod and a wink, that “hopefully we can welcome some new players at our football club”.
His comments, naturally, sent fans into overdrive, but they didn’t have to wait long to find out what he was getting at, as within an hour of the final whistle at Villa Park it emerged that a deal had been agreed with PSV Eindhoven for the signing of Cody Gakpo, Van Dijk’s colleague with the Netherlands.
To say the move came as a surprise would be an understatement. Liverpool were expected to be active in the January transfer window, but most would also have assumed that a new midfielder would be top of the agenda.
Instead, the Reds did what they did last year, adding a young, versatile forward to their ranks, mid-season. Jurgen Klopp will now be hoping Gakpo can do what Luis Diaz did 12 months ago, and hit the ground running at Anfield.
The two deals bear striking similarities. Like Diaz, Gakpo had originally been a target for the summer window, but when circumstances changed and an opportunity arose, Liverpool moved swiftly to bring the deal forward, leaving a rival - in this case Manchester United - frustrated in the process.
United had been expected to move for Gakpo in January, their need for a new forward reinforced by Cristiano Ronaldo’s unceremonious departure, but they were caught out by the speed and stealth of Liverpool’s business, with Reds sporting director Julian Ward thrashing out a deal with Marcel Brands, his PSV counterpart, during intense negotiations on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. He might be stepping down at the end of the season, but Ward is certainly not taking his foot off the pedal in the meantime.
Liverpool were keen to get the deal done in time for the window opening on January 1, to ward off United's interest and so that Gakpo could train immediately with his new teammates. Ward was also aware that PSV had two other 'saleable' assets in Ibrahim Sangare and Nodi Madueke, who have been attracting interest in this window. Had one or both of those players moved on, the Eredivisie title hopefuls may have been able to retain Gakpo until the summer, as they had initially hoped to.
The deal represents a club-record sale for PSV, surpassing the one which took Hirving Lozano to Napoli in 2019, but Liverpool feel it is a good one for them too. They will pay a guaranteed £37 million ($45m), with a further £7m ($8.5m) in add-ons relating to personal and team performance.
Considering Gakpo’s age (23) and his form for PSV over the past 12 months, the fee seems reasonable, not overly inflated by his performances for the Netherlands at the World Cup or the scarcity of quality attacking options available in January. It is also comparable with those paid for the likes of Diaz, Diogo Jota, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane in the past.
Those four were able to make swift and significant strides under Klopp, and the hope is that Gakpo can do similar. Liverpool have been aware of his talent for some time, with assistant manager Pep Lijnders retaining strong contacts from his time at PSV, and believe he has taken big steps over the last year, becoming a more rounded and consistent footballer. He has scored and created goals regularly in the Eredivisie and Europa League, and has shown a desire for self-improvement by working with a personal coach to better his tactical understanding of the game.
He has signed a five-and-a-half year deal at Anfield, but Klopp will hope he can make an immediate impact as, with Diaz and Jota sidelined and Roberto Firmino nursing a calf issue, his side battles to keep pace in the race for the Premier League’s top four.
It is expected that Gakpo will initially slot in on the left, as Diaz did following his switch from Porto, but his versatility was one of the key reasons Liverpool identified him as a target. He has played centrally, either as a No.10 or a No.9, for PSV and has been used off the right at times for the Netherlands. His arrival gives Klopp flexibility, the ability to rotate during a congested fixture schedule, and to switch his frontline around depending on the opposition.
Gakpo’s signing also means that Liverpool have almost completely redesigned their attack over the past two-and-a-half years. Salah remains of course, and Klopp would like Roberto Firmino to sign a new contract too, but the Reds have brought in Jota, Diaz, Fabio Carvalho, Darwin Nunez and now Gakpo to lead them into the era, and have exciting teenagers Kaide Gordon and Ben Doak looking to develop into senior options behind them.
All are 26 or younger, their best years hopefully ahead of them. Players of quality and experience, yes, but also potential. Unpolished diamonds, for Klopp and Lijnders to work with. Just the way they like it.
“We believe in our process,” Klopp said last week. “When players come here – especially offensive players – they have all made a step forward because of the way we work and the way we can help them. That makes it [Gakpo’s signing] massively interesting.”
Anfield should get its first look at the new boy on Saturday, when Wolves visit in the third round of the FA Cup. It evokes similarities with 2018, when a Dutch debutant scored the winner against Everton in front of the Kop.
That was Van Dijk, of course, and if Gakpo can have even half the impact his countryman has had on Merseyside, then Klopp and Liverpool will be laughing.